Sarkozy promises French fleets he will loosen EU fishing curbs

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The Independent Online

President Nicolas Sarkozy has blown up a storm in the troubled waters of European fishing policy by promising to push for the abolition – or weakening – of national catch limits, or quotas.

In comments to French trawlermen in Boulogne-sur-Mer, M. Sarkozy said it was time to "get out of" the quota system which has ruled EU fisheries policy since it was created 25 years ago. He suggested that France would grab the "opportunity" to change the system when it takes over the presidency of the European Union in the second half of this year.

M.Sarkozy's comments – dismissed by opposition politicians and some French newspapers as "demagoguery" – were heavily modified yesterday by his Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, Michel Barnier. He said that France did not want to scrap national catch quotas but to "improve" them by fixing the limits for several years, instead of 12 months.

EU officials and British fishermen's leaders complained yesterday that M. Sarkozy's comments were "crowd-pleasing" rather than helpful. They said that EU quotas, although often criticised, were essential for the management of threatened fish stocks and to organise a fair division of catches between national fishing fleets.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, said: "This is the kind of hasty thing politicians say on the dockside to please fishermen. It bears no relation to the practical changes needed to improve the Common Fisheries Policy."

Brussels officials were also puzzled by M. Barnier's more moderate-sounding remarks. They pointed out that the EU had already moved to a system of "multi-annual" quotas for relatively flourishing species of fish. For more threatened species, such as cod and haddock, annual limits based on changing scientific advice were still essential, they said.

The French fishing industry has been hard hit by high fuel prices and reduced catches. M. Sarkozy's remarks were intended to address the dissatisfaction of French trawlermen with the quota system.

The Common Fisheries Policy, agreed in 1983, allocates the "total allowable catch" in each zone of EU waters to national fleets, according to historic fishing patterns. Haddock and sole are relatively abundant close to France. For other sought-after species, such as cod and whiting, fishing grounds close to the French coast have been exhausted for decades.

Trawlers from ports such as Boulogne therefore rely on their, comparatively small, EU quotas in distant waters off western Ireland, northern Britain, the Faeroes and Norway. As fish stocks have dwindled and the overall catch has been slashed, French fishermen have become increasingly dissatisfied with their Atlantic and North Sea quotas.

It would therefore be in France's interest to abandon the quota system or "knock it flat" as M. Sarkozy promised in Boulogne. Other countries, especially Britain and Ireland, would, however, strongly oppose any attempt to increase the French fishing effort at the expense of their own fleets.

"Everyone would like higher quotas but there is only one cake to divide," said Mr Armstrong.

The quota system has been criticised for failing to prevent a reduction of fish stocks and for forcing trawlermen to throw back – and waste – fish that they catch by accident. But British officials and fishing industry leaders argue that quotas should remain the basis for an improved Common Fisheries Policy.

French Socialist politicians accused M. Sarkozy of making promises that he knew could not be kept in an attempt to "trawl" votes for the municipal elections in March. The newspaper Le Monde berated M. Sarkozy for claiming to be a pro-European president but stooping to "demagoguery" on European issues, from farming to the euro and now fisheries.

"The tactics are age-old," said Le Monde. "Electoralism at home. A more technocratic approach in Brussels."