This afternoon, an obscure Commons committee, known as European Standing Committee A, sat in an obscure room deep in the bowels of Parliament, to debate an issue of vital importance to the nation.
The government submitted its motion, the minister was questioned, there was a debate and a vote. At any one time, there were no more than half a dozen MPs present, and the vote was a foregone conclusion. The inbuilt government majority ensured that the motion was passed – and another bit of our sovereignty was lost to the EU.
Except in the trade papers, the event will be unreported, and the carefully-crafted speeches will lie in copies of Hansard, to gather dust unread.
So, what was this all about?
The debate was on the "Establishment of a Community Fisheries Control Agency", part of the so-called CFP "reforms" that deals with "improved" enforcement of the policy. The government "welcomed" the agency and asked the committee to support
...the government's objective of playing a constructive part in detailed discussions on the proposal whilst seeking to ensure that the role of the Agency will not undermine the control and enforcement responsibilities of individual Member States or cut across the policy aim of increased regionalisation of the Common Fisheries Policy.It will be opposed by the Conservatives.
The proposal itself stems from 28 May 2002, when the EU commission produced a "roadmap" on reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. The Council then adopted in late 2002 Regulation (EC) No. 2371/2002 on the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources, in which there was a chapter providing for a new legal framework for a community control and enforcement system. That gave a legal basis for a Regulation establishing a community fisheries control agency.
The arguments for the agency were in fact put in COM(2003) 130 final, published in Brussels on 21 March 2003 – a Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament entitled "Towards uniform and effective implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy" and the European Council agreed in December 2003 to establish this Agency in Vigo, Spain – known to all and sundry as the home of illegal fishing.
But, as with everything to do with the European Union, the idea did not come out of thin air, but was the result of careful deliberation over time. Tracking the idea, however, does not lead us directly to any direct concern for the enforcement of the CFP – the source in fact lies elsewhere.
To find that source, you need to look at Commission of the European Communities document COM(2001) 428 final, otherwise known as The White Paper on European Governance. It was there that the whole issue of "European Agencies" was rehearsed, and where the Commission announced its intention to create further autonomous EU regulatory agencies, of which the Fisheries Control Agency is but one example.
The ostensible reason for creating these agencies was, in the words of the Commission, to achieve "Better application of EU rules… to improve the way rules are applied and enforced across the Union". The advantage of agencies, it wrote,
is often their ability to draw on highly technical, sectoral know-how, the increased visibility they give for the sectors concerned (and sometimes the public) and the cost-savings that they offer to business. For the Commission, the creation of agencies is also a useful way of ensuring it focuses resources on core tasks.However, this text has to be read in the context of the whole report in which it is framed, which was a paper on EU governance. The introduction gives the clue when it talks about political leaders throughout Europe "facing a real paradox":
On the one hand, Europeans want them to find solutions to the major problems confronting our societies. On the other hand, people increasingly distrust institutions and politics or are simply not interested in them.Yet, according to the Commission, while the European Union was often seen as remote and at the same time too intrusive, people also expected the Union to take the lead in seizing the opportunities of globalisation for economic and human development, and in responding to environmental challenges, unemployment, concerns over food safety, crime and regional conflicts. “They expected the Union to act as visibly as national governments”.
The real clue, though, is in the use of the word "visibly". In the opinion of the Commission, "people" expect the Union to act "visibly". This, I have to stress is the somewhat partisan opinion of the Commission, but it does illustrate how that institution sees the world.
To begin to appreciate quite how important that perception is, we can now see in its broader context the Commission's statement on the advantages of agencies. The key phrase is "increased visibility". The agencies give increased visibility to the sectors concerned – those "sectors" being those in which the EU has a role and competences.
To understand the whole context, however, one also has to look at the framing of the White Paper in which the commitment to establish more agencies appears. This was in the wake of the Irish "no" vote on the Nice referendum, following the collapse of the Santer commission and after the 1999 Euro-elections when more people in the UK voted for Big Brother than they did their Members of the European parliament.
As it says in the introduction to its White Paper, the Commission was worried about the need to "to connect Europe with its citizens". Reforms should be undertaken so that people could "see how Member States, by acting together within the Union, are able to tackle their concerns more effectively". Here again is that core concept, that people should see the Union in action.
On this basis, therefore, while it would be fruitless to deny that the Fisheries Control Agency is directed at improved CFP enforcement, one can make a good case for arguing that the real objective for choosing an agency structure – in preference to other options – is primarily "visibility". The commission hopes that, by establishing this agency, its own actions will be more visible to what it terms the "citizens of Europe".
However, even now we have not fully tracked this idea of an enforcement agency on fishing to its source, for the idea which led to the White Paper on Governance was another Commission document, this one issued at the start of the Prodi Commission, COM(2000) 154 final – the strategic objectives for 2000-2005, "Shaping the New Europe".
In that document the key theme was that the "European model" showed the world that "an ever closer union is possible where it is based on shared values and common objectives", and once political leaders and citizens came to realise that these values could be best promoted through shared policies and institutions, political integration will become a reality (bold in the original).
And it was from that which emerged the idea of using what was then a relatively obscure form of common institution, the enforcement agency, which takes shape this afternoon in that obscure committee.
Whatever utility this Fisheries Control Agency might have – and I will return to this in a further Blog - the facts as they emerge from the Commission's own documentation is that agencies are primarily devices for promoting political integration.
Thus, even though the constitution has not yet been ratified, the march of integration continues, and it took one step further to completion today when Parliament "approved" the Community Fisheries Control Agency.