Election '97: Tories get tough with EU fishermen

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister will today harden the Tories' policy on Europe by warning European partners that he will block the Intergovernmental conference unless a deal is reached to stop EU fishing fleets plundering British fish stocks.

Tony Baldry, the fisheries minister, will warn his European counterparts that Britain will block progress unless agreement is reached to stop other fleets, led by the Spanish, from using quotas purchased from British trawler owners to take more of the British catch.

John Major will reinforce his readiness to veto progress on the IGC unless there is a deal to stop so-called "quota-hop-ping" when he visits a fishing port in the West Country today. The sabre-rattling follows the defeat for Britain in the Euro- pean Court of Justice to ban quota-hopping.

Conservative Party strategists believe a stand on fisheries policy at the IGC in Amsterdam in June will help to fight off the Liberal Democrat challenge for key marginal Tory seats in the South West, and will also provide a weapon to attack both Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair. Mr Major is making a virtue of his readiness to be isolated in Europe in his election campaign.

The tougher line was emphasised last night by Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind who said: "The IGC will not come to a successful conclusion unless we are satisfied that among our other objectives the problem of quota- hopping is resolved satisfactorily."

The threat to hold up progress at the IGC until a deal on quota-hopping was reached was seen as a gaffe by the Labour Party and caught out the Tories' own research department. Michael Portillo, a leading Euro-sceptic in the Cabinet, said on Channel Four's A Week in Politics: "Our partners must expect that we will go to that conference prepared to veto unless we get a change on quota-hopping."

A Tory briefing sent to Mr Portillo and leaked to Labour, said: "Contrary to the impression given on Week in Politics [it is] not government policy to block the IGC if [there is] no agreement on quota-hoppin g."

But senior Tory sources confirmed last night that it was now Tory policy to veto progress, and that Mr Portillo had anticipated the hardening of the approach. "The briefing note was sent by a very junior researcher," said the Tory source.

Mr Baldry said at the weekend: "We have made it clear that a solution on quota-hopping has to be found before we will allow the IGC to conclude.

"I am going to Luxembourg to negotiate the best deal for the future of the British fishing industry and stand up for our interests in Europe. This is something Labour are incapable of doing. Robin Cook has made it clear that Labour would not be prepared to veto the IGC over a key issue like quota-hopping."

The hardening of the Gov-ernment's policy will be wel-comed by Euro- sceptic Tory candidates who have been given carte blanche by the Tory leadership to fight the election on personal manifestos ruling out the single European currency.