Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Time to take stock

It has taken us a little while to take stock of the post-election situation and for that we apologize to our readers. A rather boring election campaign was followed by an exciting election night and the results were unexpected in many quarters. For those of us who predicted a small Conservative majority the sight of so many commentators and pollsters with, not to put too fine a point on it, egg on their faces, was quite a pleasure.

Still, one needs to get over that and look at what is happening. A Conservative government, with no coalition partner who can be blamed for things possibly going wrong is something that will take some getting used to. In the first place, that means an IN/OUT referendum on the European Union as it was made clear in today's Queen's Speech.

My government will renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all member states.

Alongside this, early legislation will be introduced to provide for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017.

The SNP are already making noises in favour of another Scottish "independence" referendum, should the UK, as a whole, vote to leave (that is when they are not breaking Parliamentary convention by rushing in to occupy long-standing members' places and applauding their leader for making a fairly pedestrian speech). What remains unclear is whether that demand would still be made if the vote in Scotland was clearly in favour of Brexit - a word we must get used to as it will be around a lot.

The SNP's situation is rather curious. Out of all the parties it has done best of all under the first past the post system yet it has, though rather half-heartedly, shown some support for those who are calling (as it happens after every election) for a reform of the system towards some form of proportional representation. The truth is that a national PR system will leave the regional parties like the SNP and Plaid Cymru nowhere while a regional PR system will not satisfy those who think that electoral reform will get rid of anomalies. After all, it can hardly be considered as fair to have a party with 56 seats on 4.7 per cent of the vote when the Liberal-Democrats have 8 on 7.9 per cent and UKIP only e on 12.6 per cent, if one considers that the national vote is what matters. Those who prefer a system that links electors directly with the representative they vote for, that is their MP accept these anomalies, knowing full well that there is no such thing as a completely fair system. The truth is that fairness in politics is well nigh impossible to define, let alone put into place.

It is interesting to compare the SNP votes with those cast in the independence referendum of last year, particularly as we hear a great deal about this being a sort of a second referendum without anybody saying so. In fact, the question of Scottish independence was not raised during the electoral campaign and it is hard to prove that all those who voted for the SNP did so because they believed in it.

In fact, the SNP vote, at 1,454,436 was lower than the Yes vote in the referendum, 1,617,989, let alone the No vote at 2,001,926. The turn-out, at 71.1 per cent was higher than UK average at 66.1 per cent but considerably lower than the referendum turn-out at 84.59 per cent. It is, in the opinion of this blog, hard to prove that the overwhelming SNP success on May 7 was really a vote for Scottish independence, which was roundly rejected in the referendum.

So much for that. What of the SNP's view on the European Union, the country's membership of it and, above all, on the common fisheries policy. This blog has maintained for a long time that the SNP's understanding of the common fisheries policy is faulty to put it mildly (here and here among others).

It would seem that others have noticed problems as well. David Torrance, a well known historian, biographer and commentator on Scottish affairs wrote two days ago in The Herald that the SNP's position on staying in "Europe" was incoherent.

Europe is one of those issues on which the SNP has an apparently simple position (pro) but which, on closer examination, becomes a bit of a mess. Shortly before last year's European Parliament elections Mr Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon et al started inserting little caveats into their pronouncements, largely to the effect that the European Union wasn't perfect, "far from it".

But to my knowledge there's been no attempt to explain in what way they would help make it a more perfect union. Indeed, there's little evidence the SNP has done any serious thinking about the EU since around 1988, when it committed to "independence in Europe", a slogan rather than a policy.

Even that didn't make an awful lot of sense: why so alive to sovereignty within the UK but relatively relaxed when it comes to the EU?

But it goes deeper than that, for the roll call of things the SNP doesn't like about Europe is quite long: the single currency, Common Fisheries Policy and closer fiscal integration, which the present First Minister has several times made clear she doesn't support. Even the European Convention on Human Rights (which exists separately from the EU) has come under fire from Nationalists, chiefly its ruling against a blanket ban on voting rights for prisoners.

Then there's the rhetoric. SNP press releases rail against the "Tory obsession with ripping Scotland and the rest of the UK out of the EU" and Scotland being "dragged out" against its will. Yet when Unionists deployed similar language to describe Scotland vis-Ã -vis the UK they were accused of being alarmist and melodramatic. Similarly, it's difficult to argue that Scotland leaving a highly-integrated UK would somehow be hassle free but the UK exiting a much looser union would "threaten" jobs and the economy, yet that's exactly the SNP's position.

