One of the sticking points to the interminable Brexit negotiations is the fishing rights of the UK and the EU in British waters after the end of this year. British waters are famously abundant with fish, although nowhere near as plentiful as in the past, and their continental neighbours have always taken advantage of it. In fact in 1666, Charles II, recently restored to the throne in England after the Civil War, granted Bruges the right for fifty boats to fish in English waters for perpetuity in recognition to the port city  giving him refuge and protection after his father, Charles I, was beheaded. Ok the boats were small then, and the fish were more plentiful, but eternity means eternity right? Just like Brexit means Brexit.


Contrary to popular – and populist – opinion, French, Spanish, Belgian, Dutch, Portuguese, German, Danish and Norwegian fisherman have always sailed into and harvested the seas around the UK, well before the UK joined the then European Economic Community back in 1974. And British trawlers have long been voyaging out to far off places in search of fish.


The Cod Wars of the late 1950s through to the mid 1970s, was a series of confrontations between the UK and that massive North Atlantic power, er, Iceland about fishing rights in the North Atlantic. British fishing boats had been sailing to Icelandic waters since the 14th century, the time of Richard II, when the UK was indeed a precious stone set in the silver sea. From the 15th century onwards, there were a series of disputes that bubbled up occasionally as the demand for fish increased.


For those interested in UN – and United Nations Conference of the Law on the Sea (UNCLOS) – jurisprudence the story of the Cod Wars from 1958 is instructive. It was in that year that a United Nations conference convened to decide nautical boundaries failed to reach agreement to extend the limits of territorial waters to 12 nautical miles from their waters. Nonetheless Iceland banned foreign fleets from fishing within 12 nautical miles of their coasts, in defiance of international law. This led to British fishing boats being escorted to the fishing grounds by the Royal Navy while the Icelandic Coast Guard attempted to chase them away and cut the nets of the British boats; ships from both sides suffered damage from ramming attacks.


Despite Iceland being in the wrong, each confrontation concluded with an agreement favourable to Iceland. Iceland threatened to withdraw from NATO, which was not a big deal in terms of land, but strategically hugely important because NATO would no longer have access to most of the GIUK gap, the stretch of water between Iceland and Scotland, a critical anti-submarine warfare chokepoint during the Cold War. In the end it was NATO that brokered an agreement in 1976, where the United Kingdom accepted Iceland’s establishment of a 12-nautical-mile (22 km) exclusive zone around its shores for Icelandic boats only, and a 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometre) Icelandic fishery zone where other nations’ fishing fleets needed Iceland’s permission to harvest.


British fishing boats lost access and thousands of jobs were lost. The UK in turn abandoned its “open seas” international fisheries policy and declared a similar 200-nautical-mile zone around its own waters. The United Nations, as is so often the case, let law follow the events, and in 1982 a 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometre) exclusive economic zone became the international standard under UNCLOS.


Ring any bells? From the coasts of the Aegean Greek islands, to Libya, Egypt, back to Turkey and Cyprus all the way across to the South China Sea and the Nine-dash line areas of potential conflict are being watched warily as the battle of resources heats up, stoked up by diversionary nationalism, macho geo-political bullying, or simply the gravity of growing power. Competing ships suck up fish and hydrocarbons, and passing ships, merchant or military, exercising their freedom of navigation add to the tension too.


At the core of these disputes are maps, and therefore in the case of the eastern Mediterranean, a lot of different maps, agreed by countries with different agendas. Turkey and Libya, countries connected by massive arms deals and military support, and little else, have drawn up a map showing their agreement in the division of territoriality at sea:

No alt text provided for this image

That’s Turkey’s version which is a little misleading because not only does it cut across Greek waters, it cuts across Greek islands. This map is perhaps a bit better:

No alt text provided for this image

Even so, it was signed, of course, without agreement with Greece. Personally speaking I find it strange that I would be sailing through Turkish waters on my way from Karpathos to Crete. But of course this is not about navigation rights, for now at least, but about drilling rights under the Mediterranean seafloor. You may have also noted that since then Greece and Egypt have reaffirmed their rights and Exclusive Economic Zones limits, ignoring the Turkish and Libyan map. But this is all a bit confusing because despite nationalists claims on all sides these maps are being drawn so that the relevant countries can expand or defend their zones, and then exclusively exploit them, whether it’s for fish or gas. This too involves navies and NATO, where both Greece and Turkey, like Iceland and the UK, are members. It is hard to see any deal being brokered at this stage, and history is a very heavy weight.


In the South China Sea, despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague awarding otherwise, China insists on the sovereign rights of the Nine-dash line, and although this too is ostensibly about economic rights, the military is involved too. Ships, and shipping, will play a part too.


All of this is nothing new of course, as we can see from the case of Britain with Iceland and indeed Belgium. What starts out as a competition for scarce resources ends up in a battle for real. In the end it is not who draws the map that is important, but who recognises the borders and limits on it. History will always provide a convenient excuse for invasion and conflict if you look hard enough. One map may be fair and reasonable, but the other map may come with some money attached, or worse, a gun to the head. Human rights do not mean the same thing everywhere, and do not count for much in the games the Great Powers play with each other.


Every time a map is redrawn and new borders are created, trade suffers. One of the ironic things about the British fishery dispute with the EU is that over 40% of British harvested fish is then sold into the EU. By disallowing EU fishing boats the right to fish, and causing the same damage in continental ports that British fishing communities suffered after access was denied to Icelandic waters, it is hard to see the EU not finding a way to restrict access of British fish into EU markets.


If you are finding all this a bit complicated, then I am glad, because these things are complicated, and should not be approached with apparently simple solutions. It requires detailed discussion where both sides want to reach an agreement. Even if this is the case, there is always the threat of external, unexpected events derailing discussions; the Brexit trade agreement talks have been postponed because one of the EU team has tested positive for COVID-19.


The problem with borders at sea is that they are hard to defend and easy to encroach. The other problem is that any conflicts that do happen seem to be remote and away from civilian life. My concern is that what we have taken for granted for so long is that the freedom to trade is implicitly tied to the freedom of navigation: this is something we in shipping that we should pay attention to. Merchant shipping has always suffered disproportionally during conflicts at sea: they are big targets with little deterrent to attack, as any pirate knows. And it’s not just the ships that suffer, or the shipowners, but the crew as well.


I am not suggesting that the UK will go to war in defence of their fisheries against the EU, or that the EU will seek to protect their rights, whatever they turn out to be, with military force. I hope, obviously, that the disputes in the eastern Mediterranean to not escalate into something that felt imminent over the summer, at least here in Greece. I sincerely hope that China will not use force to assert its growing influence in the South China Sea and beyond. But in the end, these disputes can only be resolved by agreements between countries and alliances, made up of people. After all, it is only the fish themselves that are oblivious to territorial waters.


Simon Ward