Britain's fishy role in the quota-hopping scandal

Foreign vessels are legally taking a large chunk of the UK's fishing quota. But it is our own government's double-think and double-talk that is to blame rather than the minefield of EU rules, says John Lichfield
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The Independent Online
Take a typical fishermen's tale of claim and counter-claim, disputed figures and outright distortions. Add a rich tartar sauce of Euro-phobia. You have a bouillabaisse of a row on fishing quotas, cuts in the British trawler fleet and, most of all, "quota-hoppers" - Spanish and Dutch boats flying British flags and catching part of the EU fish stocks allocated to Britain.

Hostilities resumed, briefly, this week. They will be rejoined in earnest when EU fisheries ministers meet again in April.

The ministers agreed in the early hours of yesterday on catch quotas for next year, which despite scientific recommendation for steep cuts are only a little below this year's figures. But this was just a skirmish; the real battles lie ahead.

The Government is still blocking agreement on re-structuring (ie, reducing) all EU fishing fleets. It is refusing to agree any of the wider EU treaty reforms under discussion in the Inter-Governmental Conference unless "quota- hopping" is declared unconstitutional under European law.

Arcane as it sounds to the urban, chattering and non-seafaring classes, fish may replace mad cow disease, and rival the single currency, as the main Euro-battleground in the run-up to the general election. It is also one Euro-dispute in which Labour says it will be just as tough as the Tories if Tony Blair wins in the spring.

Who is right and who is wrong? Does it matter?

On the face of it, Britain has a good case. It is an undisputed fact that 150 large UK fishing vessels, about a fifth of the tonnage of the British fleet, are Spanish- and Dutch-owned and crewed. They deliver their catches direct to Spain or Holland or land their fish at British ports for shipment by freezer truck to their home countries. The vessels carry British flags and British fishing licences, so their catches are counted against the British quota.

Manifestly unfair? The British Government (having for many years defended, and even encouraged, the practice) decided in 1988 that it was unacceptable. It passed a law requiring three-quarters of the shareholders of British trawler-owning companies to be British. Three years later, the law was quashed by the European Court as contrary to EU rules on freedom of movement of people and capital.

This was inevitable; it was a manifestly discriminatory piece of legislation. Even British officials admit in private that it was a clumsy law. On the other hand, the fact that foreign vessels (in all but flag) can take up to 46 per cent of the British quota of valuable species, such as plaice and hake, makes a manifest nonsense of the 13-year-old EU policy of splitting fish catches into national quotas.

The European Court ruling produced choreographed outrage on the part of Euro-sceptic newspapers, and politicians and government ministers who had never previously exhibited much interest in fishermen or fishing ports. The Spanish were "pirates" who were "plundering" our fish. The outrage doubled and trebled when the EU Commission announced last summer that it wanted Britain to cut its fishing fleet by 40 per cent over seven years (and other EU fleets to make similar cuts) to protect threatened fish stocks. The EU, said the Euro-sceptics, was threatening to destroy what remained of a British fishing industry, already "decimated" by the EU fisheries policy.

In fact, the British fishing fleet has not been damaged by the Common Fisheries Policy. The middle-distance and inshore fleets, which are covered by the EU policy, increased in size for most of the Eighties and have started to decline rapidly only in the past few years (when fish stocks all over the world have been under severe pressure). If you exclude the quota-hoppers from the UK figures, the decline is steeper. But the economics of fish is local and variable. Some British ports and some types of vessel have done very well indeed. Huge sums are being paid by British fishermen at this moment, for new super-trawlers.

The demise of the huge trawler ports, such as Hull, Grimsby and Lowestoft, often blamed on Brussels, was caused by the Icelandic and Norwegian cod wars of the Sixties and Seventies. Those two nations extended their fisheries limits to 12, then 50, then 200 miles, ejecting our traditional, long- distance trawler fleets from once-rich hunting grounds for cod and haddock. This had nothing to do with the EU. Euro-sceptics who argue that Britain should join the Icelanders and declare our own 200-mile limit are arguing, in effect, for withdrawal from the EU. It would be politically impossible to squeeze the fish paste back into the tube in any other way.

