Flemish trawler men have less to fear than most if no deal is reached thanks a privilege granted to fifty Bruges fishers in 1666. Under this privilege, ‘Privilegie der Visscherie’ (Privilege of Fisheries), the Bruges fishers are granted the ‘eternal right’ to fish in English waters. Flemish fisheries minister, Hilde Crevits, who also doubles as economy minister and deputy premier waved the document about on Flemish radio last week.
The UK has left the EU, but anybody who thought that would put an end to all the wrangling must be disappointed. A transition period comes to an end at the end of the year and few people know what will happen then. Only Bruges fishers can be confident of being able to fish in English waters thanks to a charter granted by King Charles II in that calamitous year 1666. The Belgian ambassador to the EU Willem Van de Voorde recently even reminded the European authorities of the existence of this privilege that benefits Bruges fishers until the end of days. The Zwin estuary may have silted up, but Zeebrugge, part of Bruges, remains our second largest port and a thriving hub of the local fishing industry.
Some people might think it was a bit silly to base one’s case on a document dating from the 17th century in which an English king showed his gratitude for the warm welcome he had received during his days in exile of the continent, but here in Flanders there is sincere admiration for the great love of tradition displayed by the people of England and nobody doubts the King of England’s word is his bond and will be honoured to this day.
Minister Hilde Crevits confirmed to VRT News that Flanders is holding the centuries-old charter in reserve in case the UK and the EU fail to strike a deal.
“The UK doesn’t want to grant non-UK vessels access to its 12-mile-coastal zone, but this zone is important for Flemish fishermen and is responsible for half their catch.”
“The 1666 charter came to light during our search of ancient documents. It should provide evidence that 50 Bruges fishers have the right to fish in the UK’s 12-mile-zone in perpetuity. Our fishing fleet counts 67 vessels. The privilege could offer comfort to many of them.”
Fishing rights are currently governed by a European fisheries agreement dating from 1983. In the event of No Deal, this becomes invalid and the fishing rights of non-UK boats in UK waters will be governed by the 1964 Convention that grants non-UK fishers access to UK waters. It is understood that if the UK wishes to end this agreement it will have to ban foreign fishermen.
The privilege banded about on Flemish radio last week was discovered in Bruges archives in 1963. To ensure it was still valid a Bruges alderman set sail for English waters and got himself arrested in the hope a legal battle would confirm the rights of Bruges fishers (See video below). No prosecution followed and records released subsequently show that UK fisheries’ officials advised against any prosecution because they feared the 1666 charter could still be valid.
Minister Crevits still hopes the UK reaches a deal with the EU, but notes little headway is being made:
“We are keeping this privilege in reserve to point the historical context out to the British. I’ve been told they are very susceptible to this kind of thing. I still think it’s a painful situation. An agreement is the best outcome both for the UK and the Flemish economy. European negotiator Barnier is working hard. I hope he succeeds, but if not we have this charter in reserve.”