Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Leaving the EU could have us fishing in troubled waters

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter. 

Anyone in Britain tempted by all that specious rhetoric about leaving the European Union might do well to come off the elevated level of grand principle – a whole Continent acting in concert as opposed to national independence, for instance – and consider some matters of detail, such as the European Arrest Warrant as a way of preventing easy escape for offenders, the ecological impact of agreed standards on environmental issues, or indeed joint action to prevent ourselves wiping out our stocks of fish.

By a large majority, the European Parliament today backed radical reform of the common fisheries policy. In particular, this will set out to end the disgrace of fish being taken and then thrown back, dead, into the sea. More generally, it’s designed to halt the continuing decline in stocks around Europe before it becomes irreversible.

In case you think this isn’t an urgent matter, just remember the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland: it used to be said that one had only to throw a bucket in the water to come up with fish. A moratorium on fishing had to be imposed in 1994. By 2010, after a spectacular increase of 69% in stocks in just three years, fish levels had recovered – to just 10% of where they were in the 1960s.

Fish respect no frontiers.
Fishing regulation is urgent and has to be international

The measure adopted by the Parliament is likely to be implemented because it has the support of national governments. This morning, the British minister with responsibility for fisheries, Richard Benyon, was interviewed by Justin Webb on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Benyon was clearly delighted at what was happening, because Britain had been in the forefront of the campaign to get the ‘legally binding commitment to ensure that fishing rates are set sustainably’ which he regarded as essential.

Curious. Doesn’t it just show how much further British government representatives get inside the EU when they take the lead on a necessary initiative, instead of just sitting on the sidelines and shouting ‘no’ from time to time?

That must have been the kind of thought that went through Webb’s mind too, because he asked, ‘what would happen if we left the European Union, what effect would it have on fish in the sea?’

Quite so. One of the great strengths of the EU is that if offers precisely the kind of structure through which one can from time to obtain a ‘legally binding commitment’ of the type Benyon thought was necessary. So how did he think things would go if we left the EU?

‘I play the hand I’ve been dealt...,’ he pointed out before going on to add ‘we’re going to have to have some kind of arrangement where we talk between countries about how we manage stocks that swim across borders.’

Exactly right. Somehow we’re going to have to talk to each other anyway. Just because Nigel Farage and his UKIP supporters say we can demand independence from the EU doesn’t make us any less dependent on the other member states. We have to talk to them. We need their collaboration if 
we’re to have the kind of arrangements we all ultimately know we need.

‘I play the hand I’ve been dealt...’ Benyon said. And if Cameron lets himself be pushed by the right of his own party and by UKIP into leaving the EU, the hand will become considerably more difficult to play.

Another of the important little questions we face will become all the harder. There are lots and lots of little questions. Taken together they add up to something big.

Worth bearing in mind before casually deciding the European Union isn’t for Britain.

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