The difficult process of reforming the EU Common Fisheries Policy has been grinding on for at least two years. For months it has been obvious to most observers, and it is now officially accepted, that the original target of having a new management policy in place for the start of 2013 will not be met.
At present, waters within 12 nautical miles of each EU nation's coastline are exempted from the general principle of equal access built into the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Accordingly, fish stocks in waters within the 12-mile zone around Scotland are managed by the Scottish government for the benefit of Scotland's coastal communities. This exemption however expires on 31st December 2012 and unless urgent legislation is adopted, coastal waters could potentially be opened up to all EU vessels after that date.
The European Commission has had to act, and has proposed an extension of two years to the exemption, and I have been given the responsibility, as rapporteur, of ensuring the legislation is approved by the European Parliament before the current rules run out. The 12-mile zones around Scotland contain vital fishing grounds for the nation's fleets. They have been managed by the Scottish authorities for the benefit of Scottish fishermen - and accordingly they have been managed well.
When the Commission was reviewing the CFP a couple of years back they accepted that Europe's 12-mile zones were amongst the best managed waters in the EU. Free from centralised Brussels control, individual fishing nations have managed to put in place conservation and control measures best suited to their local needs. The proposal that I am working on is of an urgent nature as the current safeguards expire in a few months time. It is imperative that this is not allowed to happen, so the immediate priority is to extend the measures beyond December of this year.
However, in the longer term, lessons should be learned from the acknowledged success of national control of these coastal waters. This success contrasts sharply with the complete failure of a Brussels-controlled CFP. National control has been shown to work at the inshore level - and the reformed CFP must allow for the exercise of real management powers at a national and regional level too.
There is some optimism that negotiations between the 27 member state governments on a reformed fisheries policy for Europe are beginning to head in the right direction, following a marathon session of the Council of Fisheries Ministers recently. But the Lisbon Treaty now requires that the Council and the European Parliament must agree on every detail, through the co-decision procedure, before a new policy can be confirmed.
In the European Parliament's Fisheries Committee, over 2,300 amendments have been tabled to the Commission's CFP reform proposal. It will not be easy to reach an acceptable compromise among MEPs. Reaching a common position between Council and Parliament will be even more problematic. The fishing nation of Scotland will be at a disadvantage again in these crucial negotiations, with our Fisheries Minister requiring a permit from Westminster to attend EU meetings. With Independence we would have far more clout in such important EU decisions.