Something of a Revolution

3rd January 2013 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

Something of a revolution in thinking about the CFP has taken place over the last decade. Ten years ago, although organisations like the NFFO and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation had been arguing for some time for a radical decentralisation of decision-making in the Common Fisheries Policy, the dominant view remained that tough measures designed in and applied from the centre, was the best, indeed the only way to turn the CFP around.

Now it is hard to find anyone, beyond a few unreconstructed fundamentalists, who maintain that the solution lies with a top-down technocratic approach.

What Happened?

The main lesson of the last 30 years has been that command and control approaches to widely dispersed and diverse fisheries cannot work and are at odds with the principles of good governance.

The repeated failure of prescriptive top-down legislation to deliver its objectives has been the main factor in persuading even the European Commission that the centralised, command and control model is dead meat. All of the main policy strands within the CFP, at least so far as resource policies are concerned, have met the same undistinguished fate:

  • Technical Conservation Regulation
    • achieved very little in terms of improving selectivity, partly because it was undermined by other measures like effort control
    • creates regulatory discards
    • fails to take into account hearts and minds, particularly in the wheelhouse
    • unenforceable
  • Fleet Capacity reduction Programmes (MAGP 1-4)
    • failed to achieve targets by a considerable distance
  • Cod Recovery Plan
    • failed to achieve targets
    • generates perverse outcomes
    • rigid and inflexible
  • Cod Management Plan
    • under-achievement
    • main instruments: TAC reductions and effort control, judged inadequate
    • failed to secure stakeholder support
  • Control Regulation
    • aligned with backward looking resource policies
    • undermines culture of compliance

Each time these regulations have been evaluated, they have been described in terms of serial under-achievement, high costs to administer, inherent complexity, rigidity and inability to cope with regional fleet or fishery variations. Above all, once a flaw in a CFP regulation has become evident it has been close to impossible to address the problem because of the complex and extended decision-making process required. This makes adaptive management ( or what you or I would call progress through trial and error, or learning from the mistakes of the past) impossible. Little wonder that the CFP has built up an unenviable reputation for cumbersome, superficially plausible but ineffectual conservation policy.


All this accounts for the widespread appreciation that to fully achieve its goals the CFP must decentralise the way its resource policies are designed and applied. The Commission is on record as saying that within the current reform it wants to devolve as much authority to the regional level as far as possible, consistent with the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty. Our view is that if one were to design a regional decision-making structure from scratch, one wouldn't write the CFP reform proposal, or for that matter the Council of Ministers' 'General Approach' the way they have been drafted. Nevertheless, as they stand, and so long as co-legislators understand their proper overseeing role, and avoid the temptation to micro-manage, the model on offer - regional cooperation by member states, working closely with the RACs (ACs) - stands a reasonable prospect of being a success and should be fully supported.


So, decentralisation and regionalisation have moved centre-stage in thinking about CFP reform. Many hurdles remain between where we are currently and an effective reform of CFP decision-making structures, although in our judgement none inherently insuperable.

As we enter the final stretch of CFP reform, (although this final stretch might turn out to be a long haul) the principle dangers at lie in two areas:

  • The polarisation of the CFP debate into simplistic adversarial politics, especially in the European Parliament, with the danger that subtleties of policy are lost in wild overstatement
  • The need for the main European institutions, the Commission, the Council and the Parliament to relinquish some of their detailed legislative role in order to secure a more effective CFP - historically, powerful groups have been unwilling surrender power voluntarily

The next few months are likely to be critical in determining whether the reform will deliver a new approach based on the flexibility that a regional dimension to policy formulation can bring, or alternatively, whether the centralising tendencies of European politics will hold the CFP in its grip.

Status Quo Not an Option

It is worth considering that the choice is not between the status quo and decentralisation. The arrival of co-decision-making with the Lisbon Treaty already ensures that those decisions that are made in the centre will take much longer than the already sclerotic system we had to deal with previously. A rigid, cumbersome, inflexible system is about to become slower and less adaptable.

How this inherent rigidity at the centre will articulate with the need for a flexible, responsive and adaptable system for developing relevant fisheries policy, and one which ensures the close involvement of stakeholders at regional level, will determine the fate of fishing within the CFP for the next decade or more.

The key factor will be whether the European institutions can restrict their involvement to the strategic level in setting standards, principles and oversight and avoid dabbling in detail, setting unrealistic targets and timetables.