There can be no doubt that the Common Fisheries Policy has miserably failed to deliver the flourishing fish stocks it promised. Why? Poor policing by national governments; overfishing by all fleets, Britain included; the setting of quotas too high, under political pressure. (This week's quota deal is another classic example of myopia: short-term good news for the industry, at the expense of longer-term pain as stocks decline further.)

But these are arguments for a tougher and more rational fisheries policy; not for British withdrawal. In any case, the quota-hopper problem results directly from British government double-think and double-talk, rather than EU rules.

Everyone agrees that too many European boats are chasing too few fish. Britain, along with other EU states, has agreed three Europe-wide programmes to pay off fishermen and scrap their boats. But the British Government refused at first to fund its share (30 per cent) of the compensation, so for many years the scheme was not available to British fishermen.

Why not? The Treasury blocked the scheme because it would have reduced the annual UK budget rebate from Brussels. Whatever the EU spent on paying off British boats would be deducted from the celebrated Thatcher cash- back scheme, which reduces Britain's net budget deficit with the EU. The Government preferred to spend both its money, and the EU money, in other ways. Fisheries were not a priority.

This is complex but it is vital to an understanding of quota-hoppers. In the early Eighties, there were a couple of dozen. Their numbers exploded during the decade. Why? Because British trawler owners sold their boats to the Spanish and Dutch. Or in some cases they sold them to British brokers, who sold them to the Spanish and Dutch. Why? Because they were offering the best price.

The main alternative - EU scrapping grants - were not on offer in Britain. Why were the foreign skippers so keen to buy British boats? Because under British, not EU, regulations, if you bought the boat, you also got the licence to fish and a guaranteed share of the national quota.

It is a purely British government policy to break down the national quota boat by boat, and allow the sale of quotas, in this way. Other EU governments have other ways of enforcing (or in some cases failing to enforce) the Common Fisheries Policy.

There are quota-hoppers in other EU countries, a few dozen in Ireland, some in France and Denmark. But the greatest concentration is in Britain.

Spanish and Dutch "plunderers" bought their share of the British quota in good faith, exploiting, according to your viewpoint, EU single market law, the British Government's belief that everything has a price, or a loophole in the Common Fisheries Policy. They now, reasonably enough, claim that they have an inalienable right to carry on fishing.

EU officials say that there are several ways in which Britain could make life difficult for quota-hoppers and stay within EU law. Britain could, for instance, insist that all British fishing boats must land a proportion of their annual catch (say, 30 per cent) for sale or processing at a British port. Until now, the Government has declined to do this. Why? Because many Scottish boats, in particular, like to sell their catches directly to Spain or France, where prices for some species are much higher.

Alternatively, EU officials say, the Government could introduce a law insisting that the crews of "British" fishing boats be covered by British social security and health insurance. This would drill several holes below the waterline of the economics of quota-hopping.

The Government has been reluctant to follow this up. Why? Because it would impose a new burden of regulation on British fishermen, as well as quota-hoppers. Many British fishing crews, who operate on a casual basis, would have to come fully into the social security system.

And so it goes on.

Is a solution possible? With good will, yes. But little good will exists between Britain and the EU at present. The Government appears to be changing its mind about introducing a British-boats-must-sell-some-fish-in-Britain rule. But it says that the rule should be enshrined in the EU constitution as part of the reforms of the treaties now under discussion.

This is silly, say Brussels officials. Such a law could be introduced in Britain within existing EU rules - as long as it applied to all boats, without discrimination. No treaty change is needed.

The suspicion is that the Government is no longer in the fish market for the kind of practical solutions that might help British fishermen. It is locked in a self-consciously Euro-sceptic posture, pandering to Euro-sceptic press and Tory backbenchers. The Government is right to fight for the interests of British fishermen. But, in this dispute, it has long since overfished its quota of red herring.