Common Fisheries Policy: Compromise, compromise, compromise

Further progress towards reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was made today, as negotiations between EU Fisheries Ministers over the Basic Regulation came to a close. The discussions between EU governments took place to finalise the negotiating position of the European Council in the lead up to the last CFP trilogue between all three European institutions (Council, Commission and Parliament). After all-night negotiations, member states in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council came to an agreement, potentially overcoming a large hurdle in the implementation of the policy.

The process of reform of the CFP has been underway since 2011, with proposals initially developed by the European Commission. These were put forward to member states last year, and adopted by the EU Fisheries Ministers in a close vote. Specific reform proposals were voted on by the European Parliament, with a large majority of MEPs choosing to overhaul the current CFP. A strong position on overfishing, discards and sustainability was developed in the proposals and were all voted through, despite a number of proposed amendments.

With all three European institutions on board with reform of the policy, negotiations (called trilogues) to develop a common position on specific policy points began in February. To date, there have been five trilogues, with little agreed output. A final meeting is scheduled at the end of May. In advance of this, representatives of member states met this week to develop a final negotiating position.

Negotiations amongst EU governments were challenging, due to the number of member states that initially opposed reform of the policy. Concerns about the development of a suitable negotiating position for the final trilogue were raised by a number of MEPs at the end of April. The European Parliament and Council have equal decision making powers over reform of the CFP. If EU Ministers were unable to agree upon a negotiating mandate that forms at least a halfway compromise with proposals put forward by the European Parliament, there was concern that the reform of the policy would be blocked.

Although little extra policy detail has emerged from this week’s Council discussion, the mere agreement of a position by representatives of the member states will potentially enable final trilogue discussions to go ahead. A document released this morning shows the Council’s positions on a number of specific areas within the CFP. Both the use of maximum sustainable yield to determine fishing levels, and the phasing out of discards are mentioned, but timelines and targets for these are vague, especially compared to the European Parliament proposals.

The Irish Fisheries Minister, Simon Coveney TD, was positive: “I believe that the historical package agreed this morning will prepare the way for a European wide discards ban, facilitate more sustainable fishing levels in addition to appropriate management of fleet capacity and a workable regionalisation policy.”

One of the goals of the Irish EU presidency is to reach an agreement on the CFP reform before the end of the term in June. A tall order, but it can only be hoped that this will help drive the next set of challenging negotiations with the European Parliament. Parliament has confirmed it is willing to compromise, but it remains uncertain how far each side will go. The full proposals from the Council have now been put forward to the European Parliament to decide whether or not negotiations will continue on this basis. Rushing through these last stages of CFP reform could lead to the implementation of a policy that does not offer adequate protection over fish stocks and biodiversity, but if negotiations are rejected, there is a risk that the CFP will not be reformed at all. These next few weeks will be crucial.