Council of Ministers: A Tough Negotiation Ahead

14th December 2012 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy, TACs and Quotas

An NFFO delegation, reflecting the diversity of the Federation’s regional and fleet interests, this week met for a pre-council briefing with Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon.

This meeting was followed by detailed discussions with senior Defra officials, in preparation for next week’s December Council.

The Federation outlined its priorities, fleet-sector by fleet-sector and area by area. Issues were grouped, in recognition of the fact that despite its diverse fisheries interests, the UK only has a finite amount of negotiating capital, which must be deployed efficiently during the Council.

The main grouped Council issues for the Federation are:

  • Issues related to the EU Cod Plan
  • Stocks subject to the Commission’s drive for MSY by 2013, rather than 2015, despite the fact that ICES has outlined a stepped MSY transition approach explicitly to minimise socio-economic hardship
  • Where an over-precautionary approach has been applied to data poor stocks
  • Stocks in mixed fisheries where there are divergent TAC proposals which can only mean a surge in discards
  • Zero TACs – with an inevitable consequence discards
  • Use it or lose it TACs where cuts are proposed on the basis of a crude underutilisation, leaving a single member state to bear the brunt of a real reduction.

The importance of working with other member states to achieve these objectives, where our interests coincide was agreed.

Ministers at the December Council are de facto fisheries managers. They have a responsibility to take the scientific advice and the Commission’s proposals and arrive at reasoned management judgements on TACs for 2013. This involves balancing progress towards MSY (where possible) with fleet viability concerns and minimising discards. The Federation’s representations were advanced within this framework.

Cod Plan

The industry finds itself in an extraordinary situation. Most of the stock indicators for the stocks we are interested in are broadly positive or stable; there is broad agreement amongst the member states and the Commission on the substance of the main issues for decision; and expectations are high for many increased TACs, along with a freeze on effort cuts. Despite all these positive signs we are facing one of the most difficult and complex Councils for years.

Already the negotiations between EU and Norway for an annual fisheries agreement have been derailed without a settlement, and will not resume until the New Year.

The issue that has caused the problem is the usual one: the now discredited EU Cod Management Plan. However, the problem lies not with the specific suggestions on how to put the plan right but by political sensitivities about a major political turf war between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. At the heart of this political quagmire are two substantive issues.

  1. TACs for Cod in the North Sea, Irish Sea and West of Scotland

There is a broad recognition, following STECF’s evaluation of the EU Cod Plan, that the automatic reductions in TACs for cod and effort cuts in the North Sea, Irish Sea and West of Scotland, required under the terms of the Cod Plan, generate discards and/or fail to reduce fishing mortality by the required amount. There is also a view that these reductions have now proceeded to an extent never envisaged by the ministers who signed the Plan. The Commission also recognises this and in its proposal for an amended cod plan, has provided a legal basis on which the Council could set cod TACs on some other format, such as a rollover of the current TAC. However, the amended Cod Plan must be approved by co-decision with the European Parliament and there is concern amongst member states that this might get mired in the conflict between the Council and the Parliament over which institution has competence over those parts of EU Long Term Management Plans which deal with setting TACs and effort levels. The Lisbon Treaty explicitly exempts annual TAC and effort decisions from co-decision. Better, member states reason, to extract the TAC and effort setting clauses from the Commission’s Proposal and deal with them in the December Council. At least there would be some degree of certainty that what needs to be done would be done. If there is unanimity in Council, member states have the authority to do this without the Commission’s support. The Commission, although agreeing with the need for a different TAC setting arrangement and an effort freeze, take the view that antagonising the Parliament would be counterproductive in the broader political context. Some member states may share this view. Others are strongly of the view that the Parliament should have nothing to do with stetting TACs and effort levels precisely because they are explicitly exempt from the co-decision arrangements under the Lisbon Treaty.

We understand that trying to avoid pre-empting this hornets’ nest by setting a North Sea cod TAC outside the terms of the EU Cod Plan, albeit in negotiation with Norway, was a major reason why the EU stalled the EU/ Norway negotiations in Bergen last week.

  1. Effort Control

The same arguments apply for an effort freeze as for TACs. No-one seems to believe that further effort reductions will achieve anything and all parties are searching for a way to halt the runaway train. The problem is the complex legal and political context.

The danger, as we enter the December Council is that the EU political process will fail us. If it does, we could be facing:

  • A 20% cut in the North Sea Cod TAC, leading to an increase in discards and a backward step for a wide range of cod avoidance/discard reduction initiatives. The Cod TAC and TACs for other species in the mixed fisheries moving in radically divergent directions
  • Even more punitive cuts in the Cod TACs for the Irish Sea and West of Scotland, with similar consequences for forward movement on rebuilding cod stocks
  • Further significant cuts in permitted days-at-sea in the North Sea, Irish Sea
  • A delay in securing a legal base for an effort freeze, more reasonable TAC setting arrangements
  • No exemption from the effort regime for vessels under Fully Documented Fishery arrangements
  • A movement towards increased discards at a time when the whole thrust of the CFP reform is towards a reduction if not elimination of discards
  • A loss of focus on other issues of importance to the UK during the Council (UK with more and more diverse fisheries than most member states tends to have a longer “shopping list” at the December Council.)
  • Above all, all those involved in these decisions face a credibility test. Failure to deliver a pragmatic workable solution because of the failure to resolve inter-institutional EU conflicts will not be easily forgiven. The parties have a heavy responsibility to get this right.
  • Another important lesson to learn from this mess is that every long term management plan in future should have an escape clause that allows the parties to deal with unforeseen circumstances

There is a danger that the heavy shadow cast by the difficulties on the cod front will spill over to the way the commission deals with other stocks. To guard against this, the Federation emphasised the need for satisfactory outcomes on the following issues:

Irish Sea

  • Nephrops TAC
  • Irish Sea Cod Fisheries Science Partnership/Cod Audit
  • Haddock TAC

South West

    • Diverse fishery which will be judged as a package
    • Area VII Haddock TAC
    • Hake proposed TAC reduction
    • Monkfish TAC
    • Megrim TAC
    • Spurdog
    • Porbeagle

North Sea

  • Norway Others TAC
  • Nephrops TAC and gear selectivity
  • Long Term Management Plans
  • Hake mismatch between stock and TAC
  • Plaice management plan
  • FDF fisheries

External Waters

  • EU Norway
  • Svalbard issues

Pelagics

  • Western Mackerel
  • Herring

NFFO Team in Brussels

An NFFO delegation will travel to Brussels for the Council and will be in contact with the Minister and his officials throughout the process.