As MEPs gathered in Strasbourg for the November plenary session of the European Parliament, Agriculture and Fisheries Ministers from the 27 EU member states were meeting in Brussels to negotiate deals in which Scotlandʼs interests were considerable.
Although in most policy areas the European Parliament is very powerful, with co-decision meaning that our views must be taken into account, under current EU Treaty rules both agriculture and fisheries policy decisions are taken solely by Ministers meeting in the Council. Although the European Parliament has lengthy and controversial debates on agriculture and fisheries topics, our input to the decision-making process is only consultative.
Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead MSP was in attendance in Brussels as part of the UK delegation, unfortunately not as lead negotiator – that role being jealously guarded by Westminster Ministers. Nevertheless some progress on Scotlandʼs priorities was made, thanks to the determined efforts of Richard and his team of Scottish civil servants.
The crucial Cod Recovery Plan was the main topic of fisheries business and the outcome underlined the significant success of the Scottish approach to sustainable fisheries management which during 2008 has allowed for certain management decisions to be taken by the Scottish Government in conjunction with the industry.
The November agreement allows responsibility for more day to day fisheries management to be devolved, and rewards Scotland for its innovative approach and to some extent takes account of past sacrifices on our part.
One of the most important parts of the deal is the aim of reducing the discarding of healthy fish, usually dead, back into the sea. The new Cod Recovery Plan is based on the approach used in Scotland this year whereby the number of days which vessels can spend at sea can be increased if operators sign up to the package of conservation measures which include more selective fishing gear and temporary or seasonal closures of fishing grounds.
The SNP has long argued that the Common Fisheries Policy has been ineffective and grossly over-centralised. With the CFP review process now underway in the run up to 2012, even the European Commission is admitting that the policy has been a failure. The challenge for Scotland in the short term is to keep up the good work being done by the Scottish Government, in order to make the best possible deals for our fishing communities.
Importantly though, it is only with independence that Scotland would be guaranteed the right to negotiate and vote in the Council of Ministers!