Amsterdam summit: Britain wins cautious approval on quotas

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Britain has been given cautious approval by the European Commission for measures which would restrict quota-hopping fishing boats, the Government said yesterday.

But fishermen's representatives and opposition parties were scornful of the deal, which sets the stage for further negotiations rather than bringing the controversy to an end.

The Government has abandoned its predecessor's approach of trying to get the EU's founding treaty amended to outlaw quota-hoppers - boats with foreign crews based in foreign ports which have won access to large chunks of Britain's North Sea fish quotas.

Instead, it is trying to establish that existing European law gives scope for restrictions which would ensure British fishing communities always benefited from UK fish quotas.

What Tony Blair has to show for his efforts is an exchange of letters between himself and Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, during the Amsterdam summit. The Prime Minister suggests in his letter that all fishing boats with access to UK quotas would have to land at least 50 per cent of their catches at British ports.

Alternatively, most of the crew might have to be living in Britain. A third option is that most of a boat's fishing trips would have to start from a UK port. Britain might apply a combination of these measures.

Mr Santer's reply says that Britain might be able to use the restrictions Mr Blair suggests quite legally to ensure that UK fish quotas brought economic benefits to British communities.

The former fisheries minister, Tony Baldry, questioned whether the letters could be binding on anyone, while a spokesman for the National Federation of Fishermans' Organisations said: "I think that the deal will leave access to important UK quotas in the hands of the quota-hoppers."

But Mr Blair told the Commons yesterday: "It discourages further quota- hoppers and it also means that those who are engaged in quota hopping are considerably impeded."

Details of the arrangement were not released in Amsterdam for fear of upsetting the Spanish delegates. Most of the quota-hopping boats are controlled from Spain.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said the letters now set the stage for months of negotiation between Britain, the Commission and other states.

Officials close to Emma Bonino, the fisheries commissioner, denied yesterday that the letters represented any new "deal". She was reported to be angry with Mr Santer for going along with the move.

And by playing up the idea of a secret Brussels-London deal, the Government had risked angering Spain, just as a harmonious solution had seemed possible next month.

But British officials reject Ms Bonino's criticisms, saying that the Spanish have shown no intention of compromising.

Jospin's weakness, page 12