Reports are circulating that the UK government may be willing to compromise on fishing rights. Perhaps there might be a special zone around the Channel Islands and maybe current quotas would be phased out rather than ending instantly next January.
In any negotiation there will be fundamental points of principle and matters upon which there can be compromise if enough is obtained in return. Suppose two countries, A and B, argue over who owns a certain strip of uninhabited land. Country A has hunters who go there regularly to catch rabbits. Country B has an air route that flies over the land. The most fundamental question is who owns the land. To be sure, Country A could agree that if it is accepted that it owns the land, it will grant freedom for Country B’s planes to overfly it. And similarly if Country B is deemed to own the land it could grant Country A’s hunters access rights. But the principle of ownership goes way beyond these areas of compromise.
The UK position in the EU fishing negotiations is that the EU is not accepting the principle that the UK is an independent coastal state that determines who fishes its waters. If the EU does come to accept that principle, various compromises might be possible if the EU offers enough in return. So whilst it is already more than four years since the EU Referendum and as such it is undesirable for transition periods to be dragged out any longer, if the EU is offering something sufficiently attractive, the UK could agree to the phasing out of prior fishing quotas rather than their lapsing all at once next January. Similarly, one could envisage some compromise agreement to special rights for French fishing vessels to operate around the Channel Islands (though in this case one would have to be particularly careful that such an agreement did not establish sovereignty-violating principles).
That does not mean I am saying the UK ought to agree to either of these things – it depends on what the EU is offering in return. And at this stage I would say “goodwill” or “an agreement to proceed to discuss an FTA in more detail” is not remotely enough. The EU needs to be offering something bankable and worth having in return and we’d need to believe that this compromise was the best form of compromise to get whatever that bankable gain was.
Agreements with other countries frequently involve compromises of various sorts. Last week the UK and Japan made a free trade agreement. That illustrates that, for all the allegations by EU politicians and their commentariat apologists, it simply isn’t true that Brexit has induced unrealism amongst British politicians or an inability to make the compromises necessary and intrinsic to international deals.
The UK is perfectly willing to make compromises provided that the fundamentals of its sovereignty are respected and secured. The problems with the EU talks are nothing to do with UK unwillingness to be pragmatic. They are everything to do with the UK having no appetite, interest or political scope for allowing the EU to set our laws in future.
Not every compromise is desirable or necessary. Saying we should consider certain forms of compromise does not imply such compromises are painless, should be made without commensurate gains in return, or that they will not result in grumbles when they are finally announced. Of course some people will object. If no-one objected they wouldn’t be compromises! But compromises are part of deal-making.
So we should cut UK negotiators a little slack when it comes to their considering agreeing certain things with the EU that, although painful to the UK, do not surrender our sovereignty. Perhaps it’s a bad idea to allow fishing quotas to be phased out over an even longer timescale than the already-painfully-long period we have had. Perhaps it’s a bad idea to grant special rights to French vessels to fish near the Channel Islands. But perhaps it isn’t, because we’ll get something even better in return.