A Return to the Common Fisheries Policy?

Arno van der Zwet and John Connolly | 17 March 2020

© 2019 SCER

Fishing has occupied a peculiar role in the Brexit saga. On the one hand, the fishing industry makes up a very small part of the UK economy, 0.1%[i] of the overall economy. On the other hand, it provided, in political terms, a convenient narrative for the Leave campaign, appealing to a sense of identity as an Island nation and control over borders. Fishing is, therefore, guaranteed to take a prominent place in the Brexit negotiations. Of course we do not currently know what sort of deal will be agreed but the UK government seems, at least for now, committed to ensure full control over fishing stocks in UK waters.

But the question here is how fishing might play a role in any future negotiations with the EU should Scotland become an independent country after Brexit. The first thing to note is that, in Scotland, the fishing industry in terms of economic contribution is more important than in other parts of the UK. Scotland’s fleet capacity is almost twice that of England and it lands almost three times more fish than England.[ii] However, it remains very small. Fishing generates just over £300 million gross value added, which accounts for about 0.25% of the overall Scottish economy.[iii] On the other hand, geographically, the fishing industry is concentrated in specific coastal communities where they underpin the local economy. Research just before the 2016 referendum demonstrated that almost all fishers in Scotland supported leaving the EU at the time of the Brexit referendum, with 93 percent of those surveyed indicating that they would vote to leave the EU.[iv] Fishers, particularly disliked the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy which was regarded as unfair and not taking into account the industry’s interests. However, other parts of the industry have expressed anxieties about maintaining EU market access for their products.

From the EU’s perspective, Scotland’s waters are important for fishing communities in its member states. Scottish fishing waters are some of the richest in Europe and the Scottish fishing industry accounts for about 8% of total EU landings. It is estimated that over half of all fish and shellfish in the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone[v] is landed by EU vessels;[vi] a major part of this is caught in Scottish waters. The UK as a whole has a large trade surplus with the EU, accounting to 71 % of total UK exports of fish.[vii] The French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Danish have fishing industries that have long relied on riches in UK waters.

In the 2013 White Paper, Scotland’s Future and Scottish Fisheries,[viii] the SNP led Scottish government argued that Scottish independence would mean that the fishing industry would be regarded as a national priority. The SNP has long expressed concerns that the UK government has not served Scottish fishing interests as fisheries was not regarded a priority for the UK economy. It argues that the UK government has throughout history been willing to use the industry as a bargaining chip to secure other priorities. In any future independence campaign, the SNP will likely continue this line of argument i.e. that an independent Scotland would be better placed to represent Scottish interests at the top table in Brussels than the UK has done so in the past; an independent Scotland will, according to the SNP, be able to secure more favourable terms for Scottish fishers.

Against this background, the Scottish government would, if Scotland became independent, need to demonstrate that it is able to prioritise fisheries in negotiations with the EU and protect the interests of the catching industry, particularly if the UK government has, by then, continued its hard-line and secured an outcome that meets the current expectations of fishers. Negotiations on an independent Scotland joining the EU would almost certainly be predicated on the basis that Scotland would have to adopt the Common Fisheries Policy. However, this would not be welcomed by most of the fishing industry and it could prove politically awkward if the Scottish government would sign up without any concessions that would benefit the fishing communities. Such concessions might be found, for example, in relation to a greater share of the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF); an EU fund that provides support for fishers and fishing communities in terms of diversifying coastal economies and job creation, and developing sustainable fishing practices and aquaculture. The share of EMFF funding that Scotland has received in the past has been considered unfair, given the importance of Scottish waters to fishing communities from other EU member states.

