European Fishing negotiations must not be sunk by posturing


The First Minister has written to the Prime Minister about Europe. His letter decries the fact that Mr Lochhead, the Scottish Fisheries Secretary will not be leading the UK delegation at the upcoming EU Fisheries Council. The seat will instead be occupied by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Said undersecretary is a member of the House of Lords. This is not the first time the First Minister has written to the Prime Minister on this issue, always when there is a lord a leaping into the Council chamber.

I’m going to paraphrase the first Minister’s letter, since I am on a flight, and don’t have it to hand. However, these letters tend to write themselves, so here we go:

It is an outrage that Scotland’s vital fishing interests should be represented by an English peer. A disgrace that an unelected member of the House of Lords should speak on behalf of an industry which is dominated by Scottish interests. Mr Lochhead is Europe’s longest serving fisheries minister. What he doesn’t know about fishing isn’t worth knowing. This is a personal betrayal of the Prime Minister’s commitment to the spirit of the Smith Commission [That line is bound to be in there somewhere]

I could go on. However, I think that I have captured the gist. There would probably be a parting shot about the Tories and Europe, but I will leave you to fill that part in.

So, is it a disgrace and an outrage?

Let’s try and pick this apart. First off, the letters are sent invariably when a Lord is in the UK chair. Now, you may not like the hereditary principle. You may not like the House of Lords. You may believe that government ministers should not be drawn from the second chamber. There are arguments to be made there. However, the individual in question, Lord de Mauley, is a UK government minister. And no one would dispute the legitimacy of the UK government to lead the UK delegation.

Now, as to the question, 'who should speak for Scotland on fisheries?' the answer is clear - Mr Lochhead. He is the fisheries minister of the Scottish Government. He is served ably by civil servants from Marine Scotland in Aberdeen. The crux of the issue is rather when should Mr Lochhead speak for Scotland.

To be clear, whoever occupies the hot seat at the EU Fisheries Council speaks for the UK, all of it, the four home nations. This British position is determined through dialogue and debate with each of the fisheries ministries of the UK, their civil servants and support scientists; Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the UK (there being no English ministry). During the meeting in which the UK position is determined, I would expect Mr Lochhead to argue the Scottish case in the strongest possible terms. I would expect him to roll out facts and figures, to espouse cogent arguments. I would expect him to pound the table, assert that fishing in Scotland is vital, that by landings and earnings, Scotland is the most important fishing nation in the UK, second only to Spain in the whole EU. In short I would expect him to win the argument. I would expect the British negotiating position to be wrapped in a kilt.

However, I would also expect the other fisheries ministers from across the UK to make their case too. Let me put this issue in context. At the Fisheries Council to which Mr Salmond refers in his most recent letter, the key issue on the agenda is the fate of the deep-water fisheries which lie off the west coast of the British Isles. Scotland has the lions-share of the UK quota. It is a vital fishery to Scottish fishermen. However Scotland does not possess all of the UK quota; around 30% is caught by fishermen from the rest of the UK. I would anticipate the Fisheries Minister of Northern Ireland, Ms Michelle O'Neill, to have made this point in stentorian tones. For Northern Ireland the deep-water species quota remains an important trade for more the desirable quota of other species. The final British negotiating position would have to reflect this input too.

So at the Council meeting when the issue of deep-water fisheries is discussed, who should lead the UK delegation? Should it be Mr Lochhead who represents most UK deep-water fishermen? Ms Michelle O'Neill Northern Ireland for whom deep-water species remain an important trading commodity? Or de Mauley, peer of the realm, and deputy to UK Secretary of State for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, who represents the remaining deep-water fishermen as well as being the responsible officer of the UK Government?

It may come as some surprise to you but I don’t think it matters. Once you set aside the posturing, that is. With the British position agreed, as long as there are robust measures in place to ensure that any deviation from the position (that might be required in a fast moving negotiation) is affirmed by all the fisheries ministers, then anyone can articulate the position from the ‘hot seat’. This aspect almost certainly needs visiting by the Smith Commission, since I am not always certain such safeguards are in place.

The physical challenge of the Council room is one of space. In most Council designations it would be impossible to accommodate representatives of all regional governments. Germany alone would require 16 seats. In most instances there is a principal seat for the Member State 'negotiator', and further seats for the remainder of the delegation. Mr Lochhead is one of the most frequent attendees of Fisheries Councils. He was in attendance at today's Fisheries Council.

Given Mr Lochhead's tenure in the role - he is Europe's longest serving fisheries minister - it begs the question, 'why should he not lead the UK delegation?' He certainly has the experience and his support team is second to none.

This is perhaps the key question for the Smith Commission in terms of Scoltand's relatioons with the EU (as well as the relations of the other home nations). In the case of Germany, the lander discuss and agree amongst themselves who should lead for the 'regions'. Perhaps this is a model that can be deployed within the UK.

The challenge today is the assertion by Mr Salmond that Mr Lochhead should lead by right. I would argue that he, or indeed any other regional minister, should only lead by consent of his fellow regional ministers. In the Fisheries Council today, I have no way of knowing whether Mr Lochhead conducted bilateral discussions with his fellow fisheries ministers as to who could lead on their behalf. I have no way of knowing whether Mr Lochhead would have secured the consent of his fellow fisheries ministers, or whether the other ministers were content with Lord de Mauley.

Equally important, I have no way of knowing whether the UK position reflects adequately the needs of Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales. I don't know this because in the letter from Mr Salmond to Mr Cameron, the fishing issues on the Council agenda were not raised or discussed..

If there is to be serious constitutional reform in the relationship between the devolved administrations and the UK Government, and by extension the EU, then the challenge will be to ensure that fisheries ministers from the devolved administrations are able to agree amongst themselves which of their number should take the lead, where such lead is sensible and necessary. If you believe Mr Salmond's assertion then you would believe that this would always be Scotland. I would like to think that it would always be Scotland too but I doubt it. There are too many fishing interests across the UK measured in ways other than landings that would need to be recognised. I also see no reason why this revised model should not apply to all Council designations.

So, setting aside the ‘Lord a leaping’ issue, this is an area that does need further reform. Perhaps we can address this reform without the posturing. The Smith Commission must consider carefully how to ensure the interests of the UK family of nations are best served in an EU as well as a UK context.