Small fish, big bite

Profile; Emma Bonino; John Lichfield on the radical Italian who could put the Government on the line
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The Independent Online
How many European commissioners can you name? Our own Neil Kinnock and Leon Brittan. There's that chap who is President, Jacques something but not Delors any more. Then there's that grim-looking German (or is he an Austrian?) who has tried to referee the beef war. Oh yes, and that tiny, feisty Italian woman who gave as good as she got when she visited the fish quays in Cornwall. What's her name?

Her name is Emma Bonino. And you will be hearing much more from her. In Brussels she holds the eclectic portfolio of fisheries, consumer affairs and humanitarian aid. She could be summed up as the European commissioner for loaves and fishes. In Britain she is mostly known for the fishes.

Fish is one of the chosen battlegrounds of the British Eurosceptics in the run-up to the UK general elections. The European fisheries policy will be the subject of an artificially acrimonious debate in the House of Commons this month. Depending on special arrangements being made for Northern Ireland fishermen, it could even be the issue that forces an early election.

On the topic that self-consciously enrages Eurosceptics - "quota hopping" - Ms Bonino has become a principal hate figure for the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph (which wittily called her the Eva Peron of the Halibut).

More of that later. First, who is Emma Bonino? How does a five- foot- nothing, blue-eyed, fair-haired, radical politician from north of Turin - an outsider for most of her life - come to be in charge of all Europe's fish?

The adjective most often used of the Commission is faceless. The words are chained together in some British newspapers like evil and murderer or busty and blonde. The faceless Eurocrats of Brussels. Emma Bonino has done as much as anyone in the last two years to give the Commission a face.

She was the first fisheries commissioner to be helicoptered aboard a fisheries protection vessel at sea; and the first to face irate British fisherman on the quays of Peterhead and Newlyn.

In Somalia last April her convoy was ambushed and had to shoot its way to safety. Afterwards she admitted that she had been terrified, not by the shooting but by the fact that her driver was doing 100mph while admiring the fighting in his rear-view mirror. This winter she made headlines again by hammering the international community (in retrospect, wrongly so) for its slow response to the refugee crisis in Rwanda. In language seldom heard from Brussels, she accused the West, in effect, of racism.

Emma Bonino is the most approachable and readily interviewable of commissioners. Her frequent excursions into the media have, it is whispered, irritated less articulate colleagues. Her secret - or part of it - is that she has presence without pomposity. It has been more usual for commissioners past, especially Italian commissioners, to have pomposity without presence.

She sits in her huge office, like a chain-smoking elf, surrounded by souvenirs from her old Italian political campaigns and, incongruously, a model of a trawler. Has she consciously set out to disturb the staid image of the Commission?

"No, no, no. My approach is not something I've invented for this job. It comes from the kind of upbringing I've had in politics. It comes from belonging to a small party in Italy, surrounded by the large, entrenched parties of the establishment. And now everyone knows just how entrenched and corrupt that establishment was. To make ourselves heard, we had to make our message vivid, we had to be aware of the dangers of separating ourselves too far from the people we were addressing. This was not a question of choice, but a question of survival."

Born into a poor farming family 48 years ago, Emma Bonino got into politics by getting pregnant, at the age of 28. She chose to have an abortion, then widespread but illegal in Italy. To draw attention to this "ipocrisia" and to the squalid conditions of underground operations, she had a very public abortion. She was sent to jail; went on hunger strike; helped to get the law changed. She joined the small Radical Party and campaigned, again successfully, for the introduction of a divorce law (for which the Pope in person declared her a "witch").

She became fisheries commissioner in 1995 by a double accident. The abrupt collapse of the corrupt Italian political establishment left Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with few acceptable choices to fill Italy's second post in the EU executive in Brussels. When he contacted Ms Bonino to offer the job, she was standing outside the UN in New York, wearing a sandwich-board, protesting against international aid policies. The fisheries post had been promised to Norway. When Norway decided not to join the EU, it was tossed into Ms Bonino's portfolio. She cheerfully admits that she knew little about fish, not even how to cook it.

