EU fishing reform under fire

BRUSSELS – Tempers are expected to reach dangerous levels at a European Union ministers’ meeting tomorrow to respond to Draconian proposals to downsize the European fishing industry with the loss of thousands of jobs. EU members with a particular stake in the fishing industry – especially France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Ireland – are seething at EU plans to overhaul the Union’s fisheries policy, aimed at rescuing depleting stocks. According to estimates by the European Commission, the EU executive, Italy, Spain and France would have to bear the brunt, taking 60 percent of overall fleet reductions envisaged for the 15. Ireland, another fishing nation, risks losing a third of its fleet. Franz Fischler, the commission member responsible for drafting the controversial plans, will have to confront the combined wrath of the fishing countries at the fisheries ministers’ session in Luxembourg tomorrow, although he may find a more sympathetic ear from northern nations more attuned to environmental issues. Under the overhaul, as many as 28,000 fishery jobs could be eliminated between 2003 and 2006. Fischler, the agriculture and fisheries commissioner, told a forum in Madrid Friday: «The reduction of the fishing fleet will initially mean job losses in the short term, but in the long term it is the only way to guarantee employment in the sector.» In essence, the commission wants to cut fishing fleet capacity by ending public subsidies for the introduction of new fishing vessels, reduce the maximum limit of allowable catches and introduce satellite surveillance enforcement. By way of compensation, more EU money would be made available to help fishermen find alternative work and to restructure the sector. EU ministers must agree to the package before it can be implemented. A diplomat said of tomorrow’s session: «The background to the discussion will be laid down, but unfortunately not in an atmosphere of consensus. The commission set the stakes very high, as high as possible.» «The opening debate is going to be awfully difficult,» he added. «Everybody is agreed on overcapacity and the need to adapt the fleet to the resources,» said a source close to the current Spanish presidency of the EU. «The differences are over how to do it.» Criticism has reached vitriolic levels. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin – who was campaigning for yesterday’s first-round parliamentary elections in his country – described the proposals as «incomplete, insufficient, inadmissible.» French Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard, who will attend the Luxembourg session, questioned the very principle of the restructuring proposals. Portugal has toned down an original threat to use its veto against the proposals in the Council of Ministers, but remains bitterly opposed, calling the plans unacceptable, with «irreversible consequences.» Spain, queen of the EU fishing industry, has announced its determination to oppose the reforms by all means at its disposal, including a possible appeal to the European Court of Justice. Italy hopes to get the backing of other southern EU members for a joint proposal to «sustain the modernization of the fishing fleet» – the opposite of what Fischler has in mind. In Copenhagen on Thursday, Fischler rejected allegations that he had let the northern fleets off lightly. «All the EU fleets will have to make sacrifices,» he said. Denmark will have to give up 15.8 percent of its fishing fleet, according to Brussels estimates. «The communication formula is tried and tested. On the one hand, the party secretary is fighting tooth and nail to rally the party and on the other, the minister is giving up the fight for personal reasons and spoiling the climate. There is more than a whiff of Stalinism in his handling of the situation,» said the source.

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