Every December, a ritual that barely impinges on the Scottish public but is of acute interest to a few thousand fishermen is played out.
Scotland’s fisheries minister announces he or she is off to do battle with the Eurocrats whose plans to cut the amount of fish that Scots boats can haul from territorial waters, or to limit the amount of time they can spend at sea, are unacceptable.
A few days later, after negotiations dragging on into the wee small hours, the minister emerges and proclaims victory. If the deal comes reasonably to what fishermen wanted, they grudgingly pronounce it to be no bad. If it falls short, they furiously denounce the minister for having sold them out.
The routine portrayal by fisheries ministers of themselves as valiant knights battling dark forces, providing a not-me-guv alibi in the event of failure, is a big part of why many fishermen have come to regard the EU as the enemy of their livelihoods and would vote out.
It is certainly true that the Common Fisheries Policy has historically been badly designed. It has used sledgehammers rather than rapiers to achieve its goal – that just enough adult fish are taken every year to leave sufficient reproductive capacity so the shoals will still be there next year and the years after.
The distant ghost of the now lifeless but once abundant Grand Banks of Newfoundland haunts the North Sea – over-fishing is the catch- and jobs-killer, not the CFP.
Designing a foolproof policy that satisfies everybody – from the fishermen interested in today’s catch to the conservationists concerned about tomorrow’s stocks – is close to impossible in the mixed North Sea fishery. Conservationists applaud the new ban on discards of species outwith the allowed quotas; fishermen loathe it.
But here’s the rub. The quotas are recommended by scientists working not for the EU but the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES).
And if a Britain outside the EU wanted to keep the increasing spread of consumer designations that allow Scots fishermen to sell their catches directly into Germany and elsewhere, it would have to abide by ICES recommendations with policies just as restrictive as the CFP.
The same applies to much of the out-ers’ claims. The idea that there is some regulation-free paradise just outside EU frontiers is an El Dorado and just as mythical.
Take food exports, currently a Scottish success story. David Cameron was heavily criticised by out-ers for saying that outside the EU, Scottish farmers and food firms would no longer have unrestricted access to the EU market which, minus Britain, is about 440 million.
“If we have to fall back on the basic rules for global trade,” he claimed, “That could mean tariffs as high as 13 per cent on Scottish salmon, 40 per cent on lamb and up to 70 per cent on some beef products.”
True, that’s an extreme case, but one he is entitled to make because nobody knows, or can know, what trade deal Britain would get with the EU.
Even Norway which, as a member of the European Economic Area, is as close as you can get to the EU without being in it, faces tariffs on food exports to the EU – 12 per cent in the case of smoked salmon, also a big Scottish export. And it has to accept all the EU regulatory burden on food products.
Maybe there is a reason why political dissent from EU membership in Scotland is lacking. Maybe politicians, most at any rate, have looked at the argument and know that being in the EU is just common sense.
Peter Jones is Scotland Correspondent of The Economist and The Times and occasional contributor to television and radio – [email protected]