Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The bunfight starts

Flagged up in our earlier posting, the annual bunfight on fishing is under way in Brussels, with the fisheries ministers of the 25 EU member states meeting to doll out the fish quotas for the forthcoming year.

The hot item on the agenda was a commission proposal to close down 20 percent of the North Sea, with similar closures in the Irish Sea, in pursuit of Franz Fischler’s (the outgoing fisheries commissioner) obsession with protecting the cod stocks.

Early reports of the proceedings, however, indicate that this draconian proposal has been deep sixed in what has been described as a "surprise climbdown" by the commission, now headed by the Maltese Joe Borg.

This will come as a pleasant relief to fisheries minister Ben "Rear Admiral" Bradshaw and his Scottish counterpart Ross Finnie, who will have something with which to go home and claim as "a victory for British fishermen" - something of a ritual outcome for fisheries meetings.

Experienced EU watcher, however, will know to hold off their celebrations until they have seen the small print, as what so often looks like good news turns out to be the opposite once the detail comes in.

At the moment, ministers are haggling over an alternative proposal – a reduction in the number of permitted fishing days at sea from the current 15 a month to 13 – which Bradshaw and Finnie are also supposed to be fighting.

This sort of thing is also wearily familiar, where British ministers get the headlines they want, and then go through ritual haggling over the detail, only to cave in as the talks run into the wee small hours, and the commission gets its way.

If days at sea a cut back, fishermen - who are looking for extra haddock quota in the North Sea, may find they are allocated the fish but are not given enough time in which to catch it, making the concession an empty gesture. Furthermore, whole new rafts of obscure "red tape" are proposed, all of which will make fishing more difficult.

But the detail is so often swamped by the headline and after the media caravan packs its tent, no one reports the anguish of the fishermen in the early days of January, when they realise they have been shafted yet again.

So far, then, the annual bunfight is running true to form and we wait only to find out not whether our fishermen have been betrayed, but how exactly it will be done this time round.

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