European Fisheries Subsidies: the EMFAF 2021-2027 deal, a major step backwards

A sixteen-year step back for the next decade: this is what the European institutions have just done in terms of fisheries subsidy policy on the night of 3 to 4 December 2020 by adopting the future European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF: 2021-2027). All this, under the satisfied gaze of the industrial lobbies, which signed one of their greatest victories since the beginning of the 2000s. A comeback that will surely go down in the European records of environmental renunciation.

On the evening of Thursday 3 December 2020, the European Commission, the Parliament and the Council of the European Union met for the last time face to face in a trilogue meeting to ‘negotiate’ the next EMFAF, which will cover the 2021-2027 period.[1] ‘Negotiate’ with air quotes, given how much Council has managed to impose its toxic will on a text that had already enraged environmental NGOs for almost two years.

Chronicle of a scandal

As early as March 2019, BLOOM rang the alarm bell on the next fund. At that time, the first political manoeuvres hinted at the worst with regard to the use of this programme worth over six billion euros. We were rightly concerned about the plethora of amendments (more than 1 000!) tabled by the members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries (PECH). Given that the European Commission had already opened the first loopholes in the sustainability objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)[2], MEPs had no scruples about going even further by proposing to reintroduce construction subsidies — which were banned 16 years ago due to their particularly harmful impacts — and extending the scope of aid for modernisation.

Since the 1990s, experts, scientists and international organisations have been unanimous: public aid for construction and modernisation is the main cause of overfishing in the world. Inexorably, they lead to the overexploitation of resources by providing incentives to fish beyond the economic equilibrium and well beyond the biological equilibrium. But as soon as it comes to favouring a completely obsolete productivist model, political decision-makers are clearly not interested in scientific recommendations. Instead of putting their own inventiveness at the service of a new sustainable fishing model, they prefer to use their prolific imagination to justify the unjustifiable and resurrect the recipes that led to the worst.

Further to its approval at a Plenary session of the Parliament in April 2019, this initial position was welcomed as a gift by States and industrial lobbies, who only had to put pressure within the Council to push the limits even further. When Council published its own position on 18 June 2019, all our fears were confirmed. The already-weak limits set by the European Parliament to control public subsidies were swept away, thus paving the way for subsidized overfishing in Europe.

Despite whinning, the Commission did nothing

Under constant pressure the co-legislators, the multiplied shy and empty statements instead of showing its muscles. While it had clearly identified the risks induced by the toxic positions of both the Parliament and Council, the Commission deliberately decided not to resort to the only political weapon at its disposal: the straightforward withdrawal of its initial proposal as BLOOM had requested as early as November 2019[3]. Such a decision would have made it possible to start the legislative process all over again and to establish much stronger barriers. The Commission did nothing of the sort and unquestionably yielded, especially in presence of the Council, which led the way and pushed back all the progress made over the last two decades.

While the negotiations at the WTO (World Trade Organization) to reach an agreement on fishing subsidies by the end of the year are stumbling over positions dictated by sovereign interests, the European Union has thus given this already struggling multilateral body another blow.

Total victory for the Council!

Upon examining the first elements communicated on the agreement reached during the night of 3 to 4 December 2020, it appears that Council has clearly succeeded in imposing its views, in particular on subsidies that encourage the construction of new boats. While Parliament had managed to curb its appetite by restricting itself to boats less than 12 metres long, Council managed to extend the measure to all boats up to 24 metres. The same goes for the replacement or modernisation of engines on vessels: it is authorised for vessels under 12 metres and is conditional on a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions for 12-24 metres[4]. When we know how hard the Commission is already struggling to control engine power and the real capacity of European fleets, we can only be sceptical about its ability to guarantee that such criteria will indeed be respected.

As a way of emphasizing the point and making sure that the EU’s environmental ambitions were crushed even further on the battlefield of productivism, the unique, small consolation prize agreed by the European Parliament — i.e. the proposal to devote 25% of the budget to the protection, restoration and knowledge of the marine environment — was also swept aside. In other words, no specific budget is planned for the protection of biodiversity. For this crucial area — and as the European Court of Auditors recently reminded us — we will once again have to rely on scraps.

Notes et références

[1] Initially entitled “EMFF” like its predecessor, it was however decided to add the term “Aquaculture” to the acronym, which thus became: EMFAF.

[2] In particular: 1) by proposing aid for the replacement or modernisation of engines for small-scale coastal fishing, 2) by not defining any envelope dedicated to the protection, restoration and knowledge of the marine environment. For more information on the different positions of these three institutions and on the BLOOM red lines, see: (N.B. This text is available only in French).


[4] Advocates of efficient and destructive fishing methods already have no difficulty in justifying their fuel savings, thus demonstrating their innovative nature. The Danish seine and electric fishing, which are strongly supported by the Dutch industry, are two examples that are provoking the anger and dismay of coastal fishers.

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