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Council Mandate Brings CFP Reform Closer
The agreement reached by the Council of Ministers in Brussels in the early hours of 15th May represents an important staging post on the tortuous passage to CFP reform.
The agreed form of words gives the Irish Presidency a mandate to finalise negotiations with the European Parliament on the final shape of the reform package. Unless the European Parliament creates new obstacles, there could be a political agreement on the reform within days, although the formal legal text could take a further three months to finalise.
The Council endgame focused on two items which the Parliament, under enormous lobbying pressure from the green NGOs, had picked out as signifiers for the depth of the reform: Biomass MSY and rules to cover exemptions from the discard ban (de minims). There was also a struggle over the provisions permitting the content important decisions to be made are regional seas level.
The key to the whole CFP reform lies with the shift from a top-down, centralised approach to regional decision-making, although it would be difficult to discern this from a media which has been primarily focussed on the discards issue. A shift to a decentralised and therefore more flexible and adaptable management regime is the prize now within our grasp. Much remains to be done to bring regional decisions into effect but the Council has paved the way for what may turn out to be a revolutionary change.
The Commissioner conceded at the beginning of the Council that the Commission’s lawyers’ version of decentralisation where the Commission itself would receive additional delegated powers would not fly. The main model of regionalisation within the CFP will be that of member state cooperation at regional seas level described in the Council’s previous General Approach.
This arcane issue became an problem for the Council when the Parliament insisted that it was not sufficient to bring fishing pressure (fishing mortality) down to levels consistent with rebuilding fish stocks to maximum sustainable yield; it would be necessary to require binding targets with timetables to ensure that MSY levels were reached. This is tantamount to telling nature to conform to the EU’s wishes, as many non-human factors can and do affect recruitment. The Council has quite rightly rejected this as based on biological illiteracy and has replaced it with some aspirational words. Of course, the purpose of reducing fishing mortality is to build fish stocks but the type of binding requirements wished for by the Parliament are exactly the kind of rigidity that caused so much difficulty in the EU Cod Management Plan.
It has been clear for some time that the Commission, Parliament and Council want a landings obligation, broadly similar to that operated by Norway that would lead in due course to the elimination of discards in EU fisheries. The issue for the Council was to create sufficient flexibilities to allow this to happen across a wide range of fisheries. Issues such as quota uplift, the removal of CFP rules that currently generate discards, yearend quota flexibility and counting minor species against principal quotas to remove choke stocks, all appeared to be uncontroversial. Heat was generated between the Council and the Parliament and within the Council itself on the issue of the de minimis – the amount of fish that fleets could continue to discard. Bearing in mind that even Norway (which first applied a landings obligation to cod in 1987 and has much simpler fisheries than the EU, with fewer species) still discards significant tonnages. The issue here is how to create a pragmatic approach that secures a dramatic reduction in discards without ham-stringing the fishing industry with unworkable rules. Time will tell whether the Council have got the balance right. Essentially, the de minimis will only come into effect if all the other discard reduction initiatives within a multi-annual management plan, or a discard plan have failed and oversight of the conditions in these circumstances have been handed to the Commission.
If the reform package follows the lines agreed by the Council there will still be rigidities and perverse outcomes within the CFP. However the agreement, particularly with regionalisation, has built in both a safety net and means to improve the management regime over the next few years. A more adaptable CFP should mean a better CFP. Time will tell.