The one thing we do know (for the time being) is that Alex Salmond will campaign anywhere and with anyone for the UK to stay in the EU and that he thinks he is a much better man to lead the IN campaign than the Prime Minister. Well, that is until he changes his mind again.

On one issue Mr Salmond is right in the article linked to above: Mr Cameron has not so far mentioned "replacing the Common Fisheries Policy which is a key failure of the European Union and has never done anyone any good!". The trouble is that Mr Salmond has no clear ideas of what he wants to replace the CFP with and how would he go about doing so within the European Union where any real changes to the fisheries policy would require a treaty change with all that entails.

Meanwhile, the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, an unashamed outer though prepared to come up with ideas for David Cameron to use in his negotiations, thinks that the Prime Minister could ask for a great deal more than he has mentioned so far. One of the things he could ask for would be Britain's exit from the common fisheries policy. Yes, that would require treaty changes but any serious reforms would require that and if those reforms are not serious they are not worth negotiating for.

Among other things the Queen's Speech touches on further developments in the process of devolution:

My government will also bring forward legislation to secure a strong and lasting constitutional settlement, devolving wide-ranging powers to Scotland and Wales. Legislation will be taken forward giving effect to the Stormont House Agreement in Northern Ireland.

My government will continue to work in cooperation with the devolved administrations on the basis of mutual respect.

My government will bring forward changes to the standing orders of the House of Commons. These changes will create fairer procedures to ensure that decisions affecting England, or England and Wales, can be taken only with the consent of the majority of Members of Parliament representing constituencies in those parts of our United Kingdom.

There is much talk about letting Scotland have the fiscal autonomy its First Minister apparently has asked for on the grounds that a real fiscal autonomy would not be to the SNP's taste. Yet, we in FAL and on this blog think that there is another way the SNP can be put on the spot as well and, maybe, induced to change its policies.

Why not take up Mr Salmond's rather inadequate suggestion and develop it by making a withdrawal from the common fisheries policy and a complete renegotiation of fisheries agreements with other EU member states on the basis of the UK's independent control of its fishing grounds one of the cored demands? Given what a mess the CFP has been over the years, it is likely to be a very popular policy across the political spectrum.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Will the election change anything?

Officially election campaigns in this country last three weeks but this one seems to have gone on for many months already, frequently hitting a level of silliness that seems unparalleled until we recall past levels of silliness. It would not be a good idea to predict results as opinion polls seem very close and there are several imponderables. But it would not be unreasonable to look over the parties and their attitudes and policies (if one can call them that).

This is going to be a make or break election for UKIP and its leader, Nigel Farage. The party has done reasonably well in the last couple of years, coming top in the elections for the European Parliament, though on a very low turn-out, and acquiring two MPs though neither of the seats was an actual victory but a re-election of a sitting member under different colours. Will they be able to build on that? The opinion polls are not particularly sanguine as UKIP’s support wavers between 13 and 15 per cent, which is likely to fall once the campaign starts in real earnest and is, in any case, spread across the country. The Liberal-Democrats may be getting worse results in the polls but their support is more concentrated in certain areas.

Unfortunately, from our point of view, UKIP has more or less abandoned any discussion of Britain’s membership of the European Union or exit from it. Even when their candidates speak with fishermen they express shock and disgust at cuts in quotas without bothering to go into any depth on the subject that is the common fisheries policy.

As far as the EU in general is concerned, UKIP is concentrating on two issues, one is immigration, the basics of which are a little more complicated than they make out and the other is the referendum, which they, officially, would like as soon as possible, regardless, it sometimes seems, of whether we are likely to win it or not. It is, in fact, the likelihood or otherwise of the referendum (promised by the Conservatives, not promised by Labour and semi-promised by the Liberal-Democrats) that will mean there will be no real discussion of the European Union and Britain’s role in it during the election campaign. The emphasis will be on possible renegotiations and whether they are possible and on when a referendum might take place (not, we can confidently predict, this year).

