17 March 2023
A fishers’ coalition takes the European Commission to court for unlawful ‘failure to act’
17 March 2023
Press release – On BLOOM’s initiative, the association LIFE (‘Low-Impact Fishers of Europe’) and 27 French, Belgian, Dutch and British fishers filed an appeal against the European Commission on 14 March before the Court of Justice of the European Union for ‘failure to act’ and ‘poor administration’ in the European electric fishing scandal.(1) The European Commission has refused to investigate the complaint filed by fishers in spring 2021 to obtain the reimbursement of illegal subsidies allocated to electric fishing.
The fishers’ complaint, which the Commission has ignored, relates to facts prior to the EU ban on electric fishing, effective from 1 July 2021, following an intense campaign by BLOOM and coastal fishers. The legitimacy of the original complaint was clear: the Netherlands had equipped five times more vessels for electric fishing than the permitted limit (84 compared to 15), even though financial support for European fleets is conditional on compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). By violating the regulatory framework imposed by the European Union, the European subsidies allocated to electric fishing were therefore also illegal.
Logically, the European Commission should have investigated the 2021 fishers’ complaint and opened an infringement procedure against the Netherlands. Instead, the Commission adopted a strategy of attrition to try to get rid of the complaint, playing for time and acting in bad faith while counting on BLOOM and the fishers to run out of steam.
This was obviously a poor assessment of the players involved, who are used to a cynical French government and a professional representative body (the ‘Comité national des pêches maritimes et des élevages marins’ – CNPMEM, i.e. the French National Committee of Maritime Fisheries) that is complicit with the Dutch fishing industry, as well as being accustomed to deploying an extraordinary level of perseverance in order to win their case.(2)
BLOOM demands justice be carried out
Usually, appeals to the Court of Justice of the European Union are reserved for Member States and the European Commission. BLOOM observed this citizen disempowerment when the European Commission(3), and then France(4), refused to refer the matter to the Court of Justice when the illegality of the licenses granted to Dutch vessels became apparent in 2019.(5)
The current appeal is one of the rare exceptions that allow citizens whose economic interests have been directly affected to bring a case before the Court of Justice of the European Union. This is the case for fishers who have suffered a competition imbalance due to the financing of electric fishing by public subsidies. BLOOM has prepared the case but is not able to be a co-plaintiff as an environmental organization has no ‘interest to sue’ in the eyes of the highest European judicial institution, which is a huge obstacle for the effectiveness of NGOs.
Nevertheless, BLOOM has high expectations for this appeal, which represents the last chance for citizens, and in particular for European taxpayers, marine ecosystems and coastal fishers, to obtain justice. It is worth remembering that electric fishing has had dramatic consequences on the flotilla of gillnetters who have suffered collective bankruptcy and led to the closure of the Dunkirk fish market in the autumn of 2020.
Public money continues to benefit the ocean’s gravediggers
The mismanagement of public funds, denounced by both BLOOM and fishers in their appeal, is continuing relentlessly in the Netherlands, on an even more serious scale: using the Brexit Adjustment Reserve Fund, this Member State has just decided to finance the demolition of old electric fishing vessels through a envelope budget of 155 million euros allocated to 70 trawlers. It is unacceptable that public money is once again being used to compensate industrialists who became rich by bypassing the law.
A BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE FACTS
In March 2021, LIFE and 36 European fishers filed a complaint with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) to demand the reimbursement of public subsidies allocated to electric fishing.
On 16 April 2021, DG COMP sent a letter to each plaintiff claiming that “this is a matter of fisheries policy”. The plaintiffs contested this decision and requested the registration of their complaint, via a letter sent through a law firm on 4 August 2021.
On 22 November 2021, DG COMP wrote that “no link [could] be established between a payment made under the EFF and FEAMP and electric trawling activity” and concluded that “we do not see any elements of potentially illegal state aid that would require further investigation”.
On 4 April 2022, the fishers’ coalition, supported by BLOOM, sent back a letter with additional evidence via the law firm in charge of the case. After a reminder of its obligations, DG COMP replied on 9 September 2022 that “there has been no violation of the rules applicable to EU fisheries funds.”
On 8 November 2022, the fishers’ coalition sent a formal notice to the European Commission through a lawyer, the last reminder before legal action.
FIND OUT MORE
(1) On the basis of the interest to sue principle, which requires that the plaintiff has directly suffered financial damage, BLOOM cannot be a plaintiff. We have therefore provided all the evidence and follow-up on this case.
(2) The Macron government has blocked the ban on demersal seining, despite the fact that 98% of fishers in Normandy and the North of France called for it. https://www.bloomassociation.org/en/trilogue-demersal-seine
(3) On 1 February 2021, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries acknowledged the infringements concerning the number of derogations allocated to electric fishing and announced that it was up to the College of Commissioners to decide whether or not to open “formal infringement proceedings against the Netherlands” for non-compliance with EU law. No legal action has been taken.
(5) In contrast, in 2019, the Netherlands did not hesitate in referring the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union in an attempt to obtain the annulment of the ban on electric fishing that had been democratically decided by the EU.