Election '97: Major refuses Europe's fish cuts

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The Independent Online
Britain will ignore yesterday's European Union vote for deep cuts in fishing catches until the problem of quota-hopping is been resolved, John Major said yesterday.

''I have not a shred of intention of cutting the British catch unless and until we have a satisfactory agreement on quota-hopping,'' said Mr Major, minutes after EU fisheries ministers voted 13-2 for cuts of up to in fishing effort to save threatened stocks.

He repeated that Britain under the Tories would block agreement at the final Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) talks in Amsterdam in June if its dispute over foreign quota-hopping vessels was not resolved.

The Labour leader, Tony Blair countered the Prime Minister's attack on the Luxemburg vote saying: ''A Labour government would get a better deal for the British fishing industry. In my view Mickey Mouse would get a better deal than this lot."

Gavin Strang, Labour's agricultural spokesman, said: ''We don't rule out refusing to agree the conclusions of the IGC if these conclusions do not address the quota-hopping problem."

Mr Major said: ''It is not right for this country to move down a more centralist European route with more decisions taken in Brussels, perhaps against the interests and instincts of the British by the Qualified Majority Voting of our partners. That is not on offer from the British at the IGC.''

British fishing leaders challenged Mr Blair to commit Labour to blocking the IGC talks on the future of Europe unless Britain's EU partners agree to outlaw quota hopping.

Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Association of Fishermen's Organisations, said: ''The Conservatives say they will block the IGC and obviously with the possibility of an incoming Labour government we want the same level of commitment.''

Alec Smith, of the Scottish White Fish Producers' organisation, said: ''This issue is serious enough to alter votes in the election. We are facing a major problem and I would say that without a commitment from Labour every bit as strong as the one we have today received from the Conservatives then vote for the Tories''.

Tony Baldry, the fisheries minister, was outvoted when a majority of EU ministers backed conservation plans requiring cuts of up to 30 per cent in fleets fishing the most endangered species. Although he took part in the discussions and, according to the Dutch EU presidency, did not make any reference to quota-hopping during a morning of negotiations, he emerged to declare the outcome was ''irrelevant'' to Britain. ''The UK is simply not prepared to contemplate any further cuts in the fishing fleet until the issue of quota hopping is resolved,'' he said.

His defiance could leave Britain open to prosecution in the European Court. Emma Bonino, the EU fisheries commissioner, said she had always taken the UK to be a law-abiding nation. "We have taken a decision now, I expect Britain to comply with it".