Everyone agrees that too many European boats are chasing too few fish. Britain, along with other EU states, has agreed three Europe-wide programmes to pay off fishermen and scrap their boats. But the British Government refused at first to fund its share (30 per cent) of the compensation, so for many years the scheme was not available to British fishermen.
Why not? The Treasury blocked the scheme because it would have reduced the annual UK budget rebate from Brussels. Whatever the EU spent on paying off British boats would be deducted from the celebrated Thatcher cash- back scheme, which reduces Britain’s net budget deficit with the EU. The Government preferred to spend both its money, and the EU money, in other ways. Fisheries were not a priority.
This is complex but it is vital to an understanding of quota-hoppers. In the early Eighties, there were a couple of dozen. Their numbers exploded during the decade. Why? Because British trawler owners sold their boats to the Spanish and Dutch. Or in some cases they sold them to British brokers, who sold them to the Spanish and Dutch. Why? Because they were offering the best price.
The main alternative – EU scrapping grants – were not on offer in Britain. Why were the foreign skippers so keen to buy British boats? Because under British, not EU, regulations, if you bought the boat, you also got the licence to fish and a guaranteed share of the national quota.
It is a purely British government policy to break down the national quota boat by boat, and allow the sale of quotas, in this way. Other EU governments have other ways of enforcing (or in some cases failing to enforce) the Common Fisheries Policy.
There are quota-hoppers in other EU countries, a few dozen in Ireland, some in France and Denmark. But the greatest concentration is in Britain.
Spanish and Dutch “plunderers” bought their share of the British quota in good faith, exploiting, according to your viewpoint, EU single market law, the British Government’s belief that everything has a price, or a loophole in the Common Fisheries Policy. They now, reasonably enough, claim that they have an inalienable right to carry on fishing.
EU officials say that there are several ways in which Britain could make life difficult for quota-hoppers and stay within EU law. Britain could, for instance, insist that all British fishing boats must land a proportion of their annual catch (say, 30 per cent) for sale or processing at a British port. Until now, the Government has declined to do this. Why? Because many Scottish boats, in particular, like to sell their catches directly to Spain or France, where prices for some species are much higher.
Alternatively, EU officials say, the Government could introduce a law insisting that the crews of “British” fishing boats be covered by British social security and health insurance. This would drill several holes below the waterline of the economics of quota-hopping.
The Government has been reluctant to follow this up. Why? Because it would impose a new burden of regulation on British fishermen, as well as quota-hoppers. Many British fishing crews, who operate on a casual basis, would have to come fully into the social security system.
And so it goes on.
Is a solution possible? With good will, yes. But little good will exists between Britain and the EU at present. The Government appears to be changing its mind about introducing a British-boats-must-sell-some-fish-in-Britain rule. But it says that the rule should be enshrined in the EU constitution as part of the reforms of the treaties now under discussion.
This is silly, say Brussels officials. Such a law could be introduced in Britain within existing EU rules – as long as it applied to all boats, without discrimination. No treaty change is needed.
The suspicion is that the Government is no longer in the fish market for the kind of practical solutions that might help British fishermen. It is locked in a self-consciously Euro-sceptic posture, pandering to Euro-sceptic press and Tory backbenchers. The Government is right to fight for the interests of British fishermen. But, in this dispute, it has long since overfished its quota of red herring.