Michael Fry: At long last, their boat could be coming in

A sympathetic ally for fishermen might emerge in Brussels. Picture: Jon Savage
A sympathetic ally for fishermen might emerge in Brussels. Picture: Jon Savage
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The ongoing insanity of the EU fisheries policy has defied any logical solution but that may yet change, writes Michael Fry

THERE is only one subject that unites Scottish politicians across the often synthetic divides of their yah-boo debates at Holyrood. It also concerns a policy on which there has been scarcely an inch of progress in the dozen years of devolution.

So it was no surprise to read this week of Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, calling for “radical changes” in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) of the EU. I suppose these might be the same radical changes he said he would “relentlessly pursue” when first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2007.

Not that any blame really attaches to Mr Lochhead, who seems at the least a conscientious public representative. With the call for radical changes Tavish Scott, MSP for Shetland, at once associated himself. Struan Stevenson, the MEP who is the Tories’ spokesman on fish, agrees too. And if I had the faintest notion who the Labour spokesman is, then I am sure I would find he was of like mind.

Yet nothing has basically changed in the CFP since Britain joined Europe four decades ago. The CFP was a disaster then and it remained a disaster through most of its history, with some minor measures of relief only just starting to take effect in the last few years. There is little that could be said in its favour by anybody but the faceless eurocrats in Brussels, who presumably would at least argue it was common, in other words, not national in character. To them, of course, the fact that it has at times been a common catastrophe matters little.

It may be to Mr Lochhead’s advantage that it was also a British catastrophe. The fishermen of the Scottish and other fishing havens were sacrificed on the altar of Prime Minister Ted Heath’s determination to get into Europe at whatever price. If the CFP had become a sticking point, then the negotiations of 1971-72 would probably have failed: that was just what happened in the case of Norway.

Instead the fishermen of Peterhead and Penzance were thrown to the sharks by the sort of civil servants from Sanderstead and Saffron Walden who negotiated the European treaty. But in those days places like Peterhead and Penzance had Tory MPs. Not any more: Mr Lochhead is a beneficiary of the political revenge the fishermen took, by voting SNP (or, for all I know, Mebyon Kernow).

Still, at this moment there is a slim hope that things could just possibly take a more decisive turn for the better. One reason is that there is now in Brussels a commissioner for fisheries, Mrs Maria Damanaki, who started political life as an underground revolutionary fighting the Greek colonels. The politics of fish is perhaps a bit tame in comparison, but at least she is prepared to stand up for the small man against the bully, or by extension the fishermen against the eurocrats. In Brussels she is a breath of fresh air, full of healthy, oceanic ozone.

Mrs Damanaki thinks it would be a good idea if the CFP were regionalised, that is, no longer centrally dictated in detail by the faceless eurocrats, for all the world as if this was the old Soviet Union. Instead, each fishing region, such as Scotland, or indeed Greece, could have regulations suited to its own particular conditions. In the North Sea, fishermen might not have to throw away the haddock they catch in order to conserve the cod. In the Mediterranean there could be some similar arrangement for the kefalos and the melanouri.

The European Commission would still legislate the CFP, and certain existing aspects of it – equal access for all the EU’s fleets, and respect of historic fishing rights – would remain sacrosanct. But it could vary from region to region, and then at least the fishermen in each region could have some influence over the policies imposed on them, rather than being forced impotently to follow regulations they have sometimes regarded as insane.

It all sounds eminently sensible and the only problem with it – in Brussels, if nowhere else – is that it does detract from the common character of a common policy. The French are muttering about this, and the French commissioner is a former minister of agriculture. What starts with the CFP may end with the CAP, and in the end threaten all those subsidies for his peasants. A decentralised CFP will be hard to get past France.

Still, for Scotland in particular, things could take a turn for the better because a couple of years from now we might well be embarking on negotiations for this to turn from a mere region into a full member country. I am making no judgment of whether Scotland will be a successor or an applicant state. While Scotland already conforms in every particular with the law of the EU, some sort of negotiation will still be required because a few numbers need to be sorted – how many MEPs, what contribution to the EU budget and so on. That sort of thing should take no more than a morning before everybody goes off to a good Brussels lunch at the Maison du Cygne.

But Scotland would not become independent the day after the referendum, and there would still be a gap before it assumed the status of a sovereign country, presumably at some point in 2015 or even 2016. That would be the time for working out not only all those tedious numerical details but also any bigger issues.

In these conditions, how could Scotland avoid raising the reform of the CFP? Not only has it operated inequitably on Scotland, but at the very least all Scottish fishermen would expect their new nation to do something about it, and more than has been done before. It could be the first test of the value to the people of the independence of their country – for that reason alone not an opportunity to be missed. At the same time, success will be hard to achieve. Mr Lochhead would be wise not to say too much in advance.