When the UK and the EU finalised their trade deal last December, you could be forgiven for assuming that Boris Johnson had fulfilled his pledge to “get Brexit done”. But as events this week have proved, the process is far from over. An argument with France over fishing rights around the island of Jersey rapidly descended into threats, blockades and the government sending in the navy.
The current dispute rests on differing interpretations of one part of the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA), the trade deal that now governs economic relations between the UK and the EU. While Jersey is not part of the UK and was never within the EU, the TCA replaced the Bay of Granville agreement, which used to govern fishing rights in Jersey’s waters.
The new agreement requires any EU vessel fishing in Jersey’s waters to have a new licence from the Jersey government. These licences are issued according to the extent of a boat’s past fishing activities in Jersey’s waters between 2017 and 2020. After a transitional arrangement was agreed in January while the new system was being set up, these new licences started to be issued by Jersey at the end of April.
The response to Jersey’s new licences has been furious. The French have argued that the new arrangements are unfair and that the licences come with strict conditions limiting how many days a vessel can operate in Jersey’s waters or what type of fish it can catch. On Thursday, French fishing boats congregated at Jersey’s St Helier port in protest at the licensing arrangements. The situation escalated further when the British government sent Royal Navy patrol vessels to the area to monitor the protests, amid threats from France that it could cut off access to Jersey’s electricity supply.
Ultimately, we should expect this situation to be resolved diplomatically before long. But the standoff points to a broader challenge for the UK as it navigates its post-Brexit relationship with its European neighbours. The withdrawal agreement and the UK-EU free trade deal set out a framework for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, but in many respects these leave crucial matters ambiguous and unsettled. As the deal is implemented in practice, this seems bound to lead to continuing tensions with the EU and its member states.
Take these three examples of simmering controversies within the UK-EU relationship.
First, on fishing, the free trade agreement settles how to manage reciprocal access to waters and the sharing of fish stocks for an “adjustment period” of five and a half years. But after the end of this period, in 2026, negotiations between the two sides on future access are meant to resume on an annual basis and the UK is expected to push for larger quota shares. As a result, the deal kicks many of the big arguments over fishing rights into the long grass, raising the likelihood of further flare-ups down the line.
Second, the protocol agreed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland has raised a succession of major challenges for trade within the United Kingdom. Food and drink companies in particular have struggled to handle new administrative barriers and plant and animal health checks for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Given the broader implications for political stability in Northern Ireland, it’s clear that correctly implementing the protocol will require just as much care and consideration as the original negotiations. Yet with the EU launching infringement proceedings over the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend the “grace period” for exempting checks on supermarket agri-food goods to Northern Ireland, the prospects of a quick resolution seem slim.
Finally, on the critical issue of the “level playing field”, the UK and the EU have agreed a complex set of provisions that seem destined to be the subject of future dispute. The idea of the level playing field is to ensure that the UK and the EU do not gain an unfair competitive advantage as they diverge from each other’s regulations. The UK-EU deal includes commitments on upholding standards on the environment, climate breakdown and workers’ rights, as well as rules on subsidy control.
If (or when) the UK decides to no longer follow the EU’s approach to these standards, the commission will be watching carefully to ensure there is no breach of the terms of the trade agreement. The more the UK plans to diverge from the EU’s regulatory model, the more likely the prospect of a series of protracted legal battles over the impacts on trade and competition.
This week’s events therefore highlight that in many respects the Brexit process has only just begun. After all, untangling decades worth of trade ties and regulatory harmonisation was never going to happen overnight.
To make this work, it’s time to turn the page on the Brexit wars and resist inflaming tensions with the EU and its members with thinly veiled threats or acts of defiance. Ultimately, we will need to find a way to cooperate alongside our closest neighbours and largest trading partners – without resorting to gunboat diplomacy.