Politics must not be allowed to scupper the European Commission | WWF

Politics must not be allowed to scupper the European Commission

Posted on
24 April 2002
The European Commission's decision last Tuesday to again postpone publication of its proposals for reform of the EU's flawed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is a worrying development, not only for the survival of fish stocks, the fishing industry, and marine habitats, but also for the future of EU politics and its efforts to become more open and transparent. There is widespread acceptance that the current CFP is not working. In the ten years since its last review, fish stocks have become dangerously depleted, threatening the future of the entire fishing industry. The chief cause of this is an over-capacity fleet fuelled by substantial taxpayer subsidies. Too many boats means too much fishing which, not surprisingly, leads to too few fish. One result of overfishing in EU waters has been for fishermen to fish further and further from home. The EU now has fishing agreements with over 20 countries, many of them developing nations in Africa. And for fishing outside EU waters, the EU pays even more taxpayer subsidies — giving EU fishing fleets an unfair advantage over local industry. In direct contradiction to its development policies, the EU is actually taking a food and economic resource away from developing countries. Fish stocks and developing nations are not the only losers. As it becomes increasingly harder to catch fish, the industry has turned to more and more intensive fishing technologies. This has had devastating consequences for the marine environment. Purse seine vessels, for example, use a bag-shaped net large enough to engulf aeroplanes. As well as fish, these and other nets capture other fish species, harbour porpoises, turtles, dolphins, and sea birds, resulting in up to a third of the total catch being discarded, dead or dying. The dragging of weighted nets along the sea bottom by trawlers is like clear-cutting whole forests, destroying sea grasses, cold water coral, and many other important habitats. The CFP is up for review this year, and many believe a radical rethink is needed. Draft plans for reform by the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Franz Fischler, are reported to include an end to subsidies for modernizing and building new boats, an emergency fund for scrapping boats, tighter enforcement, and better stakeholder participation in policy-making. Different bodies within the EU have already indicated support for fisheries reform. The EU Fisheries Council agreed last April that heavy fishing pressure threatens the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry, and the EU agreed at WTO talks in Doha last November to put fishing subsidies on the table for future negotiations. European Heads of Government also promised reform last June at the Gothenburg Summit, whose conclusions were crystal clear: "the review of the Common Fisheries Policy in 2002 should ... address the overall fishing pressure by adapting EU fishing effort to the level of available resources." So why, when there is apparent support for reform to the CFP, has the European Commission postponed its reform proposals? Media reports indicate that the delay came about following a telephone conversation between José María Aznar, Spanish prime minister, and Romano Prodi, European Commission president, in which Aznar indicated his unhappiness with the substance of the proposals. Spain currently receives the largest share of subsidies for modernization of fishing boats, and Madrid is apparently alarmed by the proposal to end them. No one would ever argue that CFP reform will be easy, and it is clear that Fischler will face a tough battle convincing EU member states to accept substantial restructuring of Europe's fishing fleet. But the time for governments to debate the reform proposals is after the European Commission has tabled them, not before — and certainly not behind closed doors. In an open letter to Prodi, WWF, the conservation organization, urged the European Commission to stand firm against member state pressure — not only for the sake of the marine environment and the future of the fishing industry, but also for the sake of the Commission's independence and transparency in European policy-making. Transparency is essential not only for a fair debate, but also for the future of the EU. Last September Prodi himself presented a White Paper to the European Parliament whose central theme is bringing Europe closer to its citizens. The apparent readiness of Prodi to give special privileges to Spain is not at all in line with his stated conviction that a relationship based on openness and accountability is necessary between Europe's citizens and its institutions. It is entirely inappropriate for the European Commission to come under pressure to water down the proposals to meet the short-term interests of one or more member states. No country has the right to influence either the timing or the content of the proposals, and all countries involved should debate the proposals openly. With only 8 months left for the CFP to be reformed, it is imperative that further delays do not occur. (805 words) *Dr Simon Cripps is Director of WWF's Endangered Seas Programme