European Parliament Debates Regionalisation of the CFP

27th March 2012 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

As the reform process continues, the European Parliament Fisheries Committee recently debated how the CFP should be regionalised.

It was significant that the debate was sophisticated and well informed, as the Parliament, and the Fisheries Committee in particular, will play a central role in the CFP in the future following the granting of co-decision powers in the Lisbon Treaty.

The question whether that role should be one of helping to set standards and guiding principles at the broad European level, or applying detailed micro-management in a wide range of disparate fisheries, appeared to be answered by the debate. No one spoke in favour of continuing the over-centralised, discredited, command and control system that has characterised the CFP to date. The focus was how the CFP should be decentralised rather than whether regionalisation was a good idea in itself, as part of a wider move to decentralise the CFP.

Permissive Regionalisation

At the crux of the debate was concern how far regionalisation should be structured by the basic CFP regulation. On the one hand, the European Commission, whose proposals were tabled last year, argued that it had no wish to be prescriptive in this matter. The legislation should be permissive, allowing member states the scope to cooperate at the regional seas level. This will in the Commission’s view be a gradual process moving at different paces in different fisheries. It will be a learning, practice driven, voluntary, process in which member states will take the initiative. Excessive detail in the basic regulation at this stage would potentially constrain the process and run against the philosophy of decentralisation. Apart from anything else, the Commission argued that the Commission’s proposals are at the frontier of what can be permitted under the Lisbon Treaty. Regional advisory councils will play a crucial role as it will be vital that interested parties play a central role and RACs have already proven their worth in providing advice. In parallel, CFP control measures will also be regionalised and the European Fisheries Control Agency is already exploring ways in which control and enforcement could be regionalised.

Structured Regionalisation

A different view was expressed by guest speaker, Michael Keating of Ireland’s BIM. He made the case for a formal recognition of committees of member states, acting in unison at regional seas level, with defined legal powers. These, he argued are specifically permitted as delegated acts under the Lisbon Treaty. This view was supported by Jose Manual Sobrino, Professor of Public International Law at A Coruna University, who argued for mini COREPERs (committees of member state representatives) working closely with the RACs. Another academic researcher, Dr Marleoes Kran, from the Dutch Institute IMARES argued that just asking member states to cooperate wouldn’t really work. The European institutions’ role should be one of setting guiding principles at the macro level and the rest should be left to the people involved in fisheries management. “When you are building your dream house you don’t specify the tools that the builders use. You leave that to the professionalism and knowledge of the people concerned”. Ultimately managing fisheries was about managing people and the current CFP had been spectacularly inept in this field, often generating perverse incentives.

Implementation or Autonomy

Perhaps one theme that was not discussed in sufficient detail was that the Commission’s proposal is essentially an implementation, or downstream model, in which member states and stakeholders at regional level have a role in implementing decisions made at European level. This is very different from the idea of regional fisheries as autonomous groups operating within certain safeguards and guarantees and with scope to design and develop their own measures to deliver broad outcomes and meet general objectives. The experience of the EU Cod Management Plan, which in 2008 was sold on the basis of the flexibility it afforded member states but which has turned out to be one of the most rigid and inflexible pieces of CFP legislation, sends a strong signal of what to avoid in terms of an implementation model.

Legal Dispute

To date there is no clear, universally agreed, legal interpretation of what form regionalisation could take and still remain within the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty. The Commission’s legal advisors have taken a minimalist view, whilst the Parliament’s legal advisors are still forming a conclusive view. In some respects however, without disputing the significance of the route taken to give legal force to the decisions ( advice, opinions or recommendations) made at regional level, this is secondary to the fact of regional cooperation between member states and the willingness of the member states to engage and work with the RACs and the framework that facilitates or impedes this. No one is interested in an extra tier of management for its own sake and so the ultimate question relates to the extent of legal, or defacto responsibility from the centre to the regional level.


The RACs were permitted a generous amount of time to argue for a radical decentralisation of the CFP and for the kind of framework and financing that would allow RACs to build on the positive experience since they were established in the last CFP reform. There was general support for the view that there should be an obligation in the basic regulation on the Commission, Council and European Parliament to consult the RACs.


The Parliament’s rapporteur on the basic regulation, Ms Ulrike Rohust MEP, summed up the debate by:

  • Welcoming and complementing the quality of the debate
  • Underlining the importance of a radical change of direction in the CFP in this reform
  • Highlighting the question about how much detail about regionalisation should be in the basic regulation
  • Emphasising the need for greater involvement of fishermen in the decision making process and a stronger bottom up approach
  • Indicating that the Commission’s proposals are really a form of discussion paper to be developed and amended during the reform process
  • Observing that inevitably, the reform would have to be consistent with the Treaty but expressing the view that she was convinced that it was possible to go much further down the regionalisation road than the Commission’s proposal
  • Affirming should be an explicit obligation to consult the RACs

Small Scale Fisheries

Brian O’Riordan of the NGO, the International Collective in support of Fishworkers, made the case for special treatment for small-scale fishing. The arguments presented stressed the need for definitions of “small-scale”, “artisanal”, “inshore” that make sense at local level. In this the debate has come a long way from the simplistic and potentially damaging notion that a one-size-fits-all definition of “small scale” could be applied at European level.


The Federation was amongst the earliest supporters of regionalisation of the CFP in the run up to the last reform in 2002. We have worked closely with others in the RACs to define and promulgate our vision of a decentralised and regionalised CFP. MEPs have been briefed directly by the Federation on the major reform themes: regionalisation, a discard ban, transferable fishing concessions and maximum sustainable dialogue. The NFFO is now working on suggested amendments to the Commission’s proposals to bring the basic regulation and supporting legislation closer to its vision.