The fishermen's unlikely friend?

PROFILE: EMMA BONINO; Europe's fisheries commissioner is not afraid to tell it like it is.

Related Topics
On a Sunday morning in March, a sparrow-like Italian woman ventured into the fish market at Newlyn, where Cornish fishermen were waiting to harangue her and her "European friends". The European Union flag had already been burnt on the quays to mark Emma Bonino's arrival. And Europe's commissioner for fisheries, humanitarian aid and consumer affairs was nervous, say colleagues. "We knew we were really entering the lions' den." But the commissioner had been in tough spots before - Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, to name but three. As a militant civil rights activist in Italy for many years, she has long understood the dynamics of public protest.

She tackled the fishermen in the only way she knew how - by telling it to them straight. "I can't do miracles. I can't multiply the fishes," she said. "But it is not Brussels which is to blame. You have been sold down the river by your own government."

"After she spoke, many people went quiet. I think a lot left thinking she was very switched on - that she obviously knew what she was talking about. And she listened to us, which no British minister had every done," says Nick Howell, of the Newlyn Fishmerchants Association.

Emma Bonino is rare phenomenon - she is a European Commissioner who can communicate. She is an accomplished linguist, who can present a case though force of personality and deft argument. This week, after announcing new cuts in the fishing fleet, she has been arguing with calm precision on British television in a manner that may not have convinced but must surely have impressed. One cannot help wondering whether, had Bonino been agriculture commissioner instead of Franz Fischler, the dour Austrian, the European beef ban might not have been better understood in Britain.

Since taking up the poisoned chalice of fisheries commissioner in January 1995, she has defied all the conventional wisdom about Brussels commissioners. A smart, alluring 48-year-old, she prefers the street fight to the backroom deal. She is single, and driven, apparently, solely by work. "She has energy and balls, which is more than you can say for some commissioners," said a senior official.

Born into a poor farming family in Bra, near Turin, Emma Bonino was drawn into political activism at the age of 24 when she started campaigning for legal abortion in Italy. As a student, she had become pregnant, and she chose, very publicly, to have an illegal abortion. She joined the Radical Party, an influential movement of peaceniks, human rights activists and green campaigners operating on the fringe of Italian politics.

Bonino was elected to the Italian parliament in 1976 and led a series of successful campaigns, including the liberalisation of Italian divorce laws, which provoked the Pope to call her a witch. Her style was "up front" and she has always been on for a stunt. She once appeared in a TV debate on capital punishment with a noose round her neck. She entered the European Parliament in 1979, and she swiftly developed a reputation of being a "firebrand" in pursuit of her favourite causes. Bonino has been appropriately compared to Petra Kelly, the now legendary Green leader, murdered in 1987.

When Silvio Berlusconi, then Italian prime minister, tried to call Bonino in January 1995 to ask her to be one of Italy's two commissioners, she was outside the United Nations headquarters in New York, wearing a sandwich board and protesting about Third World aid. Italian politics was in its usual chaos and Bonino was chosen at the last minute, because Berlusconi's government needed the Radical Party's support in a vote of confidence. She was told she could have the portfolios for consumer affairs and humanitarian aid. She said that was not enough. "So they gave her fisheries, too," said a colleague. "She gulped and swallowed and has been attacking it with energy ever since."

Consumer affairs and humanitarian aid were clearly going to enthuse Bonino. She was in Tuzla, in Bosnia, 24 hours after the fall of Srebrenica last July, and after interviewing refugees, she voiced early fears that there had been a massacre. In April this year, she was in Kismayo, in south- east Somalia, where she was caught in militia cross-fire as she drove out to inspect EU aid projects.

It was the fish dossier, however, which proved to be Bonino's biggest challenge, and gave her an opportunity to prove her political maturity. Her most difficult task is to oversee the cuts in European fishing fleets to save dwindling stocks. A rolling programme to cut back on fleets was already agreed when Bonino took office. The cuts she announced this week - calling for Britain to reduce its fleet by 40 per cent - are the latest phase.

Bonino knows she can win no friends with fishermen anywhere in Europe, but she is determined at least to tell them what she believes to be the truth. If fishing is not reduced, there will be no fish left, she says simply - over and over again.

As she declared bluntly in Newlyn, if British fishermen fear they are being singled out for the hardest cuts, they should examine the policies of their own government - and the behaviour of some of their own fishermen - to see why. Bonino points out that the large number of Spaniards now licensed to fish British quotas has come about, in part, because the British government allowed a system to develop whereby British licenses could be sold for large sums of money. British fishermen, fearful of their future, have therefore often sold their own livelihood to competing foreigners. The industry's plight has deepened, she argues, because of the failure of the Government to pay its share of compensation schemes set up by the European Commission.

If the commission wants to promote the cause of the EU in Britain, it should field more commissioners like Emma Bonino. The Italian sparrow could yet become the acceptable, understandable and likeable voice of Brussels.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...