The sheer fishiness of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal

The Brexit deal has become a nightmare for businesses of all kinds

Coiled ropes hang from posts aboard fishing boat 'About Time' while trawling in the English Channel from the Port of Newhaven, East Sussex, U.K. on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed last month’s trade deal will let the U.K. regain control of its fishing waters by taking back 25% of the European Union’s rights over five years, many fishermen feel let down. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
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My grandmother had a favourite observation. When something odd happened, she would say: "If you live long enough you'll see everything." This week proves her right. Unbelievably, we are witnessing the return to popularity of sea-shanties. It's happening on TikTok, where 26-year-old Scottish singer Nathan Evans is credited with popularising the trend, singing Wellerman, a 19th century seafaring epic. Perhaps we should not be too surprised. British people have a strong relationship with the sea and "island race" nostalgia crops up repeatedly. Even if the British fishing industry nowadays plays a tiny part in the UK economy, it still has a big emotional attachment in our sentimental hearts.

That means a Scottish seafood company, Loch Fyne Langoustines, has become a social media sensation this week, not for singing shanties but for furiously trying to save their jobs and livelihoods. The company has been tweeting about extraordinary difficulties caused to their shellfish exports by the Brexit deal agreed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

One tweet from the company tagged politicians in anger and despair: “Enough is enough. We can’t get our product into the EU market. We are facing bankruptcy. Get it sorted.” Bureaucratic red tape in the deal enthusiastically championed by Mr Johnson means that the live shellfish the company exports across the EU end up dead and therefore worthless by the time all the forms and new checks are completed.

To avoid the paperwork jungle, some Scottish fishermen have resorted to landing their catch as far away as Denmark, according to the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. “Many fear for their future,” the federation says. It is worth noting that the federation itself actually campaigned in favour of Brexit, without recognising the disruption it would cause. They trusted the government. After all, Mr Johnson himself was clear when asked about new bureaucracy: “If somebody asks you [to fill in a form] you tell them to ring up the Prime Minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.”

Now that seafood going into the bin, annoyed critics have taken Mr Johnson at his word and begun ringing the Downing Street switchboard. Some fishermen are even threatening to dump their rotten catch on his doorstep. This is righteous anger. Pro-Brexit politicians have insisted for years – literally – that the UK fishing industry was a top priority and would be protected in any UK-EU deal.

The British Prime Minister and his ministers do not seem to understand the implications of the deal they have agreed

You can judge how that worked out in practice from Mr Johnson’s Minister for Fisheries, an obscure MP called Victoria Prentis who represents Banbury. Her Oxfordshire constituency is about as far away from the sea and fishing boats as it is possible to be in the UK. Victoria Prentis astounded British fishermen by admitting that she did not even read the fisheries deal when it was published at Christmas because she was “very busy organising the local Nativity trail” as part of her Christmas celebrations. This revelation came as an even more senior minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, tried to deflect criticism of the disaster affecting fishermen’s livelihoods by saying that thanks to Brexit: “We’ve got our fish back. They are now British fish and they are better and happier fish for it.”

Scottish and other fishermen with catches of rotten and unsellable fish did not, shall we say, find this amusing. And behind this row is a very serious point. The British Prime Minister and his ministers do not seem to understand the implications of the deal they have agreed and the bureaucratic mess goes way beyond fish.

Mr Johnson himself was asked about a great British success story, an industry in economic terms much more important than the fishing – music and musicians. Superb British artists have for years toured freely in bands and orchestras across Europe, working without visas.

Brexit has brought that to an end, and yet unbelievably the Prime Minister claimed that British musicians have “the right to go play in any EU country for 90 out of 180 days.” Professional musicians are very angry that Boris Johnson is either lying or utterly ignorant of the details of the deal he signed.

In just a few weeks the Brexit deal has become a nightmare for businesses of all kinds, costing companies and talented people money and leading some to bankruptcy.

And while my grandmother’s words of wisdom about how if you live long enough “you will see everything” may be true, I suspect we will all have cause to remember instead the words of the French writer Simone de Beauvoir: “if you live long enough you’ll see every victory turn into a defeat.”

Mr Johnson and his gang of victorious Brexiters have negotiated a deal which has mired key sectors of the British economy in a battle to survive. Perhaps self-employed musicians and fishermen can come together with filmmakers, road hauliers, importers, exporters and other aggrieved business people to sing the same song of protest. It will not be a sea shanty. It will be a noisy chorus of discontent.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National