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Fishermen feel waves of betrayal over Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

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When a flotilla of fishing boats sailed out of the south-west English port of Newlyn in 2016 to campaign for the UK to leave the EU, Gavin Addison was one of the fishermen aboard hoping Brexit would herald a new age of plenty for the sector.

Nearly five years and one EU trade deal later, Mr Addison, now working out of Peterhead in north-east Scotland, the UK’s largest fishing port, said Britain’s leaders had failed to deliver on their Brexit promises.

“We thought it was going to help the industry, that it was going to put the fishing back into the control of British fishermen,” Mr Addison said. “We were shafted.”

Gavin Addison: ‘We were shafted’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Mr Addison’s disappointment is widely shared. Across the UK, fishermen complain that the trade deal sealed by prime minister Boris Johnson last month locks in substantial access to British waters for European boats for at least five years and potentially indefinitely.

There is also anxiety in the seafood sector about the permanently increased cost of exports to the EU caused by post-Brexit paperwork, which many fear will outweigh what they see as a meagre increase in the share of fish UK fishermen can catch.

In the first few weeks following the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, sales to key European markets stalled and the price of many species plunged, forcing boats to tie up in harbour or sail directly to EU ports.

The initial disruption appears to be easing, but some fishermen say Brexit will be remembered as an industry sellout alongside the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973. The EU’s “common fisheries policy” allocated national quotas according to historical fishing patterns, giving boats from other member states a large and continuing share of the catch from UK waters.

The Brexit protest by Newlyn fisherman in 2016 © Phil Lockley/By-Water Productions

“We’ve been sold down the river again,” said James Cowie, who lands langoustine, haddock and monkfish at Fraserburgh, 18 miles north of Peterhead. Mr Johnson sacrificed British fishing interests to reach a deal with European governments more committed to their sectors, Mr Cowie said. “They’ve got what they wanted,” he said.

“Boris collapsed,” agreed Jeremy Hoskins, a Newlyn skipper who catches crab and lobster inside the UK’s 12-mile coastal zone. Mr Hoskins said the deal, which allows French, Dutch and Belgian boats to operate inside the zone, fell far short of pre-Brexit promises to “take back control”. “The long and the short of it is that we’ve been betrayed again,” he said.

Mr Johnson waves aside such accusations. In parliament this week, the prime minister accepted fishermen currently faced “complications over form-filling”, but insisted they were getting a “huge uplift” in quota.

“By 2026, the fishing people of this country will have access to all the fish in all the territorial waters of this country,” Mr Johnson said, a prospect he likened to reaching the fabled golden city of El Dorado.

“It doesn’t feel like that to my members, that’s for sure,” said Elspeth Macdonald of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.

The UK government points out the deal secured extra fishing rights for Britain worth 25 per cent of the EU’s previous catch in UK waters. But Ms Macdonald said the real gains from the changes, being phased in over five years, would be much more limited.

Fishermen would lose access to a system of quota swaps under the EU common fisheries policy and a mechanism for adjusting allowable catches known as The Hague Preference, actually leaving those in Scotland worse off when it comes to more than half of the most important whitefish stocks, Ms Macdonald said.

The UK government said the deal provided for the creation of a “mechanism for voluntary in-year transfers of fishing opportunities” that could make up for the loss of CFP swaps, but the details have yet to be agreed.

Stefan Murdoch: ‘Everyone around the harbour is gutted’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

In Fraserburgh, skipper Stefan Murdoch said he been told he would have less quota than before, a heavy blow as he is struggling to pay off the loan on a new boat. “Everyone around the harbour is gutted,” he said.

Many UK fishermen are also sceptical of Mr Johnson’s golden vision for 2026, when some transitional fisheries arrangements in the trade deal end.

During negotiations, the prime minister and ministers insisted they would not allow fishing rights in UK waters to be linked to access to the EU single market for British seafood. “They are two completely separate things,” Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minster and the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish processor, said during a visit to Peterhead in 2019.

Boris Johnson visits Peterhead fish market in September 2019 © Duncan McGlynn/Getty Images

But the deal explicitly sets out how either side can take “compensatory measures” — including imposing tariffs on seafood imports — if there is any change to “the level and conditions of access to waters” once the transition period expires in mid-2026.