"But many people here know the details. And I can learn quickly. My job is to provide the political drive and to listen. My political training has been useful ... all institutions tend to become preoccupied with their internal life, their priorities and jargon and lose touch with the people they are serving."

None the less, it seems odd that a woman who has spent her whole life fighting regulation of one kind or another should be running a policy as full of regulations, some sensible, some daft, some successful and some disastrous, as the Common Fisheries Policy.

"Yes, it is strange," she nods. "But there is a difference between my image and my ideals. I am not an anarchist. I am a liberal. My basic social philosophy is this: if there is no victim, there is no crime. (She has annoyed EU governments by calling for this approach to be applied to drugs, both soft and hard, which she believes should be decriminalised.) But I do not deny the need for proper regulation and for sensible government ... and I am a passionate European. I believe there are many things that we can do best, or can only do, together as Europeans."

Commissioner Bonino works a 16-hour day and a six-day week. They blame the intensity of her efforts in the last two years for the fainting fit that overcame her after an all-night fisheries council last month. Ms Bonino blames Brussels: the city, not the institution.

She misses her terrace in Rome where she used to have breakfast surrounded by flowers. In Brussels, she still has breakfast on the terrace, but under an umbrella and all she can grow is geraniums.

"Brussels is a city for work. There are no temptations here. In Rome, you might go out for lunch and one thing would lead to another and you'd be away most of the afternoon. In Brussels, you send out for a sandwich, and eat it in your office, and that's your life."

And so to fish, which she believes are a classic case for regulation and European action: "There are too many boats and too few fish. There are only two choices. One, the classic free market choice, abolish all regulation. The fish stocks would be wiped out within a decade. Alternatively, some form of regulatory system which protects stocks and allocates them fairly..."

Revert to national policies? This is an illusion, she says. Fish don't carry passports. They migrate through all European waters. It's no use protecting them off the British coast if they are massacred off the Netherlands. There never has been a 200-mile British limit. Before the Common Fisheries Policy was created in 1983, the British limit was 12 miles. This zone is still, with a few local exceptions, reserved for UK fishermen. To go to a 200-mile UK limit, as the Europhobes demand, would throw continental fishermen out of fishing grounds they have used for centuries.

All of which, she admits, is a different kettle of fish from claiming that the CFP has been a great success. It promised stable, even increasing, stocks for all countries and has failed abjectly. Why?

First, poor enforcement by national governments. Ms Bonino has only 18 inspectors of her own. No government, and certainly not the UK, is ready to accept a stronger European fish police. Second, the catching power of boats, with sonar shoal finders, light nets and powerful engines, has outstripped attempts to reduce fleet sizes. Third, governments have insisted year after year on exceeding catch limits recommended by scientists.

Commissioner Bonino is calling for a complete reappraisal of EU fisheries before 2002 when the CFP comes up for renewal. She is sending questionnaires to every fisherman's organisation, every fish processor, to canvass views on how the policy could work better. Nothing should be sacred, she says. "If anyone can come up with a better idea, we will look at it."

What, though, of the specific British problem with quota-hopping? It could be solved with goodwill, she says. But the problem arose as much from British government policy as Brussels rules. Many British boats were sold to the Spanish and Dutch when the UK government failed to take up EU grants for scrapping older boats. The fact that quota rights could be bought with the boats resulted from British, not EU, policy. Ways can be found of limiting quota-hopping but any restrictions placed on foreign-owned British boats will also apply to British-owned British boats.

What of the wider questions of Britain and Europe? Ms Bonino says she was brought up with notions of British phlegm and fair play. After first defending EU fish policy on the BBC, she was stunned to find her mail- bag crammed with hate-mail from the UK. Now she has grown used to it.

"My fear is that Europhobia in Britain has gone too far. The debate in Britain has been hijacked by people who assume the worst about the EU. Even on the BBC sometimes, you have the sense that the phrasing of the questions - why is Brussels imposing this on us? - accepts the basic Eurosceptic agenda. Whether there will be a change with the British election, I don't know ... I have my fears."