The Hague Preference.
Robert Ludlum really should have come up with that one before Fisheries Ministers did. It would have been a perfect fit for his tersely titled, spy thrillers. Since 2002 though it has been a small part of the complex architecture of the worst piece of policy making currently implemented by the EU – The Common Fisheries Policy.
The worst piece of policy making? Really?
Well, when the commissioner responsible for its enforcement, Maria Damanaki, apologises for it you can assume that it is not actually fit for purpose.
The Hague Preference is a codicil to the policy that depending on your point of view has either kept fishing communities in Ireland and Scotland alive or has contributed to the depletion of fish stocks to close to the point of no return.
The CFP was supposed to apportion quota on a basis that would sustain an economically viable industry and increase fish stocks side by side. It failed miserably at both. In reality marine biologists were presenting their warnings to the fisheries ministers every year. The ministers would thank them, make some of the right noises about preserving fish stocks and then get stuck into extracting every last kilo of quota possible at the negotiating table. Fishermen were spending more and more time at sea and extracting less and less fish because the stocks just weren’t there. The increased costs associated with fishing this way were pushing them to the wall. Fishermen and fish were losing out because policy makers couldn’t change their way of doing business.
You can read the Euro speak definition of The Hague Preference here if you want to give yourself a headache. In plain English though it allowed Scottish and Irish fishermen to ignore reductions in the Total Allowable Catch because their financial situations were so precarious. The Hague Preference alone isn’t responsible for depletion of North Atlantic fish stocks (they’re actually on the rise) but it is a good illustration of how the CFP served nobody’s long term interests.
Though Fish Discards is only a single aspect of the CFP it is the one that has forced the pace of all the other reforms. There’s a handful of celebrity chefs and NGO’s that should take a bow here. Highlighting the stupidity of chucking a quarter of everything that has been caught back into the sea to die made it profitable for some politicians to push CFP changes up their agenda. Regrettably though as an unsustainable system was left to run for so long change will bring upheaval. Everybody claiming authorship of the reform process is pushing a long term increase of 37,000 jobs in the sector across the EU. It is hard to see in the short to medium term, though, how allowing stocks to replenish won’t also see further job losses.
I explored more of these tensions in a radio piece you can podcast here. Inevitably now though whatever distress is caused in coastal communities will be painted as a clash between environmental and social priorities. But if you need a scapegoat – decades of a “slice of the pie” approach to politics would be a far more fitting suspect.