BRUSSELS — Charles II of England had a hectic life. He married the same woman twice, with two separate ceremonies; had no legitimate children but at least 12 with his lovers; and his father was beheaded. On top of all that, he spent nine years in exile before taking the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland after the death of Oliver Cromwell.

The Merry Monarch, as he was known, spent three of those exile years in the Flemish city of Bruges. And it was there, in 1666, that Charles II — grateful for the city's hospitality — granted it the Privilegie der Visscherie, the privilege of fishermen that gave 50 boats from that city eternal rights to fish in British waters.

All of this may seem like a minor, irrelevant mishap in history. But this past October, Charles II's three-and-a-half-century-old favor was suddenly back in the news when Belgium's ambassador to the EU, Willem van de Voorde, raised the issue in a meeting on Brexit negotiations.

Fishing is one of the three major obstacles that remain in the negotiations.

Government data suggest that more than half of the income of Flemish fishermen comes from catches in British waters. They have a modest fleet, 67 boats, but the sector as a whole provides work for 2,500 people, according to Crevits, who says that "expelling Flemish fishermen from British waters poses an existential threat to the entire industry."

To the surprise of his colleagues, the ambassador pointed out that even if Brexit negotiations fail — and European fishermen lose access to British waters — those based in Bruges would keep their rights. Fifty boats from that city could continue fishing based on that privilege of more than 350 years ago, which they are now carefully dusting.

The Flemish government insists on this right, which they believe will serve them if the Brexit negotiations do not bear fruit. "A first legal analysis indicates that the privilege of fishermen is still valid," said the Flemish minister for the economy, Hilde Crevits, who is ready to play this card if necessary.

Charles II of England — Hendrick Danckerts painting

Although Flanders has unearthed this 1666 privilege, its legal value is far from being proven. The document was wielded on two previous occasions but never led to conclusive results. The first opportunity came in 1849, in fisheries negotiations between the United Kingdom and Belgium, which had just become an independent state. The argument failed to impress the British much.

The second attempt was more picturesque. It occurred in 1963, when a Bruges councilor, Victor Depaepe, sailed into British waters with the declared intention of being arrested and taking the case to court. To do this, he sent individual telegrams to give the Queen of England and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan advance warning of his departure. The stunt generated publicity, but not to the extent that judges intervened — even though advisers of the British Ministry of Agriculture would have recommended not to go to court because they could not guarantee that they would win the case.

What luck the privilege might have this time remains to be seen. It will depend first on the Brexit negotiations, which have intensified in London and Brussels since late October. Behind the provocative statements, the parties are reportedly making some progress, although no one knows if it is enough. January, the date of the disengagement of the UK from the EU, is very close.

The 1666 Fisheries Privilege — Wikipedia

Fishing is one of the three major obstacles that remain in the negotiations, along with the so-called "level playing field" (Brussels-slang to indicate that British products cannot enter the single market if they benefit from state aid that gives them an advantage) and governance, namely how any disputes will be resolved. Then comes fishing, which is proving to be a thorny issue despite its limited economic weight.

The EU has made it clear that there won't be a agreement without an accord on fisheries, and although the issue only affects eight of the EU's 27, all countries have closed ranks against what is considered British attempts to open cracks in the bloc.

With some realism, European fishermen can't expect to have the same rights that they currently enjoy, but they are trying to keep the reduction of their quotas as small as possible. Meanwhile, the 50 from Bruges might keep the Privilegie der Visscherie up their proverbial sleeves, just in case.


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