Investigate Europe interviewed Andrea Ripol, Fisheries Policy Officer at Seas At Risk, an NGO which, in collaboration with Corporate Europe Observatory, exposed the access and the influence the fishing industry lobby has, in the past, had over national governments during Council meetings — leading to overfishing.
The EU Council has been fiercely criticised for making decisions behind closed doors. However, you did an investigation showing that for two years in a row, the fishing industry managed to pass through these closed doors.
AR: In 2017, Seas At Risk and Corporate Europe published an investigation called Fishing for Influence, revealing how lack of transparency in the Council [of the EU] and industry lobbying caused more overfishing in the European Seas. Fishing industry lobbyists used press passes to access the Council building during crucial ministerial negotiations on fishing quotas regarding the North East Atlantic Fisheries. During December 2016 negotiations, Dutch fishing industry lobbyists met with the Dutch fisheries minister inside the Council building to give input on quota proposals; in 2015, it was industry representatives from Spain who gained access to the Council building via press passes. They managed to present themselves as journalists, saying that they were directors or managers of the newsletter of their own company. This granted the industry privileged information and an opportunity to influence the national governments with their arguments.
How did you find out about the presence of the fishing industry in the AgriFish Council?
The industry shared the information on Twitter. In order to give only an example, Maarten Drijver, chair of the Dutch fishing company VisNed, and other industry colleagues, were inside the Council building. A Dutch ministerial delegate announced “an initial short meeting with the representatives of the sector” with the lead Dutch Minister Martijn van Dam. In a Fishing News article, Drijver revealed that the previous week, Geert Meun (VisNed’s secretary) had received “via one of his contacts” a leaked European Commission proposal for the negotiations. This document, produced on the eve of negotiations, was not publicly available and gave the industry lobbyists a heads-up on what was to be discussed. In particular, they saw the Commission proposing quotas for certain species that were lower than what the industry had hoped for. To avoid this, the lobbyists were able to give Minister van Dam “extra ammunition” to argue for higher quotas during negotiations. This meeting was celebrated by the posting of this photo on both Geert Meun’s and VisNed’s Twitter account, with the caption: “First meeting with Secretary of State [to] increase sole and to maintain the level of turbot and brill.”
The same happened one year earlier with the Spanish fishing industry?
Yes, in December 2015, Spanish lobbyists appeared to enjoy easy access to the Council’s press centre. While negotiations on the 2016 fishing quotas were underway, the Spanish fisheries lobby group, Cepesca (the Spanish Confederation of Fisheries), posted photos on Twitter showing some of their key personnel and members inside the Council building. From Cepesca’s Twitter feed, it is clear that it had a meeting with the Spanish Minister — apparently held in a nearby hotel, not in the Council building. Crucial information from our report was shared with the Council, which recognised there was an issue and reassured us that the problem has been taken care of and they will be more careful in the future.
Did pressure groups or citizens have real access to the fish stocks negotiations?
Not at all. NGOs cannot attend the negotiations, we cannot meet the ministers inside the building. This means that industry has had privileged treatment in these two years. Citizens also have no way to know what their national government said and proposed in the negotiations. This is both lack of transparency and accountability, as people cannot know if their governments fulfilled their pre-election promises and cannot punish them if they didn’t follow their commitments.
Can you explain to us what information do have access to from these fishing quotas negotiations?
We never get information on what is going to be the position of every member state ahead of the meetings and the negotiations. The only information that is disclosed during the decision-making process is the proposal of the Commission. After receiving advice from scientists, the Commission releases its proposal for the fishing quotas that have to be decided for the next year. After that, the next public information is the outcome of the negotiations. There’s nothing between these two stages. It’s a black box. We don’t know the position of every member state, what’s the reasoning and the arguments used by each country to defend their views and to set fishing quotas above scientifically [recommended levels] which is a threat for the sustainability and the biodiversity of the European Seas.
The main problem of this lack of transparency is that we cannot really hold accountable each member state for their positions. You might have a member state that one year pushes to overfish certain fish stocks, and the reasons why this member state pursues this objective are not public. By not knowing their position, you cannot hold them accountable. How can citizens know that they serve the public interest and not only the lobbies and the short economic interests of the fishing industry?
What are the consequences of this lack of transparency?
The lack of transparency offers the governments the opportunity to set fishing quotas above the scientifically [recommended levels] and not be accountable for that. No government would like to be accused of damaging the biodiversity of the European Seas. So, if the decision-making process were open, citizens would know who follows scientific advice and who doesn’t, and this would put a lot of pressure on the ministries who would therefore be less inclined to set fishing quotas above the sustainable levels and keep the industry happy. This explains clearly why the EU and the member states failed to deal with overfishing by the two deadlines set by the Common Fisheries Policy, the first one in 2015 and the second one in 2020. The Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and Northeast Atlantic remain overfished.
What happened to the fishing quotas in the years that the industry got access to the Council building?
In both years, the industry secured fishing quotas above the scientific advice. In the December 2015 AgriFish negotiations to set 2016 quotas, Spain not only secured higher quotas on some fish stocks, it also successfully fought to overturn initial Commission proposals to substantially reduce allowable quotas for some species. For example, hake fished in Spain’s southern waters was eventually reduced by only 21.5 per cent, compared to a 60.5 per cent reduction which was initially proposed. In December 2016, the AgriFish negotiations to set 2016 quotas saw the Netherlands securing higher quotas for many fish stocks, including increases of some quotas above scientific advice and the Commission proposals. For example, the quota for turbot and brill fished in the North Sea was increased by 10 per cent during the Council negotiations, despite the Commission proposal to keep the quota the same as last year since the stock has not improved. So we can see that there is a connection between lobbying and the ministerial decision.
How is Brexit going to change the negotiations on fishing quotas?
It will make them worse and less transparent. The UK will be regarded as a third country, and therefore the negotiations will not be European and will not follow the EU legislative frame. Far from it, the negotiations between the EU and the UK will follow the trend of international relations, which is even less transparent than. This is going to have a huge impact on fisheries, as it concerns the Northeast Atlantic, one of the most important fishing areas in Europe.
Despite the voices from the European Ombudsman and the Court of Justice of the European Union asking for more transparency, the Council keeps resisting and deciding behind closed doors. Do you think this is a lost battle?
No. First of all we can see that more and more people are concerned about both the lack of transparency and accountability in the Council and the necessity to tackle environmental issues, such as overfishing and climate change. Despite the difficulties, this will bring change. When we published our investigation about the industry’s access into the Council building, the Council admitted this was a problem and they said they would not let this happen again. So change is slow, but it’s happening.
You can read more about our ongoing investigation, Secrets of the Council, here.