Brexit and boating

April 26, 2016

The RYA has been keeping a close eye on what the outcome could mean for recreational boating.

For the first time in a generation there is a serious prospect of a member state leaving the European Union – with the referendum set to take place on Thursday, 23 June. With the official campaign period now in full swing, the RYA has been keeping a close eye on what the outcome could mean for recreational boating.

The short answer is that nobody can possibly know. The impact of Brexit depends entirely on the relationship with the EU that follows. If indeed Brexit happens, the negotiation of that relationship will be a long and protracted process. While some points in this process are fixed, others are not, creating additional uncertainty. 

All change, or no change?

So what are the options if Britain decides to leave? One thing that is certain is that the EU will not disappear as an institution or a big market. A post-Brexit Britain will have to form a set of trading and institutional relationships with it. The uncertainty is over what these would be – and how long they might take to negotiate.

The UK would have to start negotiations with the rest of the EU about what it would like its relationship with the EU to be. While various politicians are expressing a view as to what they might like to see happen following a UK vote to leave, there is no certainty at all that any of it will be achieved in practice – although some or all of it could be.

It is possible that some EU member states will be unwilling to grant the UK the concessions it wants. The UK’s relationship with the rest of the EU has built up over 40 years; the way that the UK was before it joined the European Community offers very little insight into how the UK might be in a few years’ time if it were to leave the EU.

What would Brexit mean for UK sailors?

Many of the regulatory challenges currently faced by British recreational boaters have an EU dimension – such as red diesel, border controls, invasive non-native species, biocides, and European marine protected areas. A British exit from the EU might have an impact on all of these issues, but at this stage the nature and extent of that impact are unclear. 

Would customs checks for sailors between the UK and the continent become more stringent, for example? This would depend entirely on what post-Brexit arrangement the UK Government entered into with the remaining EU member states. For example, Switzerland is not a member of the EU but is within the Schengen Area.

Would visiting the continent become more expensive or administratively arduous? Would Brexit impact on exchange rates, mobile phone charges, customs fees? Once again, this would depend entirely on what post-Brexit arrangement the UK Government entered into with the remaining EU member states. 

There is also a wide range of issues affecting boating that do not currently have an EU dimension. For example, the requirement for qualifications when you go overseas is generally specified in national legislation, and is nothing to do with the EU. This is demonstrated by the fact that some EU members, such as France, do not generally require UK boaters to prove competence when sailing a UK-flag boat in their coastal waters whereas other EU members, such as Spain and Greece, do. 

Domestic UK issues such as national marine protected areas (including MCZs), offshore renewable energy installations, carriage and disposal of flares, lifejackets, light dues, and alcohol limits, are unlikely to be affected by the outcome of the referendum.  A lot of maritime law is still the preserve of national governments or international conventions facilitated by the United Nations.

What are we doing?

Should the UK vote to leave the EU then the RYA will, of course, engage with the relevant Government departments in an effort to minimise any impact on recreational boaters.

For as long as UK boaters wish to voyage across the Channel, the Irish Sea or the North Sea (whether or not there is an EU and whether or not the UK is a part of it) the RYA has an important role to play in lobbying European institutions to ensure that boaters may do so with the minimum of regulatory interference.

It’s worth noting in this context that the European Boating Association is a Europe-wide (not an EU-wide) organisation, as is the UN Economic Commission for Europe (which created the ICC), so the RYA involvement in organisations such as these would not be impacted by whatever decision the UK makes on its membership of the EU.

The outcome of the referendum will shape the future of the UK and its people, for better or for worse, and the public debate is likely to range across many aspects of British life. The focus for the RYA, however, is to make sure that whatever the UK’s relationship with Europe our ability to enjoy our boating is as unfettered as possible.