Wednesday, September 29, 2004

You will be assimilated

Next Tuesday afternoon (5 October), in an obscure committee in a meeting room buried deep in the labyrinth of the European Parliament, a group of undistinguished and largely unknown politicians met – an event which, I can predict, will be almost entirely unreported by the popular media.

Yet this will have an enormous significance, as the event will be the meeting of the European Parliament fisheries committee (known in the jargon as "Pech"). Its task will be to interview another undistinguished politician who, by accident of history, is for the next five years to become the European Union commission’s fisheries supremo – Joe Borg, the Maltese commissioner.

It is perhaps unfair to note that this commissioner designate shares his name with a species of fictional aliens in the television series Star Trek, half man, half computers, which terrorise the galaxy by capturing other species and turning them into clones of themselves. Invariably, prior to capturing their unwilling recruits, the Borgs utter their now famous catch-phrase, "Resistance is futile - you will be assimilated".

British fishermen could, nevertheless be forgive for believing that this is precisely the process which they have undergone. A once-proud national fleet has been steadily whittled down to a bare shadow of itself, while measures are finally in hand to integrate (or "assimilate") it into a European Union fleet, bearing the single flag of yellow stars on a blue background.

An important stepping stone in that process is the creation of a single, EU fisheries inspectorate, with its own resources, its own inspectors, and even its own fleet of vessels, and that ambition came that much closer when the European Council approved in principle the Commission’s plans to establish a Fisheries Control Agency in Vigo, Spain – described by Telegraph journalist Charles Cover as the "the world capital of illegal fishing".

This plan came up for scrutiny to the House of Commons on 8 September, before an equally obscure committee, known as the European Standing Committee A. There, fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw sought to convince MPs that this new agency was merely a means to promote "co-ordination and fostering co-operation between Member States".

It was opposed by shadow fisheries minister, Owen Paterson, not because the Conservative Party was against "co-ordination and co-operation" but because he had read the commission’s proposal, known as COM(2003) 130 final – which the minister admitted he had not. There, in black and white, the Commission stated that the agency would "assume leadership in the deployment of means of inspection and surveillance".

In Paterson’s view, that meant that "the new agency will ultimately be the top decision-making body". Mr Bradshaw – despite not having read the crucial document – was quick to deny this claim, but things have now come to a head with choice of Joe Borg as fisheries commissioner.

In his written submission (available though this link) to the Pech committee, he makes no bones about the rôle of the new agency. It is "intended to organise the joint deployment of the means of control and inspection", he writes, in a document that would have been heavily guided by his future officials.

The word "organise" is highly revealing. Its meaning is quite clear: organise means to take charge. It is not, as Mr Bradshaw would have it, "co-ordination" or "fostering co-operation". Neither does it stop there. The Agency will, according to Joe Borg, have to approve "joint deployment plans", on the basis of "identified criteria, benchmarks, priorities and common inspection procedures". By any measure, the Agency will be calling the shots, making it what the Commission itself described as the "controller of the controllers" - the ultimate fisheries enforcement authority.

In addition to this, the Agency will have control of a new EU fisheries monitoring centre, which will use satellite monitoring to track fishing vessels in the waters of EU member states. More than likely, the satellites will be part of the EU’s Galileo and Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES) systems, giving it exclusive access to the information needed to monitor fishing vessels. The Agency, therefore, will be best positioned to direct inspection vessels, putting it in the driving seat when it comes to controlling the inspection efforts of member states.

But, according to Borg, the Agency is also considering operating its own fleet of inspection vessels, which it intends to charter and man, charging them out to member states which are willing to use them. Already, the precedent has been set for independent agencies, rather than navies, to patrol fishing grounds, with the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency operating two vessels on fisheries enforcement.

By coincidence, or so it would seem, the seven Royal Navy Island Class fisheries protection vessels are being replaced by three, larger River Class vessels but, unusually, they will not be owned by the Royal Navy. Instead, they have been chartered by the MoD for a remarkably short five years.

With the EU Agency planned to commence operations in 2006, this would rather conveniently mean that three modern patrol vessels will become available shortly after it has become established, and my suspicion is that the current government would be only too pleased to get rid of fisheries enforcement, and hand it over to the EU.

Towards the end of this decade, therefore, we may see grey-painted ships, bearing the blue flag with a ring of stars, manned by EU inspectors, patrolling out seas, guided by an Agency in Spain using EU satellites to direct operations. It is by no means fanciful, either, to suggest that the Agency will operate its own surveillance aircraft – as does the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency – and some will see in these developments an embryonic EU navy and air force.

Although this might be some time in the future, the plans are being laid on the ground, here and now, as the evidence of Commission proposals and Joe Borg’s submission testify. They are momentous changes and they are not being given the attention they deserve. It is time to start ringing alarm bells.

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