We would prefer to see some ideas about the way forward for Britain within the EU and discussions of possible withdrawal, its method and possible consequences. In connection with that we would like to see a serious attempt by the main parties to create a fisheries policy, perhaps on the lines of the one Owen Patterson put together when he was Spokesman on the subject and which has long ago been removed from the Conservative Party website. In any case, it would need updating. In view of the general shelving of the EU as an issue with nothing more than a discussion of a referendum this is unlikely to happen either across the UK in general or in Scotland in particular.

There remains the question of the SNP. At various times before the Scottish referendum this blog discussed the party’s views and understanding of fisheries and came to the conclusion that it was lacking in any sense of reality. This does not seem to have changed since the referendum in which their main policy plank – “an independent Scotland within the EU” – was rejected without taking away, it would seem, from the party’s electoral popularity. As things stand they are likely to be the leading party in Scotland but that does not mean that the much touted coalition with Labour will happen. Certainly, the possibility has been denied several times by Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Labour Party and has not, precisely, been welcomed by the SNP’s leadership though the occasional tantalizing hint has been thrown out.

If this article is a little gloomy it is because one cannot help feeling gloomy as one surveys the electoral scene. Will the election change anything? As far as Britain’s role and membership of the European Union and, consequently, of the common fisheries policy, no, it will not. The Conservative Party has promised an IN/OUT referendum and that makes an important difference between the two leading parties. If they form the next government we shall have to start preparing seriously for that referendum; if not, we shall have to carry on arguing our case, in particular about fishing. Either way, the first thing FAL and other organizations of that kind will have to do after the election is to put together a viable fisheries policy that depends on us leaving the CFP and that can be and will have to be presented to the various parties.

After a two-year hiatus the EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement has been renewed. A couple of weeks ago the Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, visited "the third edition of the Salon Halieutis, organised under the high patronage of King Mohamed VI, to underline the importance of the fisheries partnership and cooperation between the EU and Morocco".

The Agreement now comes under the supposedly reformed "new" but not that different from the "old" Common Fisheries Policy.

The new CFP seeks to improve the scientific knowledge underlying the fishing rights granted under the agreements, strengthen their governance and better promote sustainable fishing. As part of each of the EU's SFPAs, there is a significant investment in sectoral support, in Morocco's case EUR 14 million are earmarked to support the local fisheries sector, which seeks to provide increased job opportunities for local fishermen, help build a robust fisheries infrastructure, train up local seamen and get them working on EU boats, and exchange ideas and best practices.

In return the countries in question have to allow the far bigger and better equipped EU fishing boats into their waters.

Not all is plain sailing, though, as this article on EurActiv makes clear.

A respected international lawyer has published an article, claiming that the fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco is illegal, as it doesn’t contain a specific reference to the fishing zone off the coast of Western Sahara, and that the UN Security Council (UNSC) should examine the issue.

Hans Corell, Former Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and the Legal Counsel of the United Nations, writes in the International Judicial Monitor that UNSC should examine the legality of the EU-Morocco fisheries agreement.

Corell, who, at the request of the UNSC delivered in 2002 a legal opinion relating to the Western Sahara, says that in the meantime, he has followed developments from a distance.

“A very serious question in this context is the fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco which does not contain one word – apart from the cryptic “sovereignty or jurisdiction” in Article 2 (a) – about the fact that Morocco’s ‘jurisdiction’ in the waters of Western Sahara is limited by the international rules on self-determination. Instead, the agreement and its protocols are replete with references to the “Moroccan fishing zones”, Corell writes.

He further argues that to be legal, an agreement of this nature would have to contain an explicit reference to the fishing zone off the coast of Western Sahara, defined by coordinates.

The Commission is denying that there are any problems.

The fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco is “in full compliance with international law,” said Enrico Brivio, the European Commission Spokesperson for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

“The Fisheries Partnership Agreement protocol is in full compliance with international law,” Enrico Brivio told EurActiv, the leading online media on EU affairs, adding that all of the EU’s agreements apply to the Western Sahara region.

“Detailed reporting obligations on Morocco on use of Commission sectoral support ensure that the protocol serves the interests of all local population,” Brivio pointed out.

He also stressed that the protocol’s clear reporting mechanism represents an additional tool to monitor compliance with international law.

Will that off-hand response be sufficient to deal with intricate international legal matters?

George Eustice, the Fishing Minister, never ceases to astonish one. I suppose one could say that about a lot of politicians but he is a prime example of a man who quite clearly has not understood anything about his brief. How else could one explain his statements as quoted in the Plymouth Herald?

