Richard North, 09/07/2020  

As we left it yesterday, Heath's government had decided that UK fisheries were "expendable" and had sought to conceal that from the public and, especially, the fishermen themselves.

Through the spring of 1971, while the accession negotiations were still being stalled by France, the FCO was dealing with other issues. But by June, as the deadline for the end of negotiations approached, O’Neill and his team suddenly realised the seriousness of the fisheries problem.

Ministers took the view, O’Neill was to record, that the ideal solution would be for the Community to suspend its fisheries policy, pending agreement on a suitable regime after British accession.

This was ruled out, so Britain sought a compromise, suggesting that the Community could control waters between six and 12 miles off the coast, as long as British fishermen could enjoy exclusive fishing rights out to six miles.

Again, the Community insisted on control right up to the beaches, offering only a temporary derogation, whereby all Member States could keep an exclusive six-mile zone for five years, possibly to be extended to ten, with "a review" thereafter.

It was on this basis that, with all other issues agreed, the government put out its White Paper in July claiming that "the Community has recognised the need to change its fisheries policy…". Not for the last time on fisheries, the British public was being seriously misled.

The fisheries issue remained unresolved well into 1971. The Commission bulletin (produced for a US readership) happily announced in its July-August edition: "Common Market Accepts United Kingdom", but acknowledged that: "The only unsettled issue is fishing rights and the common fisheries policy on which discussion will continue after the August recess".

Before Heath could fly to Brussels to sign the Treaty of Accession, he had to deal with this most pressing of issues. By then, having accepted Community control over the fishing waters between six and 12 miles from her coast, he still hoped to retain exclusive rights to the six-miles zone.

On 18 June, Ireland declared their refusal to accept the Community's proposals. The Norwegians followed suit three days later. Having given away so much, Britain's negotiators feared that the Community might now offer the other countries concessions it was too late for her to ask for.

The situation became increasingly fraught as Norway passed a law limiting the size of vessels allowed within her 6-12-mile limit, excluding British deep-water trawlers from one of their most lucrative fishing grounds. Iceland had unilaterally extended its limits to 50 miles, excluding British vessels from another lucrative ground.

Pressure began to build for Britain to seek concessions similar to those demanded by the Norwegians. But the political situation was becoming so explosive that O’Neill’s team decided to defer further demands until after the Parliamentary debate, lest awkward questions were put by Labour front-benchers.

Because the fisheries problem had only come up since Labour’s application in 1967, it was an issue over which Labour spokesmen felt no inhibitions in attacking the government.

By the time negotiations were resumed, they became "so intense, intricate and continuous", according to O’Neill, that he gave up trying to record a step-by-step account.

Fisheries had been raised briefly in the debate, prompting Rippon to make the misleading claim that there was now "a clear understanding" that there would either have to be a wholly new fisheries regulation or the Community would have to accept the status quo.

On 9 November, the Community came up with another minor variation on its earlier proposal, offering member states a "derogation" adding control up to their 12-mile limits in certain geographical areas.

These arrangements would still be subject to review after ten years, but the decision as to whether they could continue would have to be unanimous. Although O’Neill described this as "in many respects entirely unsatisfactory", it was to be the basis on which agreement was eventually reached.

The Norwegians were even less happy. Meeting with Rippon, they rejected any solution that was only temporary, insisting that national limits must be permanent.

They were unimpressed by his remark that "it was better when dealing with the Community to go round a problem rather than deal with it head on". O'Neill regarded the Norwegians as "stubborn". Their stance was to bring their relations with the Community to crisis point.

By now Rippon was under almost continuous fire in the Commons, to which he could only respond with evasive or ambiguous answers. As he and his colleagues tried to extract further minor concessions from the Six, centred on those areas where they wanted to retain a 12-mile limit, the Norwegians remained adamant that they must have a permanent 12-mile limit for the whole of their coastline.

Heath was now worried that, unless the issue could be resolved, his timetable for entering the Community on 1 January 1973 would have to be abandoned.

On 29 November, as ministers were due to arrive in Brussels for a final marathon session, he sent an urgent message to the Norwegian prime minister, Trygve Bratteli. "You will know", he wrote, "that it is very important that we present this question in a manner that will appear satisfactory to our fishing interests".

But Heath went on to say that he was now "seriously concerned" by the way negotiations were dragging on. If Norway kept up its "stiff" and "intransigent" attitude, the Community might lose patience.

It was only because he believed it was of "the utmost importance" that Norway should join the European Community, wrote Heath, that, "I dare send you this message today". It was a great mistake, when dealing with the EEC, he suggested, to make demands "of a permanent nature", because this "touches a principle which the EEC considers as fundamental".

