Now remind me: which was it that we prioritised in the Brexit negotiations? Fish or finance?
It is hard to tell at this point. On the one hand, there is the financial services sector that accounts for nearly 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product and 2.3m jobs. It is largely shut out of its most important market, its preferred relationship with Europe never having got as far as the negotiating table.
Think-tank New Financial has logged 440 businesses that have shifted assets, staff, or set up new entities inside the EU; £900bn in assets, or 10 per cent of the UK banking system, has departed. Amsterdam has nabbed London’s spot as the top venue for equities trading. The European Commission has its sights set on moving some of the €81tn market for clearing euro-denominated derivatives inside the bloc.
On the other hand, no one has — yet — called in the Royal Navy.
Let’s turn to fishing. No sector can go from licensing disagreement to gunboats in the Channel quite like the industry (which weighs in at about 0.1 per cent of UK GDP and 24,000 jobs, including processing). But as HMS Tamar and HMS Severn patrol Jersey waters, the irony is that the island was deemed so sensitive that the Brexit agreement largely preserved the status quo.
Jersey’s introduction of special conditions attached to fishing licences seems provocative, especially if they have an impact on access or catch rather than just monitoring.
France’s threat to cut off power does not live up to the terms of the Brexit agreement, where dispute resolution is carefully laid out and retaliation measures are meant to be commensurate with the “economic and societal impact” of the supposed infraction.
War footing aside, fishing’s supposedly crucial status in the Brexit process has not done it much good. The City, at least, knew well ahead of time that it was getting zip from the talks. The movement of companies and assets reflected planning for the new normal, as much as anything else.
In fishing, the 83 per cent drop in fish and shellfish exports in January related to issues that could have been foreseen in terms of the ban on live shellfish exports but were not, as negotiations went to the wire.
Trading, while improved, remains “pretty bleak”, said Chris Williams at the New Economics Foundation. On almost every measure, he added, Brexit reality has failed to live up to the rhetoric. The headline 25 per cent uplift in quotas over five and half years actually equates to a 16 per cent rise in the UK share of quota in its own waters. The value of that is debatable given that certain stocks are not of interest to much of the British fleet. The number of UK-registered fishing vessels has fallen 10 per cent since 2019.
Independence also has not yielded much, other than the warm glow of our sovereign right to negotiate. The failure to reach a deal with Norway on reciprocal access in April was a major blow: the Kirkella, the UK’s largest vessel which catches about 10 per cent of our cod and haddock, will be pushed back into the UK zone, squeezing parts of the industry promised a better deal from Brexit.
At least in finance, with any prospect of greater access to European markets off the table, the process of reformulating how we make regulations and tweaking what we have has begun. Pivoting to focus on Asian markets is probably easier in forex than flounder.
Neither sector benefits from the inherently antagonistic relationship that Brexit has baked into the politics around it. And the fortunes of both rest on a level of wonky detail that does not translate well into headlines.
For the moment, the UK claims it is “recalibrating” UK finance rules, while the EU remains wary of being undercut. The best hope is that political interest and distrust fades over time, leaving technocrats to explore agreements that benefit the financial system overall.
The collection of French fishing boats, Royal Navy ships and French military vessels in the waters off Jersey tells you how likely that is ever to be the case in fishing.