AS families gathered around on Christmas Eve, news broke that the EU and UK had sealed a deal on future relations just before 2pm, avoiding the prospect of crashing out of the European Union on January 1st.
The deal came just one week before the transition period was due to come to an end on December 31st and one year after the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in the general election on December 12th, 2019, where the Conservative leader pledged to ‘get Brexit done.’
Following months of intensive negotiations, talks went down to the wire, with disagreement over fisheries rights emerging as the main bone of contention. Negotiators from both sides worked through the night to find a compromise on fisheries, working ‘line by line and fish by fish,’ as one EU official put it. In the end, the bloc had to cede 25% of the value of the roughly €650 million in fish that EU boats catch in British waters each year, for a period of 5 ears.
After such time, access will be set in annual negotiations with London, if both sides cannot come to an agreement, the UK must continue to offer access provisionally for three months. The Commission also announced a €5 billion compensation package available to the remaining Member States, hardest hit by the UK’s departure on January 1st, with the Irish fisheries sector and SMEs expected to benefit from the fund.
As quoted in the last edition of The Southern Star (January 2nd), Patrick Murphy, chair of the Irish South and West Fish Producers’ Organisation (IS&WFPO) said West Cork’s fishing communities face decimation as a result of the bilateral trade deal. Murphy said the knock-on effect would be felt right across the region. ‘If you lose boats, which we will, you’ll lose jobs, you’ll see communities wiped out,’ he said, pointing in particular to mackerel and prawn fishermen which are likely to be the worst hit.
Meanwhile, Castletownbere fisherman Sean O’Sullivan said the sector had been ‘sold out’ by the government, describing the mood on the Beara Peninsula as ‘very low,’ adding ‘if you take fishing out of the Beara community, you take away its heart and you’ve nothing.’
Commenting on the outcome of the deal, An Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Irish fishing industry, ‘more than others,’ will be disappointed by the EU-UK trade deal, which he described as the ‘least-bad version of Brexit possible, given current circumstances.’
‘But compared with the prospect of “no deal,” which would have seen them completely excluded from British waters, the negotiators have worked to minimise the damage.’ Reacting to the agreement struck between the two sides on Christmas Eve after over four years of negotiations, the Fianna Fáil leader pledged to ‘work to ensure that the sector and the coastal communities that depend on it are supported through the period ahead.’
The Corkman said ‘there was no such thing as a “good Brexit” for Ireland,’ while he promised ‘to minimise the negative consequences.’ The leader of the country, which has the most to lose as a result of a Brexit, believed the bilateral pact represents ‘a good compromise and a balanced outcome,’ while UK ‘will always be a close friend and partner. Our people, our histories and our economies are deeply entwined.’
The agreement that there would be no tariffs and quotas on trade between the two jurisdictions, including on fish, was ‘a very significant achievement,’ he added.
Following all-night talks on the compromise in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said ‘we have finally found an agreement … it was a long and winding road but we have a good deal to show for it.’ The German politician spoke of her ‘quiet satisfaction’ and ‘relief,’ adding that ‘parting is such sweet sorrow.’
Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street, flanked by two large Union flags, Johnson hailed the deal, saying ‘this European question’s being going on for decades, I think this gives us the platform, the foundation for a really prosperous new relationship.’ As Covid-19 continues to spread across Europe, 2021 has got off to a tumultuous start. Let’s hope for better and brighter times ahead in the new year ahead.
• Rose O’Donovan is editor-in-chief of the Brussels-based publication AGRA FACTS.