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We have the speech. What now?

So much of the real importance of any policy of renegotiation self-evidently depends on the terms actively sought

by Dr. Lee Rotherham on 23 January 2013 12:02

So we have the speech. Finally, the thing is unleashed. Let’s now see if it gets up and walks, wandering around the countryside throttling surprised hikers, or puts on some slippers and settles down for Gardener’s Question Time.

I hope it’s the former and it starts to electrify a fundamental public debate on what we need out of the EU, and how much we’re supposed to pay for the privilege. So much of the real importance of any policy of renegotiation self-evidently depends on the terms actively sought. The natural tendency though will be to keep the bottom lines hidden away in a diplomatic folder rather than flashed at the doorway to Number 10.

Of course we can start by considering who’ll be appointed as the negotiators. We know the Lib Dems just aren’t interested. Labour’s indifferent and gentle nudging while playing the willing co-pilot has always undermined their delegates’ credibility. That leaves the Conservative approach.

The secret seams will be hidden deep underground. But by judicious policy fracking it should over the months be possible to gage the potential.

There is the matter of the Stockholm Programme, and which JHA material will be opted out of. There’s also the issue of whether HMG sticks with the European Defence Agency, which is a buttress of an ever-closer defence policy and has issues of accountability. Both policy decisions come with decision timeframes that fall before the election and any referendum (indeed the EDA probationary period has already passed).

Beyond these though, I would suggest that a key touchstone will be looking at how Party strategists approach the Common Fisheries Policy. There are good reasons for this;

  1. Restoring the CFP to national control has previously been the declared objective of the Conservative Front Bench, where an aggressive policy lasted over the lifespan of several front bench spokesmen. Some brilliant work has been done on how to restore the industry, not least by the man now in charge of the relevant department. If the policy was good enough then, it should be good enough now.
  2. Ted Heath signed up to the introduction of the CFP as part of the accession deal. For the industry, it is part of the Party’s Original Sin. The Norwegian Fisheries Minister couldn’t live with it on his conscience, resigned, and triggered a Norwegian ‘No’ vote in their accession referendum. If ERM was worth an apology from the Conservative leadership, the CFP is worth going one better and - finally - remedying the mistake.
  3. The impact of the CFP on the UK fishing industry has been massive, as a TaxPayers’ Alliance paper has attempted to quantify. Inactivity condemns the industry to further decline.
  4. As the TPA paper also explores, the 200 mile limit remains an issue of massive opportunity cost for as long as these waters are lost to national control and open to equal (or even just relative) access to other fleets. Restored to national control, the industry can revive over the long term, and with it all the associated industries.
  5. Given the importance of the Scottish ports, an aggressive policy demonstrates Westminster is fighting for the Scottish interest in Brussels, as opposed to the SNP default of accepting a subservient place in the EU.
  6. The CFP is part of the acquis. But it was added just before the North Atlantic states joined, and precisely because the North Atlantic States were about to join. Morally, the UK’s case for ending it is strong. This is particularly so when debating with EU governments keen on seeing Iceland and Norway ever joining the EU. In short, for those idealists who care about such things, the CFP is anti-communautaire.
  7. Fisheries were never part of the EEC treaty base; fisheries products were. The CFP was only included in the main body of the treaties subsequently (track the history of Article 38 TEC: it remains broad brush today). It is not therefore a fundamental trade article, and could be dropped without affecting the Single Market - unless you desperately wanted to play around with a clause specifically authorising the export of fish fingers.
  8. The CFP provokes sufficient division within the Council of Ministers to act as a test case of how far the British Government is prepared to go to stand up against a cartel; but although noisy, that bloc falls well short of unanimity, and the UK holds the default right to the resources under international law.
  9. Fisheries discards are so outrageous that the CFP is morally inexcusable, even on the ecology terms that supposedly justify its inclusion in the current treaties. The fact that it’s taken the major part of three decades to start to address these failings shows that the principle itself is flawed, the system inherently too sluggish, and that national-local control is needed. It’s a clear cut case of doing less and doing it better. To paraphrase a fine laconic speech, “If not this, what?”
  10. Having the twelve mile limit on the books encourages attempts by the Commission to try to move in on UK deepwater energy reserves. The latest is to expand competence onto rigs via Health and Safety, but supply grid policy and energy security issues are also favourites.

So the British Government could as its bottom line demand the restoration of the 200 mile/median line limit to national control, and set up bilateral agreements to manage the seas. Other North Atlantic states outside of the EU somehow manage to successfully live with this approach, and their fish don’t have passports either.

The Prime Minister could in exchange allow transitional grandfather rights for foreign vessels currently allowed access under the CFP, reminding other fisheries ministers where their constituents would end up if the UK and its territorial waters were outside of the EU.

Personally I’d withdraw from the CFP unilaterally right now. It’s morally, economically, socially and ecologically bankrupt. Each day makes the situation worse. Judging by this list, I suspect it would be impossible finding someone even amongst the pro-Brussels lobby who’d speak out against unilateral action.

But if a coalition cabinet doesn’t have the sea legs today, then at least one partner in it should make it a matter of honour for tomorrow. The Conservative manifesto needs to state it will correct a massive historic injustice in the next Parliament come what may. A bottom line needs to be to ditch the CFP.

Dr Lee Rotherham is the author of The EU in a Nutshell (Harriman House, 2012)

Read more on: Common Fisheries Policy, European Union, David Cameron EU referendum, and dr. lee rotherham
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