Furious Tories threaten fish war

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The Independent Online



Furious Conservative MPs were demanding gunboat diplomacy to protect British fishing rights after the European Court of Justice ruled that Spanish trawler owners could sue Britain for up to pounds 30m, in compensation for banning them from UK waters.

Tony Baldry, the fisheries minister, who was in Brussels, denounced the ruling as "quite crazy". But that did nothing to quell Tory Euro-sceptic MPs, including former ministers, who threatened a full-scale Commons revolt within two weeks and a fresh Government defeat.

The Government failed to defuse the row with its backbenchers, after warning that it would seek changes to the Common Fisheries Policy at the Inter-governmental conference (IGC), beginning on 29 March in Turin, in order to stop "quota hopping", which allows Spanish fishermen to buy up British quotas and ship the catches back to Spain.

The row with the Tory backbench threatens to reopen old wounds over Europe, wrecking John Major's hopes of uniting his party behind a white paper on the IGC to be published next Monday.

The Opposition, Tory rebels and Ulster Unionists are expected to vote against the white paper in the Commons, threatening a rerun of the Government defeat by two votes on the fishing issue on 19 December.

Tory Euro-sceptic MPs said Britain should follow the example of Iceland, which won protection for its waters in the "cod war" with gun boats.

John Redwood, the former cabinet minister, said Britain should be prepared to take unilateral action to protect its fishing industry.

Ian Duncan-Smith, another leading Tory Euro-sceptic, called for the use of patrol boats to enforce a fishing exclusion zone to EU trawlers in British waters. "Many of us are absolutely furious about this. The Common Fisheries Policy has not worked for conservation. It has been a disaster. The only way ahead is for national control, which will need patrolling," he said.

The Tory anger spilled over in Prime Minister's Questions, which in Mr Major's absence was taken by Michael Heseltine. Mr Major is certain to face more demands tomorrow for robust action at the IGC. Moderate Tory MPs, including David Harris, MP for St Ives, who has been working with ministers, were sceptical that the Government's action would work.

"It is not going to be easy. I cannot imagine Spain giving up now," he said.

The Prime Minister ordered concerted policy proposals to be drawn up by his Downing Street policy unit and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, following demands for action by Mr Harris after last year's vote.

Britain will be seeking to change the fishing rules to ensure Spanish trawlers offload their catches at British ports, and sell their fish in the British market, thus making British quotas potentially less attractive.

The White Paper is said to contain the proposal that where the Luxembourg court finds a member state has failed to

uphold EU law, but has done so in good faith, then it should not be liable for damages. The Government is also seeking long-term reform of the European Court, to prevent it from imposing retrospective compensation rulings. The Luxembourg-based court ruled that individuals have a right to sue for compensation for breaches of, or failures to enact, Community law, even where member states' legislatures were responsible. For the first time it set down the guidelines whichdete rmine when individuals' claims for damages should succeed. The Spanish fishermen must now pursue their claims in the British courts. But the implication to be drawn from the European Court's reasoning is that they are entitled to the money. The level of damages has also been left to the national courts to set, but they must be "commensurate with the loss, or damage, suffered", the judges said. The Government will attempt to amend fundamental European Union treaties in order to end the practice of foreign-owned and crewed boats taking Britain's fish quotas. Mr Baldry said: ''It does seem crazy that a Spanish owned, skippered and captained vessel taking its catch back to Spain can fish off our UK quota. ''These are UK fish for UK fisherman.'' Mr Baldry said he did not see how any government, including the Spanish government, could justify the current practice. ''All of us are inherently reasonable,'' he added. Elizabeth Stevenson, secretary of the Cornish Fish Producers Association, said: ''We feel very strongly about this because these Spanish boats pose a serious problem for us."