As an EU member state, Scotland would have to negotiate its share of the EU’s fishing quotas as part of a fixed arrangement which would be enshrined in the CFP. It would also mean that Scotland would have to allow vessels from other EU countries into its waters. However, as a member state the Scottish government would be responsible for deciding how that quota would be distributed and therefore it would be able to keep quota holdings for the benefit of Scottish fishers, providing there is sufficient capacity to fish these quotas. An independent Scotland could therefore distribute quotas more equally as opposed to the current situation in the UK where a small number of companies control a large share of the quota.[ix]

One important dimension, in future EU negotiations, is that Scotland, as an independent nation, would already have considerable scientific and analytical capacities when it came to the management of fisheries. However, there would be questions about how to deal with the fact that negotiations at an EU/international level have been channelled through the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Scotland would need to ensure it had or rapidly built up adequate negotiating expertise. Moreover, an independent Scotland within the CFP would lead to considerable uncertainties with regards to the nature of government relationships with the industry.

A major part of the Scottish fishing industry, such as the Scottish Fisheries Federation, see Brexit as a ‘sea of opportunity’[x] based on the UK government’s vision of no longer being part of the CFP. However, Scotland’s continued membership of the CFP as an independent state in the EU means that it will be difficult for Scotland to broker positive relationships with parts of the industry. This might reduce the capacity for effective policy-making in the sense that having industry as an insider stakeholder group based on positive relationships would, ideally, be of mutual benefit for government and industry.

The evolution of the relationship between government and industry will, however, likely require trust building, with the onus being placed on the government to facilitate this. That being said, the industry will have no choice but to adapt and to view a reconvened relationship with the CFP from a pragmatic perspective. The beginning of the trust-building process would commence via the negotiation process surrounding Scotland’s EU membership i.e. a CFP that works better for Scotland’s fishing industry would need to be very high on the negotiating agenda. Additional concessions such as greater EMFF allocations may go some way to establish some sense of trust but are unlikely to be a big enough plaster on its own. For many Scottish fishers the idea of Scotland being part of an independent non-EU coastal state might be seen as a ‘sea of opportunity’ but an independent Scotland in the EU would, at least for some time, produce a ‘sea of uncertainties’.


[i] This figure includes fishing and fish processing.

[ii] Huggins, C., Connolly, J. , McAngus, C. van der Zwet, A. (2020) “Brexit and the Uncertain Future of Fisheries Policy in the United Kingdom: Political and Governance Challenges”, Ocean Yearbook.

[iii] Scottish Government (2019) Scotland’s marine economic statistics 2017

[iv] McAngus, C. (2018) “A survey of Scottish fishermen ahead of Brexit: political, social and constitutional attitudes”, Maritime Policy, vol. 17, pages41–54

[v] An area defined in international law as extending up to 200 nautical miles from a country’s coast.

[vi] Ian Napier (2016) “Fish Landings from the United Kingdom’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and UK Landings from the European Union’s EEZ”, University of the Highlands and Islands. Available on: https://www.nafc.uhi.ac.uk/research/eez-reports/fish-landings-from-the-united-kingdoms-exclusive-economic-zone-and-uk-landings-from-the-european-unions-eez/

[vii] House of Commons? (2017) “Debate Pack – the UK fishing industry”, Number CDP 2017/0256, 6 December 2017.

[viii] Scottish Government (2013) “Scotland’s Future and Scottish Fisheries”, available on: https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/corporate-report/2014/08/scotlands-future-scottish-fisheries/documents/00458445-pdf/00458445-pdf/govscot%3Adocument/00458445.pdf

[ix] Financial Times (2018) UK fishing quotas concentrated in five families, says Greenpeace, 11 October 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/ab03945a-cc92-11e8-9fe5-24ad351828ab

[x] BBC (2008) “Brexit should create ‘sea of opportunity’ for fishing” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-45703809

Arno van der Zwet | Twitter

University of the West of Scotland

Dr Arno van der Zwet is a Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland and a Senior Research Associate at the European Policies Research Centre at the University of Strathclyde. His research interests include territorial and European policies.

John Connolly | 

University of the West of Scotland

Prof. John Connolly is Professor of Public Policy at the University of the West of Scotland. He researches and teaches in the areas of policy analysis, crisis management, public health and multi-level governance. He is Editor of ‘Contemporary Social Science’, which is the flagship journal of the UK Academy of Social Sciences.