That will give the European Commission leverage to resist UK moves to ban EU boats from British waters. And the trade deal also describes the quota shares at the end of the transition as being in place for “2026 onwards”.

A spokesperson for the commission told the Financial Times the deal was clear that any subsequent quota changes would require “mutual consent of the parties”.

“They’ve got us over a barrel,” said Mr Hoskins, the Newlyn skipper.

James Cowie’s crew unload their catch in Fraserburgh © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT
An anti-EU sign on the side of a fishing boat in Peterhead © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

UK fishermen are not the only ones complaining, however. Expressing sentiments echoed in all EU nations bordering UK coastal waters, Esben Sverdrup-Jensen, chief executive of the Danish Pelagic Producers Organisation, said the deal’s transfer of quotas was a “massive blow” to the Danish fleet.

“No doubt there will be fishermen who will go out of business here, and lose their vessels,” Mr Sverdrup-Jensen said.

Many UK producers are still focused on merely getting their seafood to EU markets that value species such as langoustine, crab or monkfish more highly than do domestic consumers.

Exports this week began to flow more smoothly, with leading shipper DFDS restarting “groupage” services where numerous consignments are carried on the same lorry — although deliveries for now still take 24 hours longer than before the end of the Brexit transition.

Donna Fordyce, of trade body Seafood Scotland, said that, even after teething problems were resolved, each consignment to the EU would cost £160 more in certification and other paperwork, a major hit for smaller exporters.

The extra cost of exporting to the EU could lead to a permanent increase in the number of UK boats that take catches directly to ports on the continent.

“We have been informed of vessels heading to land in the markets in Denmark,” said Michael Murray, convener of the Fraserburgh harbour commissioners. “We wouldn’t want to see that as a trend, because the fishing industry is a huge part of the local economy for Fraserburgh.”

Michael Wilson: ‘I think they (Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) will be scared to show their faces around here’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

In Peterhead, skipper Michael Wilson said he had considered landing his langoustine and whitefish in Denmark, but was deterred by the 30-hour voyage each way.

Tied up in port because of the poor market, he said there were plenty of things he would like to say to Mr Johnson and Mr Gove about their handling of Brexit — but that he did not expect to get the chance to do so in person anytime soon.

“I think they will be scared to show their faces around here,” Mr Wilson said. “There’s a lot of angry people.”



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US suspends tariffs on UK exports in Airbus-Boeing trade dispute

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The US will temporarily lift punitive tariffs on £550m worth of UK exports such as Scotch whisky and Stilton cheese, imposed as part of a row with the EU over subsidies to Boeing and Airbus, in an attempt to de-escalate one of the longest trade disputes in modern history.

The move follows the UK’s unilateral decision to suspend tariffs against the US from January 1, which took both Brussels and Airbus by surprise. Brussels has disputed that the UK had the right to act unilaterally in a trade dispute between the EU and the US when it has left the bloc.

Liz Truss, UK international trade secretary, said she was delighted that US president Joe Biden had agreed to suspend tariffs on UK goods for four months. The move would help to improve transatlantic relations, she said.

The US trade representative’s office confirmed that it would temporarily suspend the tariffs, to allow time to negotiate on settling the aircraft dispute.

The Johnson government has come under heavy fire over the tariffs in particular from the Scotch whisky industry, whose exports to the US plunged 30 per cent last year.

“The easier it is for Americans to buy a bottle of Macallan, Talisker or Glenmorangie, the more money those producers will have to invest in their businesses, their staff and futures,” Truss said. “Trade equals jobs.”

The US-EU aircraft subsidies dispute is one of the longest-running cases in the World Trade Organization’s history, reflecting the importance of the industry to each side and the intense competition between Boeing and Airbus.

The battle dates back to 2004, the year after Airbus first overtook its US rival in terms of deliveries. Both sides have been found guilty of providing billions in illegal subsidies to their aircraft makers.

Brussels was last year given the green light by the WTO to impose tariffs of up to 25 per cent on $4bn worth of US products, after Washington announced duties on $7.5bn worth of European imports. 

