LEADING ARTICLE:A fishy triumph for Britain

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The Independent Online
Yesterday's decision to let Spanish fishermen sue Britain for banning them from our fishing grounds looks like nonsense. The ruling, from the European Court of Justice, means that Britain cannot in practice protect the fishing quotas allotted to British fishermen. Fleets from other countries, notably the Spanish, are free to register themselves here and then fish against the British quota.

The quota system, established under the Common Fisheries' Policy, has been made to look absurd. This is bad news for the British fishing industry, which is already much diminished by the small size of the quota available to this country. Ministers must now agree quickly at a European level to close the loophole that the Spanish fleets have so deftly exploited.

But before joining the Eurosceptic rant against the European Court and all its works, it is worth examining this judgment. The principle upheld by yesterday's ruling, far from representing a British defeat, is a victory for the ideals of free trade. The creation of a single market has been Britain's main aim within the European Union. The Government has fought for British business to be allowed to operate anywhere in the EU, on the terms enjoyed by indigenous competitors. The 1992 Maastricht treaty reflected British thinking when it gave the European Court powers to outlaw protectionism imposed by member states.

This is precisely what the court did yesterday, when it opened the way for Spanish fishermen to claim compensation for the British ban on their entering this market. In another judgment, it ruled against German attempts to keep foreign beers out of its markets. Fishing quotas, allotted according to nationality, should now be exempted from these single market rules: otherwise the quota system becomes meaningless. But once that is done, Britain should celebrate, rather than bemoan, the European Court's robust attitude towards stamping out protectionism in the European Union.