A Decade of Paralysis

31st January 2011 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

If the CFP fails to find a way to regionalise its decision-making it will drift into a decade of paralysis.

The determination of the Commission to decentralise CFP decision-making was spelt out in its 2009 Green Paper on CFP reform. It is by no means clear however, that when the dust settles towards the end of this year, the CFP will have moved forward. And, without decentralisation, and specifically without some form of regionalisation of the CFP, the Lisbon Treaty requires all CFP decisions (except the setting of TACs and fishing effort limits) to be subject to co-decision-making with the European Parliament. Those who already complain about the glacial movement of the legislative process in Brussels will now face an average two year wait for change to even the smallest technical detail. Without a substantial degree of delegated decision-making, the CFP will be paralysed for a decade until the Commission, Council of Ministers and Parliament learn the hard way that even more micro-management in an already cumbersome and unwieldy system, is not the way forward.

What’s Gone Wrong?

In many ways the Commission’s Green paper was an insightful and progressive document. Once it got past its apocalyptic vision of the direction of European fish stocks (that it has since disavowed), the Commission’s analysis of the CFP’s rigid and inflexible decision-making process as the root cause of its many failures, was accurate and honest. Its suggested solutions - a radical decentralisation of decision making and transfer of delegated responsibilities to member states in sea basin regional bodies and (subject to certain safeguards and guarantees) to the fishing industry itself – were coherent and well founded.

But as we move towards the Commission’s CFP reform proposals, expected in May or June, things don’t look good.

The Commissioner appears distrustful, not just of the fishing sector, but of her own officials. Her naive insistence that fisheries management decisions should simply “follow the science” has dismayed member states, the fishing industry and ICES scientists equally. The former know that in the present setup, the Council is the place where broad management and socio-economic considerations are brought to bear on the raw scientific recommendations. The latter are worried about the politicisation of the scientific working groups that produce the scientific recommendations. This and the Commissioner’s other equally distracting enthusiasms threaten to alienate the member states and the fishing sector at exactly the time when the reform process needs all the support it can get.

Although still notionally committed to the regionalisation agenda, there is little sign that the Commissioner is clarifying concepts and marshalling the political support necessary to drive such a radical change through. And that is before the proposals are presented to the College of Commissioners, where experience tells us, not least with the EU Cod Recovery Plan, that extraneous factors can derail the most coherent of proposals.

A further depressing consideration is that many southern member states, whilst enjoying the financial benefits of FIFG and EFF, have yet to feel the full regulatory force of the CFP – few TACs, no intrusive effort control and minimal technical measures. These member states represent a huge body of inertia which simply does not see the need for decentralisation or regionalisation.

All is Not Lost

There is one over-riding reason to believe that despite these negative factors the reform will usher in a new era for the CFP. This is that there no status quo option. The Lisbon Treaty and co-decision means that we have to move on. The CFP will simply not be able to function if every decision has to be the subject of wrangling between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament.

Even here there are pitfalls. At least parts of the Commission favour a form of decentralisation that would transfer more authority to unelected and minimally accountable officials rather than closer to the fisheries concerned. This comitology route may be a technocrats dream but would take us no closer to the decentralised management system that we in the NFFO want and which already works well in other countries.

So, there is much to play for in the coming months. The NFFO’s Executive Committee will be meeting shortly with senior Defra officials to discuss the UK’s reform objectives and what is being done to secure them.