Europe – and our place in it – is never far away from the forefront of politics and passionate debate. Being part of the EU affects all walks of life, but most especially fishing. Indeed, the very term Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) stokes the strongest emotions within the industry: of all the people in the land and of all the home businesses, the fishing industry is among those most acutely affected by EU membership.
With a referendum on our membership now looming, it is important that in the fishing industry we examine carefully what this might mean for us. The SFF will not be recommending which way to vote – that is up to our individual members – but we can highlight some of the issues affecting fishing that will be at the forefront of the debate, and which hopefully will be of use to our fishermen and perhaps others in the seafood industry as they make up their minds.
For the individual voters involved, the fundamental question is whether there is scope to beneficially develop the CFP inside the EU, or, should the referendum so decide, would leaving the EU be the best option?
It is worth reminding ourselves why fishing takes a unique position in Europe, making it so different from other industry sectors. Sovereignty and jurisdiction (beyond each Member State’s slim strip of territorial waters) is pooled and the EU uses the Common Fisheries Policy to govern every aspect of the industry. That fundamental change – the trading of sovereignty for collective control – took place when we joined. Collaboration is vital under any governance regime, but non-EU Coastal States such as Norway and Iceland retain jurisdiction and negotiate on their own behalf.
If the UK were to leave the EU, then the UK’s long-lost control over the greater part of the northern European fishing grounds would be restored. This is a statement of fact rather than a killer argument for withdrawal because, of course, there are other factors to consider in the balance. This is because whilst regaining control of our fisheries, the UK (like Norway and Iceland) would still have to set its own fishing opportunities in prudent accordance with fish-stock science and through negotiation with other coastal states, including those still in membership of the EU.
Despite this, from the fishing industry point of view, leaving the CFP still instinctively sounds like a good thing – more so if the balance between that gain and the other effects of leaving the EU turned out to be positive – and of course, presuming that the UK and Scottish home nation governments could do a better fisheries management job than the EU does at the moment.
But the whole debate is much more complicated than this, and the balance of benefits brought through membership of the EU also needs to be carefully considered – not least those provided by an open market place for our seafood products, and no doubt for many other reasons too. The free movement of labour within the Euro-zone is a contentious issue, but it is undeniably one that has benefited fishing and our precious seafood processing sector.
We could spend all day listing the faults of the CFP, but the major underlying one is the persistent micro-management from Brussels and lack of regional control of fisheries. Much better instead to manage fisheries regionally and adopt regional management for regional issues, and the recently reformed CFP did go some way towards achieving this – management has moved closer to the practitioners, but that change now needs to be developed further. From those politicians arguing for us to stay within the EU, we would like to see a pledge on that.
But whatever the outcome of the referendum, it would certainly be a tragedy if fishing were to be put on the back burner by the UK and Scottish governments – and indeed by the EU if we remain within the Union. Despite representing a small proportion of overall national GDP, fishing remains a crucially important means of contributing to food security in a sustainable manner. For Scotland, fishing is worth over almost £1/2bn in landings alone – once you add the processing and aquaculture element, then the overall economic contribution of seafood to our country is immense – and especially so for those areas where fishing is based.
This is why fishing and associated industries such as the processing sector needs a comprehensive framework of support that will enable it to thrive – whether inside or outside the EU.