‘Brexit deal has to protect our seafood industry’

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 23 May 2018

Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly reports on why an upcoming vote in Parliament could have huge repercussions for Grimsby.

CALL it soft Brexit, call it half-Brexit, call it what you like but MPs will have a big decision to make in the coming days.

The Lords spent more than a month debating the EU Withdrawal Bill and the end result was 15 changes – alterations the Government did not want in there.

MPs are due to vote on whether to keep the amendments in the bill and the one which is set to cause Theresa May a sizeable headache is the option of EEA membership.

Peers voted a fortnight ago to change the law so that the UK government must negotiate, alongside the current exit talks, to remain its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).

Membership of the EEA – aka, the Norway-option – is known by some as “soft Brexit” because it, for all intent and purposes, keeps the UK in the single market (it allows for the free movement of goods, people and services between 31 European countries, including the 28 EU member states, plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein).

The reason why North East Lincolnshire might benefit from being in the EEA is that it could eliminate the concern over import and export taxes on goods coming into south Humber ports from EU countries. Being part of the single market would wipe out trade tariff fears.

Any question marks for the seafood processing industry over the future trading arrangement for fish with Iceland and Norway would be banished with EEA membership as the UK would be in the same trading group. The growing offshore wind sector would also be able to sell its renewable energy, charge-free, to the European mainland.

Continuing with EEA membership but exiting the EU (the UK, as an EU member, is currently in the EEA) also addresses fishing industry concerns. Being part of the EEA club allows for opt-outs on the Commons Fisheries Policy (CFP), just as Norway and Iceland have done.

It is not a political union and is not subject to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), meaning it does not cross one of the Prime Minister’s “red lines”. That is not to say the EEA is the panacea to all Grimsby’s Brexit concerns. If Britain was to join the EEA but opt out of the CFP, because the UK had decided not to allow access to its fishing grounds, the seafood processing industry would no longer be exempt from tariffs.

The catch-22 argument between single market access and being outside the CFP would remain in that case.

Read more: More fishies on dishies is good for you and Grimsby

And EEA members tend to, even if they are not in the EU, sign-up to new EU rules despite having no say over them. Freedom of movement would also continue in the EEA. It is no wonder then that some describe EEA-only membership as the worst of all worlds.

MPs are expecting a vote to be called in the coming weeks on the EEA amendment and North East Lincolnshire MPs will have to decide whether it is an attractive option for the region and the country.

Grimsby MP and shadow housing minister Melanie Onn (pictured left) faces a tough call due to her responsibilities on Labour’s front bench.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is said to be planning to instruct his MPs to vote against the EEA amendment – despite supporting a similar Commons amendment in October, tabled by quitting Lewisham Labour MP Heidi Alexander.

Mr Corbyn’s spokesman told Westminster reporters last week that the leader was not in favour of the EEA model.

“We won’t talk about whipping arrangements until the votes are held,” said the spokesman. “The EEA packages that are currently in existence do not meet the need and the priorities that we have set out.

“The Norway option is not appropriate and will not work for the kind of Brexit that we want to see.”

Should Mr Corbyn whip his MPs to vote against the amendment, then Ms Onn – due to the parliamentary tradition of collective responsibility – would have to resign if she voted to remain in the EEA after Brexit.

Ms Onn said any final Brexit deal had to protect Grimsby’s trading links and its seafood industry.

Read more: Brexit fears remain for future of Grimsby's traditionally smoked haddock

She said the Prime Minister had created “confusion and unnecessary uncertainty” about the country’s future outside of the EU.

“I have asked many questions of ministers in Parliament about the Government’s plans to protect much-needed industry in Grimsby, whether that is about frictionless borders or protected status [for Grimsby smoked haddock]. Real answers have been hard to come by,” said Ms Onn.

“The Tories don’t know what outcome they’re trying to achieve.  Theresa May is too busy trying to save her own skin from rabid Brexiteers who want to leave the EU irresponsibly, with no regard for the consequences for towns like Grimsby.

“People in Grimsby voted to leave the European Union, but they did not vote to be worse off with fewer job opportunities and we must do all we can to ensure that local businesses continue to get the best deal possible.”

Martin Vickers, (pictured left) Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, was able to be, as a backbencher without ministerial constraints, more candid in his view – he wants to take the EEA option off the table.

The Eurosceptic said it was not the direction the majority of the borough – which voted by 70 per cent to leave – wanted at the referendum.

“I’m sure the Government’s intention is to vote down all the Lords’ amendments,” said Mr Vickers. 

“The EEA is definitely one of the amendments that Labour and the Conservatives are opposed to so I can’t see it going anywhere.

“We want to leave, full-stop. We didn’t vote to half-leave. We want a successful trading relationship with the EU – but we want that with everyone.”

But while Mrs May can count on Mr Vickers’ loyalty during the upcoming EEA vote, there may be others in her number that she has to worry about.

The so-called “mutineers”, as the Daily Telegraph called them – the likes of Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Nicky Morgan – all want to keep close ties with Europe and being part of the EEA could appeal to them.

For that reason, the Government may need to offer a concession to get the bill through – and some in the Tory Party suggest that the fallback option could be membership of the European Free Trade Area (Efta).

Some Tories have put Efta membership on the table as it allows for free access to the European single market but does not impede on the UK’s ability to strike trade deals with countries outside the EU (as EU membership does). It also, like the EEA, is not subject to the ECJ, does not include a customs union and, again, Norway and Iceland’s membership would make it ideal for Grimsby’s seafood processors.

Read more: 'Very few work in the fishing industry BECAUSE of EU' - Tory MP Martin Vickers blasts Labour remainer over Brexit comments

Efta – which the UK helped to found in 1960 before later joining the EU – is currently a small unit made up of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland.

But the group has met with UK officials and gone on record, saying Britain joining them would strengthen the trade group, which has already signed deals with countries such as South Korea, Mexico and Singapore.

Mr Vickers may have ruled out voting for EEA membership but he said he was willing to consider joining a “reformed” Efta.

Mr Vickers said: “I’m wary about membership of Efta as it is at the moment but, with the inclusion of the UK as the fifth largest economy in the world, we could transform the organisation and give it real leadership.

“It is certainly worth talking to other members about a possible ‘Efta Mark II’ sort of thing. There are some in the party who are promoting Efta membership as a compromise.

“There seems to be a willingness among the other nations to enter into meaningful discussions with the UK. Once we have the Withdrawal Bill through, with all the energy that is being sapped by that, we can look more closely at it.”

The Government is reneging on when to hold the vote on EEA membership because the whips and ministers know they will have a showdown on their hands.

With no majority for a so-called “hard Brexit” – leaving the single market and the customs union – the EEA or Efta may represent the best bet for getting a deal sealed before the clock runs out.



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