Commission Forced to Back Down on Technical Rules

23rd November 2009 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

A Commission proposal to hand itself additional powers to apply technical rules has been decisively rejected by member states at a recent Council of Ministers in Brussels.

Commission Forced to Back Down on Technical Rules

The NFFO lobbied vigorously against adoption of the flawed proposal which was being forced through by the Commission to beat co-decision making with the European Parliament. Co-decision to reduce the democratic deficit in Brussels is an integral part of the Lisbon Treaty.

Not only had some 35 areas of concern been identified in the text, but experience tells us that in highly detailed, prescriptive rules like these, close and detailed scrutiny by officials and the industry is required to avoid errors and unintended consequences; that scrutiny had been denied us by the truncated timeframe allowed for adoption. In addition, a number of regional advisory councils had written in protest that they had been marginalised in what should have been a core area of work for the RACs.

Although the existing technical conservation rules (EC 750/98) are not without their own shortcomings, we judge that it is preferable to struggle on with these whilst a reasonable set of proposals are worked out over sensible amount of time.

As important as avoiding the immediate consequences of a badly drafted regulation, the Council’s decision sends a very strong signal about the kind of decentralisation and regionalisation that it wants to see as part of the reform of the CFP. Transferring additional decision-making powers from the Council to the Commission is not many people’s idea of the kind of decentralisation required to bring fisheries management closer to the regions and the fisheries. This was a core part of the Commission’s proposals and a key reason why they were rejected.

Had the Proposal been adopted unchanged it would have put some classes of vessels out of business, reduced the scope for vessels to carry the gear necessary to be selective in different fisheries, and led to “hyper-discarding” in some fisheries. This is the result of a “simplification and harmonisation” approach that amplifies the blanket one-size-fits-all approach, when it is universally recognised that a regionally focused, tailored approach is required.

As preparation for the Council a Federation delegation met in London, initially with Defra officials on the detail of the proposal and subsequently with Fisheries Minister Huw Irranca-Davies to discuss the UK approach for the Council.

The Commission’s handling of this whole issue has been a puzzle. After a long gestation and comprehensive consultation with the RACs on one basis, there followed a long period of inactivity and even signs that technical rules would drift into co-decision by default. This was followed by a complete reversal in which the Commission put its foot on the accelerator and radically changed direction, dropping much of the regional character of the suggested approach. In doing so it abandoned any pretence that it was following the precepts of good governance and we know that good governance delivers good regulation.

Member states were clearly persuaded that this was not the way to approach technical conservation rules, not least by a protest signed by all of the regional advisory councils.

Once it was clear that the Council would have no truck with the Commission’s proposal, a decision was required on the rules that had previously been incorporated into the annual TACS and quotas regulation. In recent years this had become a favourite Commission shortcut to get legislation adopted, without the tiresome process of proper scrutiny and impact assessments. A brief proposal basically putting these provisions into a new legal instrument was tabled. During the course of the Council a more sophisticated proposal was produced incorporating member state requests on specific fisheries. This included more sensible catch composition rules for the West of Scotland and important derogations for the deep water net fishery. The Commission refused to give this proposal its support which meant that unanimity was required in Council. This was not achievable and the effect was that the Commission’s text to translate the “annex 3” TACs and quotas rule into law, was adopted.

Unless this can be rectified by the end of the year the west of Scotland will remain under unworkable emergency rules and the deep water net fishery will face serious problems next year.