EU Norway Debacle points to Urgent need for Reform of Coastal State Governance

17th March 2014 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

Say what you like about the EU Fisheries Council each December with its all-night circus. At least it does produce timely decisions on TACs and quotas for the following year.

Contrast this with the disastrous delay of EU and Norway to reach agreement for 2014 until mid March, as the EU Norway process became almost fatally entangled with the twists and turns of the mackerel dispute between EU, Norway, Iceland, Faeroes and, belatedly, Greenland.

Unlike the December Council, there is no mechanism to oblige the coastal states to reach agreement on shared fisheries within a fixed time. Each individual party is in a position to block agreement, even at the 11th hour in order to gain marginal advantage over the others. There is a built-in incentive to escalate issues rather than resolve them.

Coastal States

The failure of the coastal states to reach agreement on mackerel speaks volumes of a dysfunctional system which lacks a dispute resolution mechanism. At the December Council, the equivalent mechanism is the qualified majority vote which is binding on all member states. Efforts are made to accommodate everybody but when the time comes, a vote is taken and a decision is reached.

By contrast, the mackerel dispute degenerated into a prolonged hit and run guerrilla war which now cause significant collateral damage, and only narrowly avoided a complete meltdown of the EU Norway agreement.

The EU is not blameless in allowing the EU Norway process to be hijacked by the mackerel dispute. Woeful negotiating tactics under Commissioner Damanaki's direct instructions contributed significantly to the mess. And Norway's own brutal negotiating tactics smack of opportunism, lack of principle and sheer bad faith, not normally associated with that country.

In dozens of ports around the North Sea and beyond, this failure resulted in misery for thousands of fishermen denied access to their customary fishing grounds at the time of year that they need to be there. Fishing businesses were jeopardised by the collective failures of their governments.

When Iceland is finally brought into the mackerel agreement and the parties have had time to draw breath, there will time to take stock of the failures of governance that lay underneath the prolonged mackerel dispute. The need for better governance at the international level - NEAFC, Coastal States and EU/ Norway is beyond dispute. Repeated failure has become an embarrassment to the reputation of the countries involved. The mackerel agreement will last for five years. It is vital that international fisheries governance in the North East Atlantic is put on a sound footing a long time before then.

Market Access

In recent years Norway has increasingly played hardball in fisheries negotiations. The idea of a partnership between friends has been displaced by a reckless winner-takes-all attitude, mainly driven by a thirst for more pelagic species. The main benefit, however, that Norway derives from the annual fisheries agreement is unimpeded access to the vast European market for its fisheries products. Under the EEA agreement Norway derives huge economic advantage by selling into the EU market, free of quota limits or customs tariffs. Vast tonnages of farmed salmon and Barents Sea cod are sold into the EU on this basis. But during the annual fisheries negotiations this aspect of the deal is barely if ever mentioned. Norway is safe in the knowledge that the remoteness of trade sanctions for irresponsible behaviour in fisheries negotiations, and the general drive towards liberalisation of the markets backed by WTO rules, means that it is highly unlikely that this key feature of the fisheries agreement will come into play to their disadvantage. The EU is a big world player but powerless because it is unable to respond as an individual country might.