The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Dr. Monica Verbeek, Director of Seas At Risk.
Almost ten months ago, “final negotiations” for a Baltic Multi-Annual fisheries Plan had started. They still haven’t ended. Why? Negotiators have hit an impasse caused by the Council, which seems unwilling to implement the objectives of a recently agreed reform in EU fisheries.

In 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council agreed to an ambitious reform of the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The policy now includes a binding commitment to end overfishing—a simple policy requirement that should result in a healthier marine environment, profitable fisheries, and viable coastal communities. If correctly implemented in a timely fashion, the CFP could overhaul decades of overfishing in our oceans. The establishment of regional long term multi-annual plans are a key component of the new policy, intended to minimize decision-making based on short-term interests and maximize the likelihood of sustainable fishing practices. The Baltic Multi-Annual Plan (MAP) is the first of its kind proposed under the reformed CFP. It is critically important that it reflects the objectives set out in the CFP and provides the tools needed to achieve them.

Following the CFP reform, a taskforce composed of selected representatives from the Council, the European Parliament, and the European Commission made a non-binding political deal that called for fishing limits in multi-annual plans to be expressed as ranges. When the Commission was drafting the proposal for a MAP for the Baltic, it asked the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) for ranges “around” sustainable fishing limits. This request implied that the Commission was willing to consider fishing limits above those clearly specified in the CFP, and which would result in continued overfishing.

However, the Parliament, led by the Polish MEP Jaros?aw Wa??sa, has been unwilling to agree to a plan that threatens the principal ambition of the CFP. On April 28th 2015, it overwhelmingly voted to an amended version of the Commission’s proposal which meets the requirements of the CFP. This position, backed by a large majority in the Parliament, gives the Rapporteur, Mr. Wa??sa, a strong negotiating position in the trilogue negotiations.

The Council on the other hand, welcomed the Commission proposal, and demanded additional flexibilities for setting the annual fishing quotas that effectively gives ministers the leeway to continue to legislate overfishing indefinitely.

Who has the power?

Here we come to the heart of the problem, namely that of power sharing and co-legislating. Prior to the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, the EU Fisheries Council was the sole decision-making body on fisheries policy. Without any scrutiny, it legislated overfishing for decades, leading to a serious mismanagement of a public resource. Now the Parliament shares that power and the 2013 reform of the CFP saw the Parliament, encouraged by civil society, fighting for an end to overfishing in European seas. Whilst the setting of annual fishing opportunities remains the sole competency of the Council, the levels of fishing are constrained to those set out in the multi-annual plans, which in turn must reflect the objectives of the CFP.

The position of the Council is painting a clear picture: a request for exceptions, loopholes and flexibilities which would allow overfishing to continue. These conflicting positions between the two institutions have resulted in a stalemate which has lasted for almost a year. Much is at play, as the Council’s failure to agree to a Baltic multi-annual plan that meets the objectives of the CFP would threaten the policy’s very implementation. The continued stalemate is also impeding the adoption of multi-annual plans in other sea regions, as the Commission categorically refuses to publish any other plans until this first one is agreed.

When the Dutch took over the Council Presidency in January, some light appeared at the end of the tunnel. The Presidency agenda contained ambitious timelines for the adoption of the Baltic MAP and the development of a future North Sea MAP. When Minister Van Dam went before the Parliament to present the Dutch Council Presidency’s priorities, he stated, “of course [the Baltic plan] has to be in line with the CFP”. Yet three months into their tenure, the Presidency has so far resisted asking for a change in the Council’s position. With negotiations scheduled to reconvene on March 15th, the question is: will Van Dam recognise that the Council’s position contradicts the CFP and that Parliament is correct to oppose it? And will he seek a new mandate from fisheries ministers to adapt the Council’s position in order to secure a compromise?

These plans are a crucial part of the CFP, and there is no space for those that risk continuing the failed short-termism that has marred EU fisheries policy previously. We are looking to Van Dam to break the blockage and lead ministers in agreeing to a plan that is in line with the CFP and the long-term interests of sustainable fishing, the marine environment and fishing communities.

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