EU axe is poised over fish catches

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Tony Blair's problems over Europe will deepen today with a European Commission demand for massive cuts in fish catches which, it was claimed last night, will have "disastrous" consequences for thousands of British fishermen and lead to price increases for consumers.

Tony Blair's problems over Europe will deepen today with a European Commission demand for massive cuts in fish catches which, it was claimed last night, will have "disastrous" consequences for thousands of British fishermen and lead to price increases for consumers.

With farmers protesting about the French refusal to lift the beef ban, the Prime Minister now faces the anger of Britain's fishing fleet over the Commission proposals, which could mean an end to all fishing for cod in the Irish Sea.

Fisheries leaders warned it would be "disastrous" and called on British ministers to today oppose a proposed 70 per cent reduction in cod catches in the North Sea at a European Council of Ministers.

A Sea Fisheries Association official said: "The scientists were saying it would be a 50 per cent cut. There will be severe problems for fishing communities if this goes through,"

Tim Yeo, the Conservative spokesman on agriculture, said: "If this is permitted, it will be a fresh example of weakness by Nick Brown and Elliot Morley [the agriculture ministers] and proof of their continued failure to stand up for British interests."

Mr Blair has consistently refused to take the euro-sceptic approach advocated by William Hague, but the double blows to farmers and fishermen could make it more difficult for the Prime Minister to sustain his policy of protecting British interests through co-operation in Europe.

The latest move follows a difficult Helsinki summit, at which Mr Blair was isolated over the proposed savings tax and rebuked French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin over his failure to abide by EU laws on beef.

Elliot Morley, the Fisheries minister, last night held crisis talks with fisheries leaders in London to thrash out a compromise position to take to the talks in Brussels today. Also at last night's meeting were Brid Rodgers, the spokesman on agriculture and fisheries in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and John Home Robertson, the Scottish minister. Mr Morley will seek a recovery plan, but ministers support conservation measures to protect the long-term livelihoods of fishermen, said a source.

David Armstrong, head of the fisheries unit at the European Commission, blamed the massive scale of the cuts in the Irish Sea on ministers' refusal to act earlier. "In the Irish Sea," he said, "ministers were unable to accept proposals for reduced total allowable catches put out by the Commission for many years. We are now reaping the result of the inability to get in place decent measures at a earlier stage."

Today's fisheries meeting in Brussels will set the total allowable catches for a range of species in different waters.

"Scientific advice clearly indicated that some of our most important fish stock are in poor shape and its is inevitable there must be cuts in quotas," said Mr Morley.

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