In one of my last programmes I coined the term ‘peschismo’, fish flavoured machismo, to capture the political pungency of squabbles over our scaly friends, from Cod Wars to Brexit.
And so it proves. Macron and Johnson are both playing it for all they are worth, biceps bulging, as they arm wrestle amid the cod and skate. “Our fish” are at least one of the rocks on which a post Brexit trade deal could founder. Or perhaps that should be flounder.
Fish are bound to make nationalists either side of ‘the sleeve’ cross. The alien creatures slip in a rather sinister, cosmopolitan way across watery national borders, ignoring dotted lines on the map, even having the temerity to breed in one country’s waters and feed in another, only to swim into nets elsewhere only to be eaten from a further flung foreign plate.
Fisherfolk, rugged and romantic, hunters on the high seas, summon a sense of Volk, pride and meaning, in a way the aerospace industry can never match.
That three times as many people are employed as fitness instructors in the UK than in the fishing industry is not beside the point. It is the point. Brexit was never about the economy - it was and is about identity and the struggle to achieve it.
The UK joined the European Project at a time of diminished national self confidence and at an economic low point when the newspapers were full of images of drowning men, life boats and straw clutching. It is an irony that British politicians, back then, saw it as a hard headed economic decision, stripped of the sentiment of continental types who were trying to build something grand and forge a new common identity. Hard headed economic realities are not the British Government’s priority now.
This is about raw politics – betray the plucky fisher folk and the point of Brexit will have been lost. Johnson will not only infuriate the most enthusiastic Brexiteers on his backbenches, he will have failed to have put one over on the SNP in Scotland.
Likewise Macron cannot allow himself to undermined the equally rugged and romantic French pecheur, thus handing a weapon to his main opponent, Marine Le Pen and her Nation Rally, formerly the National Front, They may no longer demand Frexit, but still aren’t the EUs biggest fans. Giving into the German demands to be more rationale about fish won’t play well with their potential supporters.
So as the talks approach the end game it is fitting too, that on both sides, the other two points of conflict are about both hard advantage and the sense of self. It is understandable that those who backed Brexit don’t want the UK to shadow new EU rules and regulations, or have European courts take part in final judgements of who has breached the agreement. It hardly fits with the image of a buccaneering Brexit. It is equally understandable the EU doesn’t want to hand a competitive advantage to a rival entity when every other nearby county is subject to the pull of its gravity. Particularly when the internal tensions are as big an existential threat as Brexit. Poland and Hungary increasingly also seem to be in it just for the money, scorning any sense of a shared destiny. “To encourage the others” is not the main point but it is there at the back of Macron’s mind.
No longer having to report the daily twists and turns I am rather of the mind "wake me up when it’s all over”. The sense of daring deeds on the edge of a precipice are the result of briefings which are part of the process.
There’s been a lot of talk about an Australian or Canadian deal. The details are important, but what is lacking is the flavour, the feel of the future relationship. We can’t have the same sort of distant relationship as a country thousands of miles away from the European Union. Gravity and orbits matter in geopolitics. Peschismo is a symbol of that – it is a struggle over a contested resource which quite literally lies in the seas between our countries. As difficult as things have sometimes been between the UK and other EU countries in the past, they will be more awkward, more antagonistic, more adversarial in the coming years. Not only will there be a sense of prickly pride on both sides but the road will be barred to the mechanisms designed to sort such problems out.
On the morning we joined the European Community the Today programme displayed unconscious insight by playing the Marseilles. When a deal is done, or left undone, they could do worse than replay that blood thirsty anthem – whatever the details of a future relationship, competition with Macron Militant will be hard baked into the process. The French are coming – and not just for our fish.