The surf and turf solution

Deals on fish quotas and beef could herald a breakthrough in Europe
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The Independent Online
The European Commission will today offer Britain an outline deal to solve the problem of fish quota-hopping, opening the way for the most important political breakthrough yet in the new Government's relations with Europe.

Government sources also hope that a deal can be reached by the summer to end the ban on some UK beef exports. While there is extreme caution on beef, because expectations have so often been raised and dashed before - not least by John Major after last year's Florence summit - it is now hoped that a start can at long last be made with beef exports from Northern Ireland.

Emma Bonino, the fisheries commissioner, is to hold talks in Brussels today with Jack Cunningham, the Secretary of State for Agriculture, and Elliot Morley, fisheries minister, and will propose ways of limiting the number of quota-hoppers.

The offer of a deal on quota-hopping could help smooth the way to a deal wider negotiations on European Union reform, which come to a head this week, as concerted attempts are made to finalise the Amsterdam treaty, to be signed next month.

Today Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, holds his first meeting with European partners, in The Hague, to discuss the treaty, and, on Friday, Tony Blair meets European heads of government for a mini-summit in the Dutch town of Noordwijk.

According to Commission sources in Brussels, the proposals on quota-hopping centre on ways of ensuring that boat owners, with a license to fish the British quota, must have a connection with a local port or region. About 150 large UK fishing vessels are Spanish and Dutch-owned and crewed, having been bought, often many years ago, from British fishermen. Mrs Bonino is expected to suggest arrangements under which every boat should land a certain amount of fish at a British port.

The offer is also expected to propose that a proportion of the crew should speak fluent English. Other proposals for linking boats to a British locality will also be discussed.

If accepted the deal could mean that a significant number of quota licenses and boats held by Spanish and Dutch fishermen go back to British fishermen. In return, Ms Bonino hopes that the Government will agree to enforce cuts in fish stocks by up to 30 per cent, the level set in the latest EU-wide conservation plan.

There were indications yesterday that Mr Cunningham and Mr Morley will look favourably on the Commission offer. "We will examine all suggestions with interest," said a fisheries spokesman.

Commission officials say hopes of a deal are high, due to the new reasonable tone being adopted by Labour ministers on the fishing question, and on Europe in general.

However, it remains unclear whether the Commission offer will go far enough for the Government to accept immediately. Britain may still have to seek a change in EU law, during the Amsterdam treaty negotiations, to ensure the proposed restrictions on foreign fishermen cannot be overturned by the European Court as a breach of EU rules on free movement of people and capital.

Hostilities over quota hopping during the previous Conservative Government caused as much damage to Britain's relations with Europe as the beef war. Mr Major threatened to veto the Amsterdam treaty unless the entire practice of quota hopping was made illegal. under EU law.

Since taking office Labour has adopted an entirely new approach, dropping the threat to veto the Amsterdam treaty and saying the problems of quota- hopping were exacerbated by the actions of the previous government, which restricted British fishermen from claiming generous subsidies from Brussels to pay- off old vessels.

The European Commission has always accepted the fact that foreign vessels can take up to 46 per cent of the British quota of species such as hake and plaice makes a nonsense of the EU policy of national fish quotas.

A solution to the BSE-related beef ban, as well as fisheries, would create an enormous boost to the standing of the new Government - hard evidence that new Labour goodwill can work wonders, while Mr Major's Euro-sceptic approach jammed the works. One well-placed Government source has told The Independent it is possible that the logjam could be broken as soon as next month, with Northern Ireland providing the first link in a chain reaction that could then move on to take in some Scottish herds.

While that was always expected to be the case, because of Ulster's computerised system of tracking its cattle, the breakthrough had not been on the table when the Conservatives left office earlier this month.

That is what is now being sought by Mr Cunningham, and Labour sources are hopeful of making that breakthrough by the time the Commons breaks for the summer.

Honeymoon is over, page 13