In his desire to destroy support for UKIP some fishermen in the Plymouth area he announced that those fishermen (and, presumably, others) are better off within the common fisheries policy than they would be outside it. Does he mean that if Britain was outside the EU, outside the CFP legislation would have to be passed by people like him and he is manifestly not fit for the job? Somehow we do not believe that but that is what his statement sounds like.

“One thing I would say is that EU rules are far too prescriptive and create too many unintended obstacles,” said Mr Eustice, who represents his home constituency of Cambourne, Redruth and Hayle in Cornwall.

“There is a common EU objective to fish sustainably but there is now more flexibility with how we deal with that nationally.

“For example, if a fisherman finds he’s caught far more haddock than he expected, then he can place that catch within their cod quota instead. With that [negotiation], we can change policy for the better.”

Cod quotas were due to be cut by 65 per cent last year, said Mr Eustice, but successful EU lobbying reduced it to a 26 per cent cut.

The Cornishman said he sympathised with fisherman who have “their boats tied up because they have used all their quota” but there was a need to “show restraint” if the fishing industry was to prosper.

Surely a Minister whose job it is to know about the fishing industry must realize that the whole problem with quotas, though important to those it affects, is not the cause but the effect. The cause of the problem remains the common fisheries policy, a centralized, political structure in which decisions are taken by 28 member states for reasons that often have nothing to do with fishing.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Oh yes, there are alternatives

Nobody knows exactly when that IN/OUT EU referendum will take place and whether it will do so at all. The Labour Party is refusing to commit itself or, to be quite precise, its Leader is refusing to commit himself, assuring all and sundry, including, it appears, members of the Shadow Cabinet, that there is no need for such a referendum but none at all. Should his party win the May election, on the other hand, he may well change his mind.

It is quite likely that the SNP Leader has ambivalent feelings about a referendum of any kind at the moment and it is hard to tell what the Liberal-Democrats think though, it is believed, that most of them favour some kind of a referendum. (They, too, burned their fingers on the AV plebiscite.)

The Conservative Leader has given us assurances that there will be an IN/OUT referendum, probably in 2017 though he is also promising some kind of negotiations in order to introduce radical reform in the European Union. Good luck with that. So far, the only change and reform in the EU has moved in one direction and it is not the one most people in the UK want. We can agree on that, though the same opinion polls that tell us so, also tell us that far fewer people are prepared to vote to leave the organization with which they are seriously dissatisfied, namely the EU.

Let us assume that there will be a referendum, probably in 2017, perhaps a little later, depending on whether the EU decides to have another treaty or not. If we, that is the people who have looked at the present situation, which includes the disaster called the common fisheries policy and have looked at all past attempts to bring in meaningful reforms and the failure of those attempts and have decided that this construct cannot be changed and the UK would be a good deal better off outside it are to win the referendum, we need to produce cogent arguments. As Alex Salmond found out in the recent Independence Referendum, they have to be very cogent, indeed, and reliance on vague promises of great benefits whose source is unknown will be insufficient.

Already we have heard noises from the supporters of the status quo about there being no alternative; about Britain (the country with the fifth largest economy in the world) being too small to survive outside a big block; about the impossibility of making our voice heard on important issues outside the EU; and so on.

This blog has pointed out on a number of occasions (too numerous to link to) that, far from that being the case, it is within the EU, within the common fisheries policy that we cannot make our voices heard. Norway and Iceland, even Greenland or, rather, Denmark on behalf of Greenland, negotiate themselves on matters to do with the North Atlantic fisheries, yet they are all much smaller than Britain; Russia may not be smaller but its economy is, considerably so. The UK, on the other hand, does not negotiate - the EU does and it does so on behalf of the 28 member states.

Many of us have been saying all this for some time through Save Britain's Fish and the Fishermen's Association Limited but have frequently been pushed to the fringes of the political debate. There is, however, a change in the political air.

This week there were two events in London, one an evening panel discussion at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and one a half-day conference, actually in the European Parliament building (formerly the Conservative Central Office), organized by the Conservative MEP David Campbell-Bannerman. Both dealt with the problem of alternatives to EU membership. What can Britain do if she leaves this somewhat sclerotic, economically laggard and politically undemocratic structure?

