The fishermen's unlikely friend?

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