If Mr Bratteli could only accept a time-limit, "subject to revision", Heath suggested, then in practice he would surely find that the EEC would be understanding, and "will give you the essential concession which you expect".

In other words, so long as the Commission got what it wanted on paper, Heath was sure it would privately allow Norway the de facto permanence she wanted. After pleading with Bratteli to instruct his negotiators to give way, Heath ended by threatening, "with very much regret", that, unless Norway conceded, the other candidate countries would have to join without her.

When this message was received in Oslo, its contents were swiftly leaked, with the full text of Heath’s letter appearing in the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten on 7 December 1971, leaving its citizens more informed than the British people.

Word of Heath’s intervention reached Brussels just as the crucial meeting was beginning. From the high-handed attitude of the French foreign minister, Maurice Schumann, it was more obvious than ever that the real driving force behind the policy was France.

The Six had all at different times privately indicated unhappiness at the ruthless way it was being forced on the applicants. The evening after the Brussels talks ended, the German ambassador to London confessed to Rippon's secretary Crispin Tickell that Schumann's behaviour in Brussels and France's subsequent blocking tactics had been "deplorable". ‘As seen from here,’ he said, "the Community had behaved at its worst".

After the fiasco of the Brussels talks, a further meeting was scheduled for Saturday, 11 December. Cynically, the British government's only real concern was to get a formula covering the 12-mile limit which would somehow enable it to defend the policy in Parliament. By Sunday morning, wrote O'Neill, "we got almost everything we wanted".

The following day, 13 December, Rippon made a statement to the House of Commons on the outcome of the final meeting. He claimed that, "the United Kingdom together with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark have now reached agreement on the outstanding problems".

"The Community", he claimed, "had been persuaded of the need to protect Britain’s vital interests", both by conserving fish stocks and by protecting "the livelihoods of our fishermen". He then said, "it is clear that we retain full jurisdiction of the whole of our coastal waters up to 12 miles".

This was untrue. Under the Fishing Regulation as set out by the EEC in 1970, British vessels would only have exclusive rights out to three miles, limited to five years.

What the British delegation had done was negotiate a further derogation – which had Community-wide effect – allowing Member States to restrict fishing within the six nautical mile limit until 31 December 1982, and special arrangements for some areas up to 12 miles. This additional "concession" became part of the 198-page Accession Treaty (Article 100). In Article 103, provision was made for further derogations.

Crucially, Britain had conceded to the Community the right to control her fishing waters, eventually right up to the beaches. Even inshore fishermen would have to comply with Community rules. And when the 200-mile limit took effect, the world’s richest fishing waters would have been given away in toto.

Desperate to hide how much had been given away, Rippon then said: "I must emphasise that these are not just transitional arrangements which automatically lapse at the end of a fixed period".

This claim drew fierce challenge from Denis Healey and Peter Shore, both of whom suspected he was lying. But neither had sight of the accession treaty, which would not be shown to MPs until after it had been signed a month later. Only then did it become clear that Rippon had told a blatant lie.

The Norwegians were unmoved by the concessions offered. Still further concessions brought a reluctant agreement on 15 January 1971, but they provoked the resignation of their fisheries minister. When the accession deal was put to the Norwegian people in a referendum on 25 September 1972, they rejected it, by 52.7 percent to 47.3.

The British people, however, were not allowed a referendum. And, with a temporary derogation in place until 1982, when we joined the EEC, the full extent of Heath's actions were not immediately apparent. By then, of course, it was too late to do anything, but the issue was never to be forgotten.

In an interesting codicil, it emerged that in 1962, the "father" of the Common Agricultural Policy, Dr Sicco Mansholt, had declared that a common fisheries policy "would be in the interest of all the countries on the North Sea".

He said that the EEC Commission, in cooperation with the governments of the six Common Market members, intended to hold a preliminary conference on fisheries in the autumn.

Dr Mansholt added that entry into the Common Market of Great Britain, Denmark and Norway would be of greater importance to the fisheries industry than drafting of a common fisheries policy within the Six - a matter which the European Community had not yet undertaken.

He pointed out that Great Britain, Norway and Denmark produced some 3.2 million tons of fish per year, compared to 1.9 by the European Community countries (Belgium, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands).

However, Mansholt then concluded that "it would be impossible for the Community countries to formulate a meaningful fisheries policy without prior consultation with Great Britain, Norway and Denmark, which fish the same North Sea waters".

Mansholt, of course, was right. The Community, by sleight of hand, had launched common fisheries policy without prior consultation with Great Britain, Norway or Denmark. But it was very far from "meaningful" in the sense that it was neither rational nor effective.

In the years to come, though, there would be plenty of apologists ready and willing to excuse the Community's predatory behaviour. But, for many British citizens, the experience was summed up in the words of Margaret Thatcher, who famously said, "They stole our fish!"

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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