Saturday, April 24, 2004

It's the fishing industry stupid!

The Scottish Sunday Herald (25 April 2004) reveals that Blair is set to woo SNP with and EU fish deal. Thirty years after Heath gave away the fishing industry, as a price for joining the Common Market, the issue is coming back to haint Blair. It could become a pivotal issue in the referendum campaign, especially as the Conservatives have pledged to repatriate the CFP.

By Douglas Fraser, Political Editor, and James Cusick, Westminster Editor

Tony Blair is prepared to demand that Brussels hands back control over Scotland’s fishing industry as part of an audacious plan to win SNP support for a ‘yes’ vote in the proposed referendum on the European constitution. The Prime Minister is preparing a radically changed position on the European constitution, with a new, toughened negotiating stance and a warning to fellow EU leaders that he cannot win a referendum ‘yes’ vote unless he wins more concessions.

Until now, the government has repeatedly refused to add fisheries to the so-called “red line” issues such as defence, taxation and foreign policy. However, a source close to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw last night hinted strongly that Scotland’s crucial fishing industry is one of the areas where the Prime Minister could re-take control back from Brussels. “Since the Prime Minister has come out in favour of a referendum, he can try and push things further with EU colleagues. “We’re in different territory now, so if the SNP are good at driving a hard bargain, it might be achievable.”

Asked if there would be other demands from other parts or sectors of Britain for other red-line issues, Straw’s aide replied: “The fisheries question is obviously intensely felt in Scotland. He added: “It remains such an important industry in Scotland, so this is in a different category to others.” To help cement the deal between the government and the SNP, Alex Salmond, the Westminster leader of the Nationalists, and Angus Robertson, its foreign affairs spokesman, have been invited by Straw to explore ways in which the SNP could be brought into the government camp in fighting for the ‘yes’ vote. The meeting is expected soon. The SNP leader John Swinney made the pitch for the deal in his conference speech in Aberdeen yesterday.

“To win the referendum,” he said, “Tony Blair needs to win in Scotland. To win in Scotland, he needs the support of the SNP. “And he will only win the support of the SNP if he vetoes the absurd plan to hand over Scotland’s fishing industry to Brussels,” added Swinney. Although in the latter stages of negotiating the new EU constitution, last week’s decision to put the document to a UK referendum has given the Prime Minister an opportunity to table a set of new, toughened demands of other European leaders.

Without any further concessions, he can warn other heads of government that there is little hope of a ‘yes’ vote in the UK.

The SNP’s offer of a deal, seven weeks out from the European election and in the same week as Blair’s U-turn on holding a European referendum, is intended to exploit Labour discomfort over the issue. But it would also suit the SNP if the Blair government removed the one obstacle Nationalists have chosen for themselves to support the ‘yes’ side in a referendum.

Most within the SNP would prefer the party to present itself as a European party in such a high-profile campaign, as it has done since adopting its ‘Independence in Europe’ policy 16 years ago. In his conference speech, Swinney tried to present fishing as more than an issue for coastal communities, linking it with other departed industries such as coal and steel and part of “the great industrial fabric of our country”.

“This party welcomes the idea of a European constitution, but only a constitution which is in Scotland’s national interest,” said Swinney. “We have seven weeks to save our fishing industry. That’s the rallying call we will be taking to every community in our country.”

However, the hard line on fisheries was attacked by the Green Party. A spokesman said: “The SNP and the Tories are the real enemies of fishermen. They’re just playing politics. “By arguing for more and more fishing as if there’s unlimited fish in the sea, they claim it’s all ‘Johnny foreigner’s fault’ – when the real solution comes from investing in communities, while insisting that we reduce the amount of fishing so that stocks can recover.”

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