Both Boeing and Airbus welcomed any move that could help to bring the two sides together. “We welcome USTR’s (US Trade Representative) decision to suspend tariffs for allowing negotiations to take place,” Airbus said in a statement. “Airbus supports all necessary actions to create a level-playing field and continues to support a negotiated settlement of this longstanding dispute to avoid lose-lose tariffs.”

Boeing said: “We commend this action by the US and UK governments creating an opportunity for serious negotiations to resolve the WTO aircraft dispute. A negotiated settlement will allow the industry to move forward with a genuinely global level playing field for aviation.”

However, Britain’s departure from the EU has raised questions about how effective any UK-US suspension can be. With no precedent to follow, trade lawyers have said it is unclear whether the UK still had a right to impose or suspend tariffs that were granted to the EU. 

Whitehall officials insisted the UK had the right to revoke retaliatory tariffs. One individual close to the process said: “This whole issue shows the benefit of being an independent trading nation . . . if we can get this done, it paves the way to a deeper trading relationship with the US and will help free trade deal negotiations.”

Despite this, there appear to be very few signs of progress in the trade talks between the US and UK. In January, White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated that securing a deal would not be a priority for the Biden administration.

Last month, Biden’s nominated top trade adviser Katherine Tai told senators that she would “review the progress” of the talks that had taken place between the two sides over the previous two and a half years.

Both the EU and the US have long argued for a resolution to the dispute, but have remained far apart on the terms of any agreement on how to fund new aircraft development. 

After Biden’s election as US president, there was a feeling in Europe that a deal could be within reach. There has been growing speculation that talks were progressing.

However, in late December, the US further raised tariffs on European goods, specifically targeting French and German products.

The EU has said it is in intensive talks with the US in a bid to quickly secure a deal to remove punitive tariffs. 

“We have proposed that both sides agree to suspend tariffs for six months,” a European Commission spokesperson said. “This will help restore confidence and trust, and thus give us the space to come to a comprehensive and durable negotiated solution.”

A US administration official said that while he could not indicate whether there were plans to imminently remove the EU tariffs, the Biden team was continuing to review the dispute. “The goal is to resolve the dispute and create a level playing field,” the official said. 

Both Brussels and Washington are keenly aware that the rules need to be set before China becomes a significant competitor to Boeing and Airbus.

China is expected to be the fastest-growing market for commercial aircraft over the coming decades and Beijing has made it a strategic priority to break the global duopoly in an attempt to claim some of that market for Chinese industry. Later this year, China’s Comac is expected to have fully certified its first major commercial aircraft, the C919 single aisle.



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FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will be forced to pay back illegal state aid

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FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will be forced to pay back millions of euros in illegal state aid after the EU’s highest court ruled Brussels was right to declare that beneficial tax arrangements they enjoyed for a quarter of a century were illegal.

The decision by the European Court of Justice upholds previous rulings by the European Commission and comes as Barcelona, the world’s highest-earning football club, is enduring one of the biggest crises in its history. 

This week police arrested the club’s former president, its current chief executive and its general counsel, in connection with a separate legal case ahead of a vote on Sunday to decide its next president. Barcelona, which recorded a loss of €100m last year, also has to contend with a debt pile of more than €1bn.

In 2016 Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief supremo, ordered four Spanish football clubs to pay back tens of millions of euros received since the 1990s in the form of sweetheart property deals, tax breaks and soft loans.

FC Barcelona subsequently contested the decision before the General Court, the EU’s second-highest tribunal, which annulled the commission’s judgment. However, after a final appeal from Brussels the ECJ ruled in favour of the EU.

In its decision on Thursday — which is final — the ECJ deemed the tax scheme “liable to favour clubs operating as non-profit entities over clubs operating in the form of public limited sports companies”, holding that it could therefore qualify as illegal state aid under EU rules.

The General Court had previously annulled Brussels’ decision over what it said was lack of sufficient evidence that the tax arrangements offered to the four football clubs, which also include CA Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao, were illegal.

But the commission had questioned the court’s “heavy burden of proof” on regulators in its appeal, arguing that a lower tax rate was obviously more favourable than a higher one.

