The UK is set to offer the EU a three-year transition period on fishing as a means of setting aside the issue as a block to a potential deal. What to do about fish has been a major impediment in the negotiations throughout the post-referendum period. And it appears that this government wants to repeat what has happened whenever a major Brexit-related impasse has been hit in the past — just find a way to kick the whole thing into the long grass.
The overarching terms of the deal seem to imply that between 2021 and 2024, quotas and access for EU fishermen to UK waters would be reduced year on year — yet there can’t be any agreement at the moment on what this access will ultimately be reduced to since if that were the case, the UK and the EU wouldn’t be at this impasse in the first place. What happens if the two sides can’t agree a final settlement during this three-year 'transition period'? History suggests an extension of the transition to nowhere. It’s also worth pointing out here that at best, the UK will settle on a post-Brexit fishing arrangement seven and a half years after the referendum. Again, at best.
The problem with Brexit has mostly come down to transition. Only the most swivel-eyed FBPE type would argue that Britain could never, ever thrive outside of the EU under any circumstances. The issue is much more down to how you get from where we are now, with an economy that is heavily intertwined with the single market, to a place completely outside of the European Union’s purview on all matters. Think of where we are at the moment as the edge of an island, with a stable Brexit situation twenty miles away on another island. In between is an incredibly rough sea. How do you get to Brexit Island? No one has figured that out yet. No deal is the equivalent of jumping into the waves and swimming for it, but this is understandably frightening to any sitting government who will be blamed for the problems this tactic causes. This is why whenever the government seems close to taking this option up, it turns away. Of course, we might be about to see a UK government that really is willing to dive in — yet the fishing transition offer to the EU suggests another path might be opening up.
What if this is the start of the UK government simply deciding to take up the extension of the transition period they rejected back in July — only doing so in a piecemeal way. Once you complete the long-grass exercise with fishing, then why not do something similar on tariffs, state aid and rules of origin and, well, everything else? It might allow Boris Johnson to tell the country he’s got a Brexit deal that much like every other Brexit 'deal' announced to date, is nothing more than a series of extensions to the status quo which will require ever more negotiations. Brexit continues on the way it has done since 2016 — a never-ending series of attempts to build a bridge between where we are now and Brexit island, all of which are nothing more than a way of avoiding the big decisions for the moment.
Of course, the EU might not go for any of this. Perhaps this fishing olive branch offered by the UK is too little, too late. Maybe we still end up in a no-deal situation come January anyhow. Yet the fishing idea offers us a window into the UK government’s current Brexit thinking. It looks like it might want to avoid no-deal but not agree to anything that looks like a climbdown. Since that’s all the EU are materially offering, the only way around no-deal is to just extend everything as is, bit by bit. Basically, the UK and the EU agree to disagree for the time being, while avoiding nuclear war, at least for now.
If I were Boris, this strategy would be highly tempting. A chance to say to the country he’s got a deal, taking into account that a lot of his backbenchers seem incapable of reading the details of these things until months afterwards. A 'deal' that is nothing more than an agreement to keep trying to agree an actual, substantial deal over the next three years might look appealing to a Downing Street bereft of better options. Of course, this allows Nigel Farage a great opening to criticise the fact that Brexit is something that never seems to actually come, no matter what. It also still doesn’t solve the big, underlying issues surrounding Britain’s post-Brexit future. The decision about whether we finally acknowledge Brexit for what it has already become — a very long-term project — or we just jump into the waves and swim for Brexit Island might just be put off for another three years.