Decision making

In European fisheries almost all laws and agreements affecting European fisheries are decided at the EU level and not by individual Member States. The process of adopting new legislation or adapting current fishing rules under the CFP is therefore no simple matter. It involves the key institutions of the EU, outside advice is often sought, and input from stakeholders gathered. These pages attempt to provide a brief guide to what decisions are made, how, by whom and when.

Types of Fisheries Legislation

A number of different types of legislation are used to make laws in the EU. The most commonly used for the CFP is the Regulation; a law which once agreed is automatically legally binding on the Member States.

Another type of legislation is the Directive, binding on the member states as to the results to be achieved, but leaving how this is done to the country itself. Directives are often used in Environmental policy, for example, with the European Marine Framework Directive.

Recommendations and Opinions, which are non-binding acts, are also agreed. They are used when EU institutions can only recommend how the member states should act.

The Commission Initiates

The European Commission is responsible for initiating new EU measures and is the only EU institution that can do this, giving it important power in the development of policy and the putting forward of new ideas.  It makes the Commission a key focal point for anyone wishing to influence policy.

Commission initiatives for new legislation on fisheries issues, usually proposals for Regulations, are prepared by the Directorate General Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE).

The Commission consults experts and stakeholders at various stages before and during the drafting process. In some cases this is because it seeks outside opinions and expert advice on often highly technical issues. In other cases this is because it is legally obliged to do so, to ensure wide participation in policy development and increased confidence in the final laws.

The Commission has organised official committees via which advice can be channelled and stakeholder opinions gathered, though there is no obligation to follow the advice given. These include the Scientific and Technical and Economic Committee on Fisheries (STECF), the Advisory Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture (ACFA) and the seven Regional Advisory Councils (RACs). Click here for further information on these bodies.

The Commission itself is not able to provide all the scientific knowledge necessary for making management decisions, so it turns to specialised independent bodies to provide the advice. The main source for the EU is the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES)

Since 2002 the Commission should conduct an Impact Assessment on all major policy proposals in order to identify potential positive and negative impacts of proposed policy actions. For the CFP reform, the impact assessments have been carried out and can be found here.

Once DG MARE has completed developing a proposal it then consults the different Commission departments, the Directorate Generals – to ensure that all aspects of the issue have been considered – the Inter-Service Consultation. The draft proposal is then taken to the College of Commissioners, made up of the 27 European Commissioners – for adoption. After this the proposal is published in the Official Journal of the European Union and forwarded to the Council and European Parliament for negotiation and eventual agreement.

Parliament and Council decide

Since the end of 2009, following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament (EP) has a greatly increased role in deciding fishing policy. Previously, the Parliament had to be consulted on most draft legislation, but its opinion did not have to be taken into consideration by the Council of Ministers (for fisheries, usually the Ministers responsible for fisheries policy in the Member States), who agreed laws. Now the EP has co-decision powers, giving it equal decision making authority with the Member States, bringing fisheries policy in line with the procedures in many other fields of policy, including environment and transport.

Note, however, that there is an important exclusion to this new decision making process: measures on the fixing and allocation of fishing opportunities (ie. total allowable catches, “TACs” and Quotas) will continue to be adopted by the Council on a proposal from the Commission, without involvement of the EP.

As far as international fisheries agreements which involve a financial transaction are concerned, they must be approved by the Parliament before they can be concluded. This power of veto is known as the Assent Procedure.

How co-decision works

The European Parliament conducts a first reading of the proposal and agrees a position. This position is prepared by a rapporteur (the MEP charged with writing a report) in the relevant Committee, which is the EP Fisheries Committee in the case of EU Fisheries legislation. The position is discussed and amended within the committee, then debated in plenary session, (with the opportunity for further amendments tabled) and voted on and adopted by a simple majority in plenary.

The Council – in this case the Agriculture and Fisheries Council of Ministers – discusses, agrees and makes its position public once the European Parliament had completed its first reading. The Council has working parties composed of technical experts, and committees of the EU permanent representatives from Member States (COREPER), which prepare Council meetings. The Council establishes the position on the basis of the Commission’s proposal, amended where necessary, in the light of the European Parliament’s first reading and amendments. Two main things can happen at this stage: either the Council approves the EP position, and the legislation is adopted in EP wording; or the Council does not agree with the EP, in which case it adopts a “position at first reading”, stating its reasons.

If the Council adopts a position at first reading, then the EP conducts a second reading. The process is similar to the first reading: committee stage followed by adoption in plenary. The EP can agree with the Council position at first reading, reject by a majority the Council’s position, or suggest amendments.

After the second reading in the EP the Council can agree the amendments and the legislation is adopted. If the Council does not agree, then a Conciliation Committee is convened to negotiate an agreement. The Conciliation Committee is made up of members of the Council or their representatives and an equal number of representatives of the European Parliament, as well as the Commissioner responsible. The Council and EP must then both adopt the compromise. See graph of co-decision (extra click to enlarge).

Co-decision in fisheries policy: a work in progress

It is still early days for co-decision for EU fisheries policy and there remain a number of issues to be sorted out before all runs smoothly.

What issues should fall under co-decision?

Some CFP legislation contains both issues that fall under co-decision and issues where the EP has no legislative power. Long term management plans for fish stocks are an example – do they concern a decision on fishing opportunities, exempt from co-decision, or should they be handled the same as other fisheries management legislation under co-decision procedures? Since there is no consensus between the EP and the Council on this issue, the work with several long term management plans has been stalled during the first 18 months of co-decision in fisheries.

Speeding up decision-making

The co-decision process for adopting legislation can be lengthy. Although some time limits are built into the process it can take up to two years to reach an agreement when there are wide differences of opinion between the institutions.

For the Common Fisheries Policy, where most management decisions are taken at the European level, this could potentially cause serious problems. To make fisheries management workable, measures need to be agreed in a timely way. For example, if a decision needs to be taken to change a type of fishing net to prevent a decline in fish stocks, a delay of a year could be a dangerous setback in protecting those stocks.

An alternative under consideration is to use comitology procedures. Comitology Committees, composed of representatives of member states and chaired by the Commission, discuss and approve measures where implementing powers have been given to the Commission by the Council. There are already three Comitology Committees which deal with implementing the CFP, giving the European Commission power to set the more detailed and technical measures of fisheries management via Commission Regulations. The Council and EP could confer additional powers to this Committee.  This would ensure a speedier decision making process, essential to make the CFP workable, although a process less transparent and open to stakeholder input.

Some stakeholders and member states are proposing that the technical implementation of objectives and principles agreed at the EU level should be taken at the regional or local level in order to get timelier and more targeted solutions.

In depth descriptions of the co-decision process have been produced by the European Commission and the European Parliament. The Commission document contains a flow chart and glossary of co-decision terms.

Parliament: Guide to Codecision (Ordinary legislative procedure)

Parts of this text are a summary of the “EU Fisheries Decision Making Guide”, commissioned by The Fisheries Secretariat from the Institute for European Environmental Policy. (Link to the full report)

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The Common Fisheries Policy

  • What is the CFP?
  • Prelude to the 2012 reform
  • Decision making
  • Key legislation and documents
  • Scientists and stakeholders

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