The ECJ argued that the difficulty in assessing the extent of state aid — because of the complexity of tax deductions — did not preclude the commission from banning government practices that it considered gave sports clubs unfair advantages. 

It said: “The impossibility of determining, at the time of the adoption of an aid scheme, the exact amount, per tax year, of the advantage actually conferred on each of its beneficiaries, cannot prevent the commission from finding that scheme was capable, from that moment, of conferring an advantage on those beneficiaries.”

The Spanish government said on Thursday it had “absolute respect” for the court’s decision. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The judgment will be seen as a big win for regulators in Brussels who have for years been trying to stop highly successful commercial clubs from freeriding on the back of taxpayers.

The European Commission said on Thursday it noted “the judgment by the Court of Justice to follow the Commission’s arguments”.

Thursday’s ruling is the second time Brussels has won an appeal of its state aid decisions in recent weeks. Last month judges at the General Court rejected a legal challenge by budget airline Ryanair to state aid given to rivals on discriminatory grounds.

At present Barcelona is dealing with the fallout of what the Spanish media dubs Barçagate — allegations, denied by the club, that it corruptly hired outside groups to defame former president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s adversaries on Facebook.

Bartomeu was temporarily detained by the Catalan police earlier this week. He, the club, and other individuals in the case, which is being investigated by a Barcelona court, have all denied any wrongdoing.



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Italy raises €8.5bn in Europe’s biggest-ever green bond debut

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Investors flocked to Italy’s inaugural environment-focused government bond offering on Wednesday, allowing the country to raise more than €8bn.

The banks running the issuance chalked up around €80bn in orders for €8.5bn of debt. It was the biggest debut sovereign green bond from a European issuer to date, according to Intesa Sanpaolo, which worked on the deal.

Other recent Italian bond sales have also attracted strong demand, after former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi became prime minister last month.

Demand for the debt highlights the popularity of green bonds, which provide funding for environmental projects and require borrowers to report to investors on how the funds are used. 

Tanguy Claquin, head of sustainable banking at Crédit Agricole, which was a co-manager on the transaction, said the sale was met with “very strong support” from investors, particularly those that are required to consider environmental factors in their portfolios.

The bond, which matures in 2045, was issued with a yield of 1.547 per cent. The underwriters were able to reduce the premium against a normal Italian government bond maturing in 2041 to 0.12 percentage points, a slimmer premium than the 0.15 points initially mooted.

Italy follows several European countries, including Poland, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands, into the green debt market. France has issued 11 green bonds since 2017, totalling $30.6bn according to Moody’s Investors Service. Germany joined the market last year with two green Bunds. In its budget on Wednesday, the UK announced plans to sell at least £15bn of green bonds in two offerings this year. 

Italy is the first riskier southern-European government to tap the green market. The spreads on Italian debt relative to the eurozone benchmark German bonds fell to a six-year low of less than 0.9 percentage points in early February in a sign of investors confidence in Draghi’s leadership of the EU’s third-largest economy. The spread widened during last week’s volatile bond market trading but remains low by recent standards.

Spain plans to follow Italy with a green bond offering in the second half of 2021. Analysts expect an initial €5-10bn sale at a 20-year maturity. Johann Plé, senior portfolio manager at AXA Investment Managers said the demand for Italy’s sale “should reinforce the willingness of Spain and others to follow suit.”

Plé said the price investors paid for the Italian green bond “remained fair” and that this “highlights that strong demand does not necessarily mean investors have to pay a larger premium”.

Green bonds often command higher prices, and therefore lower yields, than their conventional equivalents from the same issuer. The German green Bund currently trades with a “greenium” around 0.04 to 0.05 percentage points, roughly double the gap when it was initially issued, according to UniCredit analysis, while French government green debt is roughly 0.01 percentage points lower in yield than conventional bonds.

Italy’s pitch on the environmental impact and reporting of its green projects drew positive reactions from some investors. Saida Eggerstedt, head of sustainable credit at Schroders, which invested in the bond, said the details provided on projects including low-carbon transport, power generation, and biodiversity were “really impressive”.



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