Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Whom the Gods wish to destroy...

Barely reported anywhere, and worth only a brief mention in EU Observer and The Scotsman, on Monday the EU crossed the line into a whole new area of activity which creates an important precedent in the march of European integration.

That event was the agreement by the fisheries council to establish the EU's Fisheries Control Agency, which will be based at Vigo in Spain, dubbed the world capital of illegal fishing.

The real significance of this move – which was reported at face value by those few journals that did not it – is that it represents a shift in historic division between the responsibilities of the EU commission, which traditionally makes the laws, and the member states which enforce them.

Up to now, the only area in which the commission has had a direct enforcement role is in the competition portfolio. But with the establishment of the fisheries agency comes the power of the EU to appoint its own fisheries inspectors and, in due course, operate its own fleet of vessels bearing the EU flag – a putative EU navy.

This much we reported on last year, in early September, again a few days later and then later that month.

In the Scotsman article, Ross Finnie, Scotland’s fisheries minister, is cited, welcoming the initiative. He is quoted as saying: "Creating a level playing field in fisheries enforcement across member states is to the commercial advantage of Scottish fishermen."

He adds: "We argued for, and were instrumental in securing, key reforms to the European Commission’s original proposals. These guarantee greater involvement of fisheries’ interests and ensure that operational control rests with member states."

In fact, as we pointed out in out earlier posts, the agency takes the supreme coordinating role, with the commission stating that it will "assume leadership in the deployment of means of inspection and surveillance". Effectively, the EU will be running the entire fisheries enforcement effort.

The great tragedy of this is that it opens a new chapter on one of the great scandals of the Common Fisheries Policy, where the idea of a common resource has effectively meant that member states – which no longer have control of their own waters – have walked away from effective enforcement of their own fisheries.

Only last week we reported on the growing ecological disaster developing in the deeper waters at the edge of the continental shelf to the West of Scotland and Ireland, where researchers reported that "there is little or no management of these fisheries and existing control and enforcement regulations have little or no impact. Essentially these fisheries remain totally unrestricted."

On the other hand, in today’s Daily Mail, columnist John Edwards interviews the Hasting fisherman Paul Joy, on whom Booker report at the end of January , after he had been prosecuted by Defra for exceeding his “monthly” cod quota, when the quota system did not apply to his type of small boat under EU rules.

In his piece, Edwards also interviews another fisherman, Graham Couglan who described the Gestapo as "better people to deal with" than Defra fisheries inspectors. "They put in a Royal Navy gunboat to skulk about Dungeness," he says:

Do you think it was to arrest foreign trawlers with undersize catch or protected species? Was it hell! They didn’t touch them. They were there to check us out, to interfere if possible. Nobody is fighting for us any more.
Coglan also pointed out a broken-down boat. It owners, not able to go to sea in to recover thousands of pounds-worth of nets, had borrowed a pleasure craft to go an salvage them. Unavoidably, there were fish trapped in the nets and "these bloody inspectors accused him of fishing from an unregistered boat."

Compare this intensity of supervision with the situation in the deep waters off the continental shelf, where a fleet of 50-60 Spanish vessels wreak havoc, much of it in British waters, and there is no regulatory activity at all.

This brings to mind that ancient Greek saying (attributed to Euripides c. 485-406 BC), that: "whom the Gods [wish to] destroy, they first make mad". In the commission’s case, they create chaos in existing systems in order to legitimise taking them over and replacing them with their own.

And so it has come to pass with fisheries enforcement. No one believes it will be any better but since the system is already so dire, any protests at its passing have been singularly muted.

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