Not all the alternatives were covered but even the ones that were: taking up our WTO membership rather than letting the EU negotiate on our behalf, re-joining EFTA, trying to join the EEA (European Economic Area), which would have some serious disadvantages, staying in a customs union with the EU or signing a special agreement while acting as an independent WTO member, all have one thing in common that is of interest to readers of this blog: all of them would release the UK fishing industry from the dead grip of Brussels and hand it back to Britain, its Parliament and the industry's members.

The point is that there are many alternatives to the EU and they can be investigated and discussed. The notion that we have nowhere to go and had better stay where we are "for fear of finding something worse" is ridiculous and needs to be destroyed.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Fishing protection

Frequently, the best way of getting information is by asking questions, written or oral in the Houses of Parliament, particularly the House of Lords. On February 2 Lord West of Spithead asked:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the reduction in the number of offshore patrol vessels available for fishing protection on their meeting their responsibilities within the United Kingdom economic exclusion zone.

It is worth noting that what is also at stake is the equal observance of the many various rules. HMG in the shape of Lord de Mauley replied:

Responsibility for fisheries protection in English waters lies with the Maritime Management Organisation (MMO). Fishery protection services in English and Welsh waters are provided by the Royal Navy (RN) under a formal agreement with the MMO. The service is provided by 3 offshore patrol vessels of the Fisheries Protection Squadron.

The MMO has identified that the provision of 500 days at sea is currently sufficient to enable the UK to meet its obligations for at sea surveillance and inspection under the Common Fisheries Policy. This assessment is kept under constant review as enforcement obligations and priorities change.

As the following figures show this minimum commitment has been maintained for the last 2 years and is projected to be delivered again for the year 2014 – 15.

2012 – 13 562 daysbr/>
2013 – 14 512.5 days

2014 – 15 509 days (projected)

The financial contribution to the RN for this service has been reduced in return for a move from dedicated 24 hour fishery protection days to 9 hour days. These days enable surveillance and inspection of fishing vessels to be undertaken during key fishing periods. The minimum number of days required has been maintained during the current financial year despite the fact that one offshore patrol vessel has been deployed elsewhere for part of the year.


Well, that is very nice, of course but it does not precisely answer the question about the impact. We are merely being assured, as so often before, that whatever the government does is perfectly adequate. Past experience, on the whole, would indicate otherwise.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Latvian Presidency's plans

In case anyone has missed it (make that most people rather than anyone), Latvia has taken on the rotating presidency of the European Union. So, naturally, their representatives have been presenting plans for the next six months and, we have to assume, somewhere among those plans there is the usual one about cutting red tape and encouraging business and entrepreneurship.

Here is what the Minister of Agriculture Janis Duklavs said to the Committee for Fisheries (PECH) in the European Parliament:

Multiannual management plan for Baltic Sea cod, Baltic herring and sprat stocks is the first multiannual fishing plan of the new generation. This file is essential for ensuring sustainability of the stocks and at the same time offers more predictability and certainty to the industry. The proposal is therefore on the top of the Presidency’s priorities.

Proposal for Regulation on introduction of the landing obligation: the Latvian Presidency will be fully involved in the outstanding work on the new rules. The obligation to land some fish species entered into force on 1 January this year, but fishermen still have no clear rules on the application. The EU institutional agreement on this file should be completed as soon as possible.

External dimension of fisheries (sustainable fishing partnership agreements with third countries, negotiations with coastal states and representation in international organizations): the Minister underlined the importance of fisheries agreements for a viable and competitive EU fishing fleet in high-seas. It is expected that the work on negotiations for agreements with Mauritania, Kiribati, Seychelles and other countries would be smoothly continued in the first half of 2015.

Let us note immediately the reference to the "competitive EU fishing fleet". Whether it is competitive or not is irrelevant. Nothing much in the EU is competitive, after all. The point is that it is an EU fishing fleet. Or, let me spell it out, for the benefit of politicians, should they bother to read this blog, no amount of reforming has changed the fact that the UK (and that would have been true for a Scotland "independent within the EU) has no fishing fleet of its own while the country remains part of the Common Fisheries Policy, that is, part of the European Union.

That, of course, applies to the internal arrangements as well. Decisions will be taken for political reasons at the centre and relayed down to the regional institutions for them to implement. That, in essence, is the extent of those much-vaunted reforms.