20 April 2023
Undue pressure from a panicked minister
20 April 2023
The French Secretary of State for the Sea Hervé Berville has certainly forged a path in fire.
After having ignited spirits in March with his apocalyptic statements announcing the imminent disappearance of French fishing due, according to him, to the implementation of real Marine Protected Areas in French waters, the French Secretary of State is now trying to extinguish the fire caused by his words.
However, it is neither the fire of the French Office of Biodiversity (OFB) building (responsible for nature protection), targeted by angry fishers and burnt down on the night of March 30, nor the fire generated among the OFB agents by denigrating the core of their mission, that concern him.
Instead, the French Secretary of State for the Sea is using his ministry’s resources to try to extinguish the media fire generated by his statements and is demanding that journalists correct their press articles. The journalism pieces concerned set out his lies, and give a voice to the scientists, unions and associations that denounce the campaign of disinformation, inappropriate of a ministerial function, that he conducted in March.
After having pressured MEPs during the vote of a European resolution calling for a ban on demersal seine fishing (‘flyshooting’) in French territorial waters in September 2023, the Secretary of State is now targeting journalists.
Beyond the issues of ocean protection and the French fishing sector’s transition, it is a certain idea of democracy and the separation of powers that is at stake here.
On Tuesday 11 April, BLOOM filed a complaint against the French Secretary of State for the Sea Hervé Berville before the Court of Justice of the French Republic. This complaint followed a large-scale disinformation campaign led by Hervé Berville against the European Commission’s ‘Ocean Action Plan’. This included a campaign of fake news that led to the burning of the French Office of Biodiversity (OFB) building in the night of March 30 to 31, 2023, and a triumphant communiqué from the Secretary of State on April 2, 2023, upon his return from Brussels, in order to mask a diplomatic humiliation and announce a supposed victory over the European Commission.
This chain of events caught the attention of the media, which analyzed Hervé Berville’s lies, interviewed scientists, environmental protection associations and OFB agents, and reported on the complaint filed against him before the Court of Justice of the French Republic.
Panicked by the media coverage concerning him, the Secretary of State for the Sea did not initiate any mea culpa towards the fishers who protested against an imaginary peril constructed from scratch by his misleading speeches, nor towards the OFB agents and civil servants who reported, under cover of anonymity, their dismay and incomprehension in the face of an official communication that unambiguously buried their work and refused any public expression of support towards them.
On the contrary, the Secretary of State and his cabinet asked journalists, who had the audacity to denounce his misleading communication, to review their publications. Their reasoning? To reaffirm that the ‘Ocean Action Plan’ would pose a threat to French fishing, by putting forward the argument that the Commission decided to initiate infringement procedures against countries that would not apply its plan.
This communication strategy from the Secretary of State Hervé Berville deserves a public, detailed response. For it is one thing to construct an imaginary danger to mobilize fishers, to bury a necessary debate on the transition of the fishing sector, and to maintain the status quo in favor of the trawl lobby at the expense of artisanal and coastal fishers. Yet it is another to provide journalists with biased and completely misleading information in order to silence criticism and discredit the scientists, labor unions and associations that have spoken out against him.
On 1 March in the European Parliament, DG ENVI, however, explained very clearly to the members of the Committee on Fisheries the context of this ‘Ocean Action Plan’, which is not binding, but which constitutes the umpteenth reminder, encouragement or invitation to discussion so that Member States finally comply with existing European law(1). In this case, this law has existed since the adoption, in 1992 and 2009, of the Natura 2000 directives on the protection of habitats and birds. The action plan suggests a deadline in 2024 to begin implementation of the directive dating from … 1992, and another deadline in 2030 for the implementation of the directive dating from … 2009.
Between 20 and 30 years of relief! This is the sudden existential threat that the Secretary of State for the Sea, Hervé Berville, has been talking about for over a month, without ever specifying that the Commission is relaunching “amicable” discussions and offering a delay to States that, like France, have been knowingly disobeying European environmental standards for decades, and have already been condemned for it.
Indeed, France has already been prosecuted, and condemned, twice, in 2000 and 2010, for not having applied European law on marine protection in Natura 2000 areas.
There is therefore nothing new in mentioning potential future infringement proceedings if States do not protect their supposedly “protected” Marine Protected Areas. Such procedures have already taken place before and led to convictions before the Court of Justice of the EU. Above all, if the European Commission were to annul this “Ocean Action Plan”, the European Commission could still initiate proceedings against France and its sham marine protection policy. This is because these procedures would be based on the directives of… 1992 and 2009, which are well known, but blatantly ignored by France, which prides itself on virtue without taking any concrete measure.
The National Union for the Environment, the main labor organization within public environmental institutions in France, including the OFB, made no mistake in its letter to Hervé Berville dated 14 April, “reminding that setting an example requires the implementation of the necessary measures and means of management, support and control without waiting for legal penalties [translated from French].
Especially since here, with no legal sanction in sight: a new European Parliament will be elected, and a new European Commission will be appointed in 2024. The ‘Ocean Action Plan’ and its deadlines will therefore certainly be subject to new negotiations. On 21 February 2023, when the “Action Plan” was published, we were already deploring this organized powerlessness.
After years of ignoring scientists’ calls and the Court of Justice of the European Union’s condemnations, France could have and should have seized the opportunity offered by the “Ocean Action Plan” to initiate the fishing sector’s transition in the face of the collapse of biodiversity on our coasts, the destruction of marine habitats and the social draining in the fishing sector, now under a drip-feed of diesel subsidies.
France has failed to do so.
After a disinformation campaign making the European Commission out to be the source of all evils, a government that claims to be Europhile and attached to European law tells journalists to adhere to its apocalyptic discourse while silently renouncing and disobeying its recommendations.
(1) Déclaration from the DG ENVI: “Indeed I am happy to confirm that this Action Plan is really building on existing acquis. And when you say well, we feel completely sidelined here, and we feel that you are ignoring where we want to go, I would tell you, today, under the Habitats and Birds Directive, if you have created a marine area, where you have fixed to yourself as the conservation goal that you want to protect the seabed, continuing to allow bottom-trawling is clearly, legally, not OK. So, I understand from what you are saying that in a way, you would have preferred us to commit to start immediately a lot of infringement procedures, whereas the approach that has been chosen by Commissioner Sinkevicius is, one, to once again, try to change things in cooperation with the Member States and the fishery community to eventually phase out those practices, there where they are not compatible with the acquis, but also I would say, that are eventually leading the fishery community to shoot itself on its feet. Something that clearly we do not want. Because we really want our fishery community to truly be competitive and resilient in the long-term (…) All we are saying is that there should be a gradual approach to secure enhanced compliance with the environmental acquis and enhanced compliance with the already stated goals of the fishery policy. So what we are trying to do is to develop a timetable for action. By the way, I would also like to say to the honorable members that it is not the first time that the European Commission comes up with Action Plans, I’m thinking of so many others, where we put down obligations also to ourselves (…) Some of you have asked, “what do you do if the Member States don’t comply”. Well, I must say indeed, I see that for those marine protected areas where we have seabed protection as the conservation goal, we will have to launch a string of very fast infringement proceedings, building on some actions that are already done, and going ahead, very very fast, so we will see each other in Luxembourg. I’m not sure this is the necessary best approach right now”. (See here, from 12:35)