We don’t have to step too far back from the turmoil threatening parts of the European Union to see that EU membership has been a hugely positive experience for Ireland.
Membership was the catalyst for economic transformation, social progress, as well as new standards and ambitions in education.
It turned a backward, almost subsistent farming sector into something completely modern. Along with the growth of the great, empowering co-ops the impact of membership in rural Ireland was transformative. It turned a society not too far removed from peasant farming into a process that could support and ultimately educate a family. It allowed Ireland step out of the shadow cast by prices set by markets in Britain. All of a sudden, the horizon was much broader, the future had so much more to offer. Membership, however, was not a tide that lifted all boats.
Our commercial fishing fleet has paid a very high price. It has suffered years of decline and been excluded by a concentration of the fishing effort and technological advances. They were made redundant while stocks traditionally theirs were exploited by other EU states. Quotas have, as they did in the dairy sector, limited output. And, as milk quotas are about to become a thing of the past, it’s time to reshape EU fisheries to encourage rather than exclude small producers.
Demand was never higher and continues to grow yet whole swathes of our industry are precluded from making best use of that opportunity. Europeans consume around 12 million tonnes — valued at approximately €60bn — of seafood every year, yet the capacity of European fisheries to satisfy that demand has declined. In the 1990s imports matched about 40% of demand but now that figure approaches 65% and shows no sign of falling. That is despite the EU leasing fisheries from African nations and undermining local economies by doing so.
Talks on reforming the EU Common Fisheries Policy have opened and Fisheries Minister Simon Coveney yesterday registered a good opening score by helping to block a European Commission proposal for mandatory transferable quotas. The fear was that this would make it even more difficult for relatively small Irish operations compete with international conglomerates for even the right to fish. This is a good start but many contentious issues remain, especially the immoral waste and huge conservation issues around discards.
Commercial fishing has earned, rightly or wrongly, a questionable reputation especially as technological advances mean that fish can be caught faster than they can reproduce and reach maturity. Far too many fish populations are in a precarious position but far too many people have had to step aside from the Irish fishery sector to allow others exploit the resource.
This situation has not gone unrecognised and EU Maritime Affairs Commissioner Maria Damanaki has acknowledged that Ireland has suffered under the CFP and has promised a “level playing field” during the current review. Let us hope she delivers.
Increasingly, it seems the function of government is to stand between big business and its citizens. This was shown again yesterday when mandatory transferable quota proposals were blocked. This was a good first step as Ireland cannot afford to look on while others enjoy the riches of the seas all around this island. They, and a well run aquaculture sector, offer the kind of promise so badly needed today.
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