Major has been fishing in troubled waters

The government could end up in the absurd position of having bought itself a nationalised fleet at an inflated price

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There he stands, plucky little fellow. No pasarn! John Major cries. The armada of filthy, thieving Spanish fishing boats, stealing our fish and our fishing quotas, shall not pass! British hearts of oak and jolly tars shall rule the European waves - even if there is no fish left in them. Hurray!

In defiance of the European ministers' decision to cut all fishing by 30 per cent, to try to save endangered fish and rescue the long-term prospects for the entire European fishing industry, the Prime Minister announced that he would break the law: "I have not a shred of intention of cutting the British catch unless and until we have a satisfactory agreement on quota-hopping." (It was embarrassingly revealed that, at the crucial ministers' meeting, the British minister had failed to speak up at all on the subject.)

But how did we, uniquely among European countries, come to sell our precious fishing quota licences to foreigners in the first place?

This is yet another story of the British government blaming its own incompetence and folly on Brussels. Major's bluster on fishing is the BSE story all over again, a paradigm of the dishonesty with which this government has treated Europe and misled the British electorate about the nature of the European Union and the part we play in it.

This is the true story of fishing quotas. Trying to preserve fish stocks, the EU gave each country a fishing quota and a target for reducing the size of its fishing fleet. The EU offered an incentive to any fishermen wanting to get out of the business, promising to buy up their boats and compensate them, paying 70 per cent of the cost, with each country making up the difference.

But, until 1992, Britain refused to pay up that 30 per cent to retiring captains, even though it meant forgoing the 70 per cent EU grant. It was the kind of short-sighted, short-termist meanness that has characterised so much of government in the last 18 years. In keeping with its free-market ideology, Britain allowed the market to rip, and captains to sell their boats and quotas to the highest bidders, often from abroad. All the other countries made full use of the EU compensation scheme, forking out the 30 per cent and so virtually none of their quotas were sold abroad. So how, all of a sudden, is Brussels to blame for British fishermen's lost quotas?

But what, exactly, is Major proposing? If we bought back the quotas sold abroad we would have to offer well above the current market price to persuade foreign owners to sell. And we would have to offer the same high price to any British fishermen too, so there might be a stampede to sell. The British government would end up in the absurd position of having bought itself a nationalised fishing fleet at an astronomical price.

The fishermen are naturally outraged at the prospect of any cuts - but their anger has been misdirected at Brussels, with much deft encouragement from the Euro-sceptics. Remember the bizarre sight of canary-clad Teresa Gorman on a Cornish trawler? In fact there are virtually the same number of British fishermen as there were 20 years ago, and the same tonnage of British-owned ships. (Astonishingly, we allowed the number of fishing boats to increase in the late Eighties, despite EU conservation policy.) But not so the fish. They are dying out, and no one doubts that there is a crisis. In the last 30 years the amount of cod in the North Sea has come down by two-thirds, plaice by half, and haddock by three-quarters.

John Major's last stand on his fish box is all empty gesture. But can Labour do any better? Yesterday in public they echoed the same sentiments: they may refuse to ratify the forthcoming IGC until quota-hopping is addressed. But Gavin Strang, Labour's spokesman, sounded more emollient: "We are hoping that there will be a lot of goodwill, a whole new relationship with Europe." He talks of approaching Europe with the problem and asking for help, a positive attitude in a changed climate of relations. After all, it is not Labour's fault that Britain has sold so much of its quota. For the EU to put up money to buy it back would be generous indeed - but Labour's amicable attitude may achieve more than Tory sabre-rattling. At least they start with a clean slate, after the years of atrocious British behaviour.

The story of fish stands as another exemplar of our catastrophic European past. As with so much European policy, whether or not we belonged to the EU we would still have to make international agreements about fishing rights and fish conservation. Fish know no territorial limits, so one country's self-restraint is destroyed by another's overfishing. National greed, especially in conservation and pollution, can be overcome only by international agreement.

John Major's leaky policy ship was bound to be holed by the Euro-sceptic U-boats during the election. Some 200 of his mutinous crew are firing anti-European salvos in their local election campaigns in a frantic last bid for the lifeboats, even if they sink their ship. Precious few politicians of any party are making the pro-European case. And so we have an electorate grown frighteningly anti-European out of fear and ignorance.

The Europhobes fill the voters' ears with poison about the things Brussels makes us do or stops us doing - the regulations and the red tape. But we hear little of how those same fair-trade regulations work in our favour.

Just a few recent examples: EU judgements forced the Italians to give up a luxury car tax designed to drive out British Jaguar. The Greeks were forced to let in British drinks, the Spanish our chewing gum, the Germans and Dutch our car wheels; Orly airport was forced to allow BA flights, France to license British ski instructors, and everyone to open public works contracts to British companies.

EU pettifogging, nit-picking regulations that undermine national sovereignty are the stuff of free trade, if free trade is what you want. If not, then everyone else will design their own pettifogging, nit-picking regulations to ensure that Britain is excluded from trade with them. Amid myths about straight bananas and fishermen's hairnets, the essential purpose and nature of the European Union eludes a British electorate that has been uniquely misinformed and misled by cowardly politicians.

It is too much to expect Labour in mid-election to blow the European trumpet. We can only hope that afterwards they will begin the gradual process of introducing the British to the benefits of co-operation, instead of hostile confrontation. Fish will be Labour's first test of whether their gentler approach yields richer rewards.

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