A small band of Scottish fishermen has managed to haul in a big diplomatic victory over Brussels bureaucrats after a three-year struggle.
But it took the intervention of the European ombudsman and the appointment of a new fisheries commissioner before officials accepted they had made an administrative blunder in 2007, switching data between columns of a table used to set cod quotas.
The mistake led to a 10 per cent reduction of fishing days allocated to the group of fishing boats in the west of Scotland. But it had little economic consequence. Patrick Stewart, president of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, said his 68 vessel-owning members tended not to use their full allotment of days at sea.
Still, Mr Stewart relished the Commission’s about-face as a matter of principle. “It’s quite satisfying to know that our crusade was not in vain,” he said. “A modest human advantage has been gained in the fight of the citizen against the bureaucracy.”
A year ago the ombudsman, P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, backed the fishermen’s repeated claims and called for the error to be rectified, but the Commission refused to accept that anything was wrong. The ombudsman, who investigates complaints of maladministration, warned the Commission that it was damaging the European Union’s public image by refusing to acknowledge its mistake.
The mea culpa was apparently hastened by a change in administration in February, when a new fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki of Greece, took office.
The dispute is an odd footnote to the larger clash between local communities, their national governments and the Commission over the annual setting of fisheries quotas. Many fishermen have demanded greater autonomy to manage their own waters.
Even some Brussels officials were surprised at the Commission’s intransigence, given the seemingly low stakes of the dispute.
“That’s a very good question,” a spokesperson for the ombudsman said, when asked why the Commission had not relented sooner. “That’s exactly what we were asking ourselves.”
Mr Stewart, who claims not to be anti-European, had his own explanation. “You don’t tell God that he’s fallible,” he said. “The Commission doesn’t make mistakes.”
Welcoming the outcome, Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s fisheries minister, said: “The Clyde Fishermen’s Association deserves tremendous credit for refusing to give up in this David versus Goliath battle. I hope that this sets a precedent in terms of the Commission learning from its mistakes.”
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