Sunday, June 08, 2008

The worst of the worst

As with farmers, we are so often told that the fishing industry is in "crisis" that that very fact becomes part of the political wallpaper – such a constant and familiar state that we no longer take any notice of it.

Thus when Booker tells us today that "Fishermen face 'worst ever crisis'" it becomes just another part of the background, ironically to become tomorrow's fish and chip wrapping paper – if EU food packaging rules still allow such use.

The fact is, though, that fishermen are facing their worst ever crisis and, while they have long suffered from the depredations of the CFP – seasoned in part with their own stupidity and venality – the proximate cause of their distress is our own government.

In the context of an EU single market, where British fishermen exploit the same seas and compete with their foreign "brethren", we have a situation where the EU commission permits member states to subsidise their fleets – an option taken up by all our main competitors with the egregious exception of the United Kingdom.

It was for that reason that a small, disconsolate rump of the industry presented itself last Tuesday at the headquarters of DEFRA, in Smith Square, London, to present fishing minister Jonathan Shaw with a message well known to him, to which he and this government are entirely indifferent.

The statistics, in themselves, are stark. Numbers of active commercial fishermen are down by 40 percent over the last 14 years and, by the end of this year, thousands more of our surviving 12,000 will be out of business. Yet, in 1973 – before we joined the Common Market - Britain had the largest fishing fleet in Europe.

Booker illustrates the level of the current crisis with an account of visitors in recent weeks who have been to many of our fishing ports, from Fraserburgh in Scotland to Newlyn in Cornwall. They have been shocked to see so many boats tied up, because their owners can no longer afford to put to sea, "hit by the double whammy of soaring fuel prices, up 320 per cent in five years, and draconian new Brussels quota rules, which mean the amount of fish they can land is below the point where it is economical to fish at all."

But, although the crisis created by the exploding price of diesel, which accounts for 60 percent of a fishing boat's costs, is one affecting all Europe's fishing industries – a bad situation is made even worse by this government's refusal to match the subsidies paid to their competitors.

Under EU rules, Spain is allowed to give £98 million to its fishermen, to enable them "to stay competitive". France, which can give £106 million and has every intention of doing so. But although Britain is permitted by Brussels to give £78 million, Mr Shaw made it clear to the fishermen on Tuesday that they cannot expect a penny. The Government, he told them, "does not have the financial resources available".

The real subtext of Mr Shaw's refusal, writes Booker, was spelled out by Commissioner Borg in Brussels, when he said that the future for "European fisheries" lay not in "false solutions" but in "restructuring, to create a smaller, more fuel-efficient fleet".

In other words, if thousands more British fishermen go to the wall, that must be part of the EU's long-term solution. Their French and Spanish competitors will be grateful that their governments do not agree with the immovable Mr Shaw. That is why, by the end of the year, a great many more of them will have survived than now seems likely in the country which, until it gave its fishing waters away to Brussels.

Therein lies an example of the nightmare we have to face. It is not so much Brussels we have to deal with as the combined effect of both Brussels and out own government – the combination proving lethal to our economic survival. And, while we can all sympathise with the plight of the fishermen, that combination is beyond the scope of the political system, as established, to redress.

Thus, we shrug our shoulders and, metaphorically, walk away. It is not that we don't care - we do. But there is nothing we can do, so we go away and indulge in political theatre. In such small ways is the loss of our democracy measured, and in such small ways do we lose the heart of our nation.


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