Decentralise fisheries control from Brussels to nations - MEP
by Ian Hudghton
Effective management of coastal waters is better done by individual member states rather than officials in Brussels – claims MEP
Unanimity is a hard thing to come by when the European Parliament votes upon fisheries-related matters. The divisions between MEPs tend not to follow the normal political dynamics of left versus right, pro-Europe versus Eurosceptic or even big groups versus the rest. On fisheries matters, the fault lines tend to be based on national and regional differences; reflecting the huge diversity in Europe's fishing industry. Yet this week, the European Parliament's Fisheries Committee unanimously adopted a legislative report I had drafted endorsing an urgent proposal from the European Commission.
The draft legislation will allow member states to retain national control of fisheries within their coastal waters, a power which is due to expire at the end of this year. That the report received the backing of MEPs from north, south, east and west, from countries adjacent to the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the North Sea and the Black demonstrates the value placed on this national control. The story of national control in coastal waters is older that the Common Fisheries Policy itself. The old European Economic Community rushed through legislation in 1970, just hours before accession negotiations were due to start with Norway, Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Accession negotiations which would see the community gain thousands of square miles of waters rich in marine resources.
The legislation laid the foundations for a CFP, but exempted coastal waters from the general principle of equal access. This exemption was incorporated into the subsequent Accession Treaty, which saw three new member states join in 1973. Norway considered the exemption to be too little - a position which has not since changed. The current 12-mile coastal exemption was a feature of the first comprehensive CFP regulation, enacted in 1983. At that time, the 12-mile zone was instituted for a 10-year period only, requiring its re-enactment in the CFP reform of 1992. That too was given a decade-long shelf life and so a pattern was set: the coastal exemption, along with the rest of the CFP, is set on a 10 year cycle with reform and re-enactment of the coastal provisions taking place every decade.
Problems arose this year when it became clear that the timetable for CFP reform was slipping. In past decades, the European Parliament has played a mere consultative role and the real fisheries decisions have been hammered out between the commission and the European Council. The Lisbon Treaty changed that however and the parliament became a co-legislator, thereby prolonging negotiations. And, while the rest of the existing CFP will roll over into 2013 regardless of the progress in the ongoing reform discussions, the 12-mile zone is strictly time-limited to December 31, 2012. There was a real risk of the 40-year-old coastal exemption falling and so urgent legislation has been required. To describe this situation as a "real risk" and the legislation as being "urgent" is no overstatement.
While the CFP in general has been regarded by fishermen, consumers, environmentalists and indeed the commission itself as a complete failure - the exercise of national control within coastal waters has been regarded as something of a success. In the green paper on CFP reform, for example, the commission was quite blunt about marine management to date - stating: "The current CFP has not worked well." They were more positive though on the 12-mile zones, suggesting that the regime "has generally worked well and could even be stepped up". In a subsequent report published at the same time as the CFP reform proposals, the commission repeated its view - adding: "The regime is very stable and the rules have continued to operate satisfactorily."
It is instructive that success has lain in the one area of European fisheries policy where decisions are taken at a more local level, as opposed to by the centre in Brussels. One of the key debates taking place around the current CFP reform involves the future regionalised and decentralised shape of the policy. While everyone agrees that decision-making should be shifted away from the centre, different views exist as to how far that shift should go. All too often people in the commission and parliament shy away from meaningful decentralisation. It would be contrary to the treaties, some say. National governments cannot be trusted to manage the resource, others claim. The success of the 12-mile regime points fairly clearly to how far the shift must go.
National control in coastal waters has existed for over 40 years - without the European Court of Justice striking it down as unconstitutional. The member states have managed their inshore resources well, as the commission acknowledges. And this week, the Fisheries Committee unanimously backed the retention of this national control. The diversity of Europe's fishing industry should be one of the European Union's strong points. The diversity in MEPs backing the coastal regimes sends out a clear message. All those involved in negotiating the new CFP should take note - and resolve to end the centralisation of power once and for all.
Ian Hudghton MEP is president of the Scottish National Party and leader of the SNP group in the European Parliament
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