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A calm and measured response

Posted by Richard Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Only two days ago this Blog was railing at the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, with its report - then unpublished - on fishing.

From what we had then seen, it looked very much as if the Commission was ignoring the "elephant in the room", making recommendations to the government on fishing policy which is, in fact, controlled by the European Union.

Discerning readers might have noticed a subtle shift in direction the following day, when we placidly observed that the BBC, in featuring the Commission's report, had introduced the subject, with the opening announcement, "British fisheries policies are failing ..."; yet another example of the "elephant in the room".

With the temperate, calm, deliberation for which we have rightly become famous, we also noted that we did not have a British fisheries policy, labelling the BBC - with somewhat surgical precision, even though we say so ourselves - as "stupid, ignorant, blind people".

At the time, the Commission's report was still unpublished and we were relying on the BBC in particular for our understanding of the main recommendation which, as the BBC reported, was that the sea "should be treated in the same way as endangered areas on land".

The BBC then gave airtime on the Today programme to Sir Tom Blundell, chairman of the Commission, who argued that "We need to take positive steps to allow the environment to recover. Marine reserves should be created to protect 30 percent of the UK's seas from fishing."
But now we have the report, all 497 pages of it. If any reader feels inclined to wade through it, the link is here.

And having read it – yes, dear reader, we have read it... well... some of it – we see that we were in fact over-generous in our calm, temperate approach to the BBC. Call me pedantic if you like, but the Commission did NOT recommend closing down 30 percent of British waters. Its exact recommendation was (and, as always, bear with me on this one - the point will soon emerge) that:

...the UK government should: develop selection criteria for establishing a network of marine protected areas so that, within the next five years, a large-scale, ecologically-coherent network of marine protected areas is implemented within the UK. This should lead to 30 percent of the UK’s exclusive economic zone being established as no-take reserves closed to commercial fishing; and develop these proposals in consultation with the public and stakeholders (para 8.69).
Now, note the bit we marked up italics: "this should lead to... etc.". This has to be read in conjunction with the recommendation in para. 8.101 where the Commission says that

Changes are needed both at the UK and European level, where the UK government should be prepared to make the case for a new EC Directive for the designation of large-scale MPA networks protected from the effects of fishing.
This brings us to the meat of the issue. The Commission did not ignore the "elephant in the room" (most humble apologies).

Recognising the obvious, that the UK government has no power to close down 30 percent of UK waters – thereby excluding a large tranche of the "European" fishing fleet - the Commission's actual recommendations were that the UK government should do the preparatory work, and then go cap in hand to the EU commission and ask it if it would, ever so kindly, consider...

And did we get any hint of that from the BBC? Or, for that matter, from any other media source? I think not. But what the headlines should have read was, to the effect that the Royal Commission had recommended our government to ask Europe for permission to close its own waters ... to save fish stocks from collapse.

That is fantasy, we know, but that is the standard against which you can measure the total inadequacy of the media in reporting the facts - and the size of the "elephant in the room".

Furthermore, if you buy into the Royal Commission's own fantasy, that closure of vast areas of the UK fishery is urgently necessary, this is a damning indictment of the impotence of our government, and a graphic demonstration of quite how much power has been given over to Brussels. So powerless is it that the Commission did not even suggest that the government should close its waters – merely that it should go cap-in-hand to Brussels.

Oddly enough, this actually reverses the balance of the argument on the Tory policy of repatriating the CFP. Critics say that, in order to do this, we have to have the agreement of all the other 25 member states. “And what if they say ‘no’”, the argument goes.

In this case, we have a situation where the government is being enjoined to go to Brussels to ask if it can close off some of its waters. And what if they say “no”? The answer is brutally simple: we cannot do it.

But, if the CFP has been repatriated (and I can reveal that the Tory policy pre-empted the Commission report by proposing permanent closed areas – although by no means as extensive as is suggested), then the Commission would have been talking directly to the government and, if it was so minded, the government could implement the closures without undue delay.

Ah, you might say. But this government could ignore the EU and go ahead with the closures anyway. Indeed it could. And so could a Tory government go ahead and repatriate the policy. The difference is that, even though there is not a snowball's chance in hell of the EU agreeing to the closures, this government will not act independently.