A decade or so ago, as the Conservative candidate for Teignbridge in Devon the 2005 General Election, I argued that the UK should ditch the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.
Of course, I wasn’t the only Conservative candidate to adopt that stance. Back then, “Repatriating the CFP” was the official party policy.
I dug up 2005 Conservative Manifesto the other day, the one which bears the then Conservative Leader, Michael Howard’s proud signature. Of course, the main thrust was on domestic policy: Lower taxes, cleaner hospitals, school discipline, and more police. That kind of thing. But EU issues featured too. The 2005 manifesto, for example, stated baldly: “The common policies on agriculture and fisheries are unsustainable, damaging to free trade and conservation, and waste huge sums of money. The CAP needs further and deeper reform. And because fisheries would be better administered at the national level, we will negotiate to restore national and local control over Britain’s fishing grounds (my emphasis).”
The Tories, as we know, didn’t win the 2005 election (and I didn’t win in Devon though I had over 20,000 votes!). But I still think in general we had a good strong manifesto and that – at that time – calling for the ‘repatriation of the CFP’ made a lot of sense. Frankly, in the first years of the new millennium, the record of the CFP was disastrous, both from the economic and environmental point of view. Fishing fleets were too large (and often heavily subsidized), the gear was too harmful, over-generous quotas were being regularly set under political pressures and, just as regularly, the limits were being exceeded with severe consequences for fish-stocks and the wider marine environment. If the situation in the North-East Atlantic was bad enough, in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea it was even worse.
If I was an ‘Outer’ then, at least as far as the CFP was concerned, why have I changed my mind now? My answer, to quote John Maynard Keynes, is simple. “When the facts change, I change my mind, sir. Don’t you?”
From my perspective, the key fact has been that over the last few years huge numbers of people in this country came to the realization that the CFP wasn’t working and that it needed to be changed. British withdrawal from an unreformed CFP wouldn’t solve the problem. That wouldn’t help the blue fin tuna, the European bass, the mackerel, the spring spawning herring, the blue whiting – all stocks which were being drastically over-fished. What was needed was for British Ministers to get stuck in in Brussels and, in alliance with the European Parliament, fight from within for a radical reform of the CFP.
And that is precisely what happened. I am not sure British Ministers knew what had hit them when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall presented his petition with 870,000 signatures calling for CFP reform. But at the political level, the raw power of public opinion certainly worked. Richard Benyon, then Fisheries Minister in the 2010 Coalition Government, seized the opportunity and led the fight both in Whitehall and in Brussels.
And let’s give some credit here to the often-maligned European Commission. Frankly, Maria Damanaki, the EU Fisheries Commissioner at the time, went the extra mile to ensure that the Commission came out on the right side of the argument. She didn’t hesitate to call for “Effective campaigns like Hugh’s Fish Fight to wake up people to support change.”
I don’t want to give the impression that the battle to reform the CFP is over. Far from it. Some key reforms have been now agreed, notably on the setting of catch-limits (TACs) and the banning of discards. But the deadlines for the new system as regards TACs and discards still need to be tightened, environmentally harmful subsidies still need to be removed, and considerably more emphasis needs to be placed on monitoring and control. The Fisheries Partnership Agreements (FPAs) between the EU and other nations are, as a result of the CFP reform, now meant to be aimed at sustainable fishing rather than the unscrupulous hoovering up of marine resources by EU fleets around the coast of West Africa etc. which we have witnessed in the past. This is a key point and monitoring will be crucial.
To many people’s surprise, a real and important reform of the CFP is now under way. The economic, social and – above all – environmental gains of this reform (including to the UK) should far exceed any gains that might be achieved through the UK’s withdrawal from the CFP, either unilaterally if that were possible or under Brexit conditions.
But we will have to watch this one like a hawk. Hugh’s Fish Fight is not over yet by any means.
Stanley Johnson, author, journalist and former Conservative MEP, is Co-Chair of Environmentalists for Europe (E4E) www.environmentalistsforeurope.org.
To see George Eustice’s view to leave the EU, click here.