Belgium banks on King Charles II to save its fishermen from no-deal Brexit

King Charles II's stay in Bruges could have unforeseen consequences for Britain's plans to regain control of its waters. - Alexander Spatari / Alex Spatari
Belgium will rely on a royal charter of 1666 that gives its fishermen the perpetual right to fish British waters if there is no Brexit.
Boris Johnson has threatened to suspend negotiations with Brussels if no trade deal is in sight by the EU summit on October 15. No deal is going to hit Belgian fishermen hard because they will have to be banned from British waters.
King Charles II granted 50 Bruges the right to fish for "eternity" in British waters after staying in the city during his exile from 1656 to 1659 after the English Civil War, which ended with the execution of his father.
The regional government of Dutch-speaking Flanders said it would apply the old charter in court if necessary.
"Our aim is to reach a negotiated agreement," said a spokeswoman for the Flemish Minister for Fisheries, Hilde Crevits, to the Belgian radio.
"But if we don't come to an agreement, we can invoke the charter. It dates from 1666 but was confirmed by a British lawyer in 1820."
EU boats land around eight times more fish in UK waters than UK fishermen in EU waters. Three quarters of the fish sold in the Belgian port of Ostend is caught in British waters.
"One wonders if it is in Belgium or anyone's interests to come back to such historical claims. Much could come back on the table," said a UK source.
Great Britain started fishing negotiations with the newly formed Kingdom of Belgium in 1849. A treaty was signed, but Belgium at the time insisted that the “fishing privilege” of 1666 was “unaffected”.
The charter was rediscovered in Bruges city archives in 1963 by Alderman Victor Depaepe, who wrote to Queen Elizabeth and urged the request.
Mr Depaepe, an accountant and fishing fleet owner, was arrested by the Royal Navy off the East Sussex coast.
The UK authorities never took the case to court, which fueled speculative prosecutors that the charter may still be legally enforceable.
Dr. Lee Rotherham, former director of special projects at Vote Leave, said the potential legal backlog could be easily resolved.
“Britain could rightly state that the Bruges fishermen count against the EU quota. They're just at the top of the access list, ”said the longtime fisherman.
A UK government spokesman said: "We suspect that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea could replace this charter."
Flanders has sent a copy of the charter to Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, who has vowed to protect historic fishing rights and coastal communities.
The European Commission said it had received the letter and that it would reply, but declined to comment. Negotiations in London are ongoing today and will resume next week in Brussels.
Brussels does not believe Mr Johnson will fulfill his threat to walk if his October 15 deadline is not met as expected. The EU has set a deadline of the end of October to prevent Britain from leaving the transition period without an agreement.
“I don't see any intention of the British suspending negotiations. The negotiations continue. There is no deadline, "said the senior EU diplomat.
The sides are still divided over the level playing field, particularly the law on subsidies, and the enforcement of the agreement.
A senior EU diplomat said he did not believe that fishing was "a major obstacle to an EU-UK deal".
The EU is considering reallocating its internal fishing opportunities to mitigate the impact of Brexit on the fishermen most affected. However, the diplomat warned that France was the most difficult EU member state to convince.
British negotiators have offered the EU a three year "transition period" with fishing opportunities gradually increasing in the UK and decreasing opportunities in the EU.

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