By PETER JOHNSON
The European Commission’s draft revision of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) faces over 2,500 amendments in the European Parliament alone, SNP politicians revealed during a visit to Shetland this week.
The mammoth negotiation will be made against a backdrop of fresh cuts to quotas proposed by the Commission for next year.
Cod, monkfish and ling will all be cut back by about 20 per cent if the Commission gets its way, despite an increase of the cod stock to 65,000 tonnes from a low of 26,000 tonnes in 2006.
Haddock, whiting and saithe catches are all slated to rise by 15 per cent, but the overall value of Shetland whitefish catches could drop by 11 per cent if fish prices stay the same.
SNP president and member of the European Parliament Ian Hudghton met fishermen, fish farmers and other interests for a “very meaningful” exchange of views throughout Shetland. He was accompanied by isles regional MSP Jean Urquhart, who arranged the visit.
Shetland Fish Producers Organisation chief executive Brian Isbister said an urgent revision of the code recovery plan was the first priority.
“The more pressing and more urgent need is to get the cod recovery plan sorted out,” he said. “It’s important that we do not take our eye off the ball for what’s ultimately our bread and butter for next year. We must not see a further reduction in effort and quota.”
Mr Isbister had also highlighted the continuing concerns over the unilateral Faroese and Icelandic mackerel quota snatch which was no nearer a resolution.
Mr Hudghton, who has himself tabled 100 amendments to the CFP reform plan, said that the message of dire economic consequences if the Commission’s quota proposals became reality had come across loud and clear.
He said: “Here we are yet again at the start of the process of the annual Christmas pantomime in Brussels where the TAC and quota proposals are published and almost invariably accompanied by outbreaks of concern and horror and then we have some months of negotiation and then we have the ridiculous spectacle of ministers being locked into the meeting rooms in the middle of the night two days before Christmas deciding on fishing opportunities for the coming year.
“It is complete madness and a system that is terminally broken and needs to be drastically reformed.”
Mr Hudghton held out hope for meaningful reform of the CFP, with his proposals centred round fisheries decision making being limited to fishing nations. But he recognised that in the short term, ministers would be faced with heavily lobbying and arguing the case of the UK industry against further cuts.
“Yet again one of the side effects of these proposals if they are carried through would inevitably mean an increase in discarding, which is supposed to be one of the top priorities in the minds of the European Commission that has to be reduced.”
In Mr Hudghton’s view this was an opportunity to argue against severe cuts in quota at a time that stocks were improving. As far as CFP reform went he will be arguing for the continuation of the Shetland Box which does not feature in the Commission’s reform blueprint. He is also seeking to halt proposals to include aquaculture in the CFP.
He was deeply frustrated that the same issues were cropping up again 10 years after the last reform of the CFP but that a thread of hope could be taken from the Commission’s own admission that the CFP had been a failure owing to the over-centralised nature of decision making.
“We have a major task ahead of us in turning that acknowledgment into a coherent, meaningful and sensible new management regime,” he said.
“In my view the UK government, which has the final say as far as our negotiating position is concerned, is somewhat lukewarm and appears to be ready to accept the excuses being put up by the European Commission suggesting that the European treaties limit the scope for decentralisation.”
Mr Hudghton claimed an independent Scotland would be able to put the case for drastic reform of the CFP that would lead to it becoming “unrecognisable” and would fight the case for the industry much more effectively than the UK has done.
With 27 member states and co-decision powers now held by the European Parliament for the first time, which is facing more than 2500 amendments tabled by MSPs to the Commission’s reform plans, the debate was “complicated” and reflected a myriad of viewpoints.
Discussions were due to start in September and were due to go on until the year’s end, by which time a unified parliamentary view should available to set alongside the Commission’s position. This might lead to compromise negotiations and probably another reading in Parliament.
Mr Hudghton added: “We are talking about another year from now before we get a new management policy at the other end of the process.”