The UK government has failed to live up to its promises to the fishing sector with an EU trade deal that will leave Britain with “one hand tied behind our back”, the leading Scottish fishing lobby said on Tuesday.
Anger within the industry across the UK threatens to tarnish celebrations over the Brexit deal, which will be signed by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council chief Charles Michel at a ceremony in Brussels on Wednesday before being flown to the UK by a British military aircraft.
The Scottish government, which strongly opposed Brexit, on Tuesday said its analysis showed that the deal with the EU would actually mean a fall in the quantity of some important fish stocks that could be landed by the Scottish fleet.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, will on Wednesday open a formal debate in the House of Commons on legislation that will implement the trade deal. He has long argued that Britain’s fishing sector would be among the biggest beneficiaries of the UK leaving the EU. But while the industry has been a vocal supporter of Brexit in the past, anger has been growing among fishermen at the terms of the deal sealed on Christmas Eve.
Mr Johnson will hail the pact as the start of a “new chapter” that will show the UK can be “at once European and sovereign”.
“Now, with this bill, we shall be a friendly neighbour,” Mr Johnson will add. “The best friend and ally the EU could have — working hand-in-glove whenever our values and interests coincide while fulfilling the sovereign wish of the British people to live under their own laws, made by their own elected parliament.”
But the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, a leading industry lobby group, said that the agreement would not restore “sovereign control” over British waters, that UK government claims of increased access to fish quotas were overstated, and that it would be difficult to negotiate better terms even after a transition period of more than five years.
“This deal falls very far short of the commitments and promises that were made to the fishing industry by those at the highest level of government,” said Elspeth Macdonald, SFF chief executive.
“We are now a coastal state with one hand tied behind our back and the industry’s task in the months and years ahead is to right the wrongs of this deal,” Ms Macdonald added.
The Scottish government said its analysis showed that the industry in Scotland would actually have access to fewer species of some fish, including cod, haddock and whiting, than under the existing EU common fisheries policy.
Much of the quota being surrendered by the EU had not actually been used in recent years, the Scottish government added.
The UK government said it reflected the “UK’s new status as an independent coastal state”. It added: “By regaining control of our waters, this deal puts us in a position to rebuild our fishing fleet.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the UK government published its “EU (Future Relationship) Bill” which will put the deal into law, giving MPs less than 24 hours to assess it before the debate opens on Wednesday morning.
The bill is expected to pass in the House of Commons with a majority vote before being discussed in the House of Lords and given royal assent later in the evening.
Mr Johnson cleared a major hurdle on Tuesday when Eurosceptic Conservative MPs from the influential European Research Group backed the deal.
The group acknowledged that there was a question over whether the UK would really exercise “practical sovereignty” over its fisheries after 2026, but said it was confident that the government would be sufficiently robust to ensure that it would do so.
Last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer said the party would support the deal, arguing that at a moment of such “national significance”, it would not be credible for his party to be on the sidelines.
However, Labour MPs, including former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, have signalled their discomfort at voting with the Conservative government for what they see as a damaging agreement.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Sir Keir said that voting against the deal would be the equivalent of voting for a no-deal Brexit. He argued that the party would, in the coming years, make its case for continually improving the UK’s relationship with the EU, but would not seek to renegotiate the agreement due to be passed in parliament on Wednesday.
“We’ve left the EU, and the remain/leave argument is over. Amongst the reasons for voting for the deal is to allow that closure,” he said. “In our general election campaign in 2024, we will be a future-looking Labour party and a future Labour government, not one that looks behind us.”
Additional reporting by Mehreen Khan in Brussels
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