Illustration by Hannah Robinson

The UK officially left the European Union in January after three tortuous years. But the Brexit process is nowhere near over. Indeed, we are now entering what may be the trickiest part. The future of EU-UK relations is now in the hands of Michel Barnier and Olly Robbins, the chief negotiators for Europe and Britain respectively.

One of the EU’s mandates for any future deal is to have a free trade agreement with Britain; this would mean a guarantee of zero tariffs and quotas in trade from both sides. But Barnier has also said he won’t close a deal with London “at any cost”. Indeed, the EU is standing firm by its principles and is looking to ensure any deal is complete by 31st December of this year. On the British side, there is at least a stable government majority now, but if the past few years have been anything to go by the situation is a precarious one.

The priority right now is to sign an agreement this month providing the basis for free trade. These talks have begun, but are proving difficult. This agreement will consider arrangements for cooperation in digital commerce, intellectual property, citizen mobility, transports and energy. Both sides also seek an agreement on a partnership on security and foreign affairs. This new partnership will be part of a wide plan wherein the UK and EU can work together in every important area.

Access to the sea and the rights over British fishing waters are issues casting a huge shadow over the negotiations. The UK wants to discuss the issue on a year-by-year basis, per the EU’s existing arrangement with Norway. On the other side, the EU wants free access for member states to British fishing waters to avoid the threat of “economic dislocation” for European fishers. This is a thorny issue which could be a “red line” in negotiations and it could slow down Brexit. It must also be said that in UK waters, most of the catching is done by non-British boats; EU boats are responsible for 43% of catches and Britain 32%. Britain hopes to become an independent coastal state once more by the end of this year by implementing an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around UK waters which would give Britain absolute control over access rights.

However, according to the University of the Highlands and Islands, fishing accounts for just 0.1% of the British economy some fishers are worried that their interests will be a second fiddle to the goal of doing bigger business with the EU. Undoubtedly, fishing rights will be one of the big issues in EU-UK negotiations. It needs to be sorted early and in a way which is fair and sustainable for the environment; perhaps to avoid this potential red line this month’s agreement should include a guarantee of mutual access to the sea for everyone.