Britain gains tactical point in Fish War: French give assurance that exports will be protected

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Indy Politics
BRITAIN won a tactical victory in the Fish War yesterday, gaining assurances from the French authorities that British exports will be protected. But last night European ministers were still fumbling for a solution to the problem of plummeting prices, which is at the root of the unrest.

David Curry, the fisheries minister, said that he had won promises of firm action from Charles Josselin, his French opposite number, to safeguard exports of fish. But he admitted that commando-style raids on supermarkets were difficult to predict or stop, and that it was impossible to patrol 'every kilometre of road'.

'He gave all the assurances he was able to give,' Mr Curry said. At the moment, a complex chain of communication links lorry-drivers and the Foreign Office in London, the Embassy in Paris, the French Interior Ministry and local prefectures. It has not been enough to prevent some violent attacks, and lorry drivers have complained of inadequate protection. 'I understand their problems,' Mr Curry said. But there had been 'a steady improvement in the security situation'.

French fishermen warned that they were set on further protests unless the fisheries ministers, meeting in Brussels, came up with a solution to tumbling prices.

A small column of fishermen arrived in Brussels to bring their fight to the top, and they protested meekly outside the Council of Ministers building. But 36 were arrested before they arrived after being found with flares and other devices. The violence of the attacks they have launched, from which one French policeman is not expected to recover, is a testament to their desperation in the face of price falls as large as 40 per cent in a matter of months.

Mr Curry said he believed that the right answer to the current crisis lay in tighter enforcement of the existing rules on minimum import prices, rather than blocking imports. 'We are in the business of trying to halt abuse (of the rules) rather than trying to halt the actual arrival (of fish),' he argued. The system could be extended to new species of fish, and hygiene rules could be applied more tightly, he added. This was the framework around which the ministers built their agreement yesterday.

The minister warned both Denmark and Germany that fish was coming in through their ports and undermining the rules. 'We need to make sure that we get a handle on the boats slipping into small creeks and the cargoes disappearing into the night,' he said.

The violent protests by the French, directed against imports, have given the impression of another cross-Channel spat. But the Fish War is not really a conflict between countries: it is between the fishermen and governments on the one hand, and the market on the other.

Britain has emphasised that it must ensure the security of the processing industry, far more important for British jobs than the fishing industry itself. It has also said that it does not want to block imports, since this might compromise international rules and upset other countries. Nor does it want further increases in the minimum import prices, which it argues would only worsen the problem. 'If the existing system is enforced, we will be sending a signal to the market,' Mr Curry argued. But one of the fisherman was cynical about this. 'The market is the problem,' he said.