Sea Change: The Failed Promises of Good Governance in the Common Fisheries Policy

By Liza Griffin, on 23 May 2013


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For more than a decade scholars and policymakers have argued that the most effective way to ameliorate environmental crisis is via institutional reform designed to bring about ‘good governance’. If only we can match the scales of policymaking to environmental problems and make our decisions more inclusive, transparent and accountable, then the holy grail of sustainability should follow.

Good Governance, Scale and Power: A Case Study of North Sea Fisheries, explores attempts to manage the momentous long-term decline in Europe’s fisheries since the 1970s via a series of reforms of the EU-led Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).  Latterly these reforms have been designed to embody the principles of ‘good governance’, a move gaining almost universal acceptance amongst stakeholders concerning its desirability and potential for success. This book begins by focusing on reforms drawn up in 2002 in the light of perceived failures in the original CFP in 1970, and recent apocalyptic predictions about the future of many important fish stocks. ¬¬The book re-examines those reforms in the light of a further, more substantial round of reforms currently (2013) being mooted amongst European leaders.

In the 2002 round of discussions, reformers and critics claimed that the CFP’s poor record related to deficient fisheries governance. They argued that decisions about fisheries management were too centralised and opaque, and were made without sufficient participation by interested parties, especially the fishing industry. The finger of blame was also pointed at the divisive character of fisheries politics. Indeed, nowhere in European management had the conflicts between stakeholders been more acute than in its fisheries. The fishing industries pushed for less red tape on the grounds that too much bureaucracy was making the sector economically and socially unsustainable; by contrast, green groups called for stronger regulation to ensure environmental sustainability.

Improving governance, it was widely claimed, would help assuage conflict amongst stakeholders, and remedy the CFP’s poor record on democratic participation and openness in policymaking. To these ends, the 2002 reforms entailed a rescaling of stakeholder participation to the regional seas scale; i.e. to the North Sea, the Baltic and so on. Each regional sea had its own ‘Regional Advisory Council’ or RAC. These are today intended, through continual dialogue between key regional fisheries stakeholders, to consensually and transparently formulate policy advice, before it is channelled into EU decision-making at the highest political level.

This rescaling has come in response to critics, from both the fisheries sector and academia, who assert that it is EU’s commitment to an overarching, centrally devised policy which has failed to create a sustainable fishing industry. They claim this on the grounds that policy formulated at the EU-scale loses sensitivity to local contexts, and feels remote from those expected to implement policy, i.e. the fishers.  Thus it is easy to see why the scale at which a policy is devised is considered fundamental to solving governance problems.

Hence it follows that ‘scalar framing’, i.e. choosing the appropriate scale at which to govern, is deeply embedded in good governance rhetoric.  The EU has asserted that good governance principles are best realised at local or regional scales, while scale has become a central concern for those trying to achieve sustainable development. It has also been widely suggested that geographically regions share common interests – a factor which should make for easier policy implementation than trying to operate at a pan-European level. Policymakers have suggested that it is essential to focus policy at a scale which reflects this ‘unity’ of interests and avoids conflict between the policy goals of economic development and environmental sustainability – a tension which has to date epitomized the management of EU fisheries.

Governance failure

Notwithstanding these high hopes for good governance, Europe’s record on the 2002 reforms has been pretty dismal. In practice, the principles of good governance have often been compromised, and the CFP’s record on participation, openness and accountability has been poor. According to one fisheries stakeholder:

…it’s the worst kind of governance, really. Transparent?  No. Accountable? No. Coherent? No. Proportional… Well, proportional to what?…  Here are the tenets of good governance – how does your policy square? It doesn’t look very good does it?
But perhaps more concerning is the failure of good governance to meet its aspirations for greater sustainability. Almost 90 per cent of EU fish stocks are currently overexploited and 30 per cent have collapsed. The 2002 EU fisheries good governance reforms have clearly not met with the ambitions of stakeholders, and this is a sentiment shared by many of those currently trying to negotiate further CFP reforms.

In my view, all this is not simply the result of failure to implement a basically sound set of policies. Contra most critiques of existing good governance, I would argue that the on-going problems of the EU’s fisheries constitute a systematic feature of good governance reforms currently being proposed or enacted. While there is no doubt that many policymakers and politicians believe in principle in the pursuit of good governance, in practice, they do not openly acknowledge the all-too routine slippages that have occurred between this ideal and the reality of daily government. Contradiction and tension constitute a fundamental feature of the CFP reforms – in operation or mooted.

So why haven’t these failings been more consistently brought to light? Why does good governance remain a political mantra despite failing again and again? Perhaps it is because the analytical tools currently available have been unable to provide an adequate analysis of governance processes. Good Governance, Scale and Power demonstrates how the failure to achieve good governance in fisheries has been bound up with the presence or absence of power. It also demonstrates how good governance reforms have altered power landscapes between policy actors. For example, since 2002 fisheries interest groups – such as fishers, environmentalists, and coastal fishing communities – have interacted with the EU and each other in very different ways, and at different spatial scales. As I will explain below, the reforms have provided opportunities for new groups of actors to achieve empowerment.

Power in Good Governance

These new power landscapes have not been explored or acknowledged by governance theory, which offers the most common framework for critiquing governing practice. Governance theory does not routinely recognise the many important spatially contingent and relational forms of power that are exercised in actual governing practice.

In conventional ‘government’, governing is conducted primarily through traditional mechanisms associated with the state scale exercising ‘command and control’ via ‘authority’ and ‘domination’. But the good governance discourse downplays such mechanisms, giving the impression that power has been smoothed away and is relatively insignificant in the era of innovative governing arrangements.

However, power has not simply vanished with the 2002 and post-2002 reforms. Rather, it is less discernible in ostensibly more cooperative, rescaled arrangements like RACs. For example, some actors and institutions have been able to gain or consolidate their influence by exploiting the new spatial architecture of good governance. In theoretical accounts depicting governance as networked, decentralised and participatory it is often very difficult to ascertain ‘who has power’ or who has the strategies and techniques for exercising it. In the rescaled new fisheries governance arrangements, there are stakeholders who are able to act or garner influence not necessarily from recognised positions of authority, with their power emanating from constitutionally derived positions.  Instead they acquire agency partially through negotiation and persuasion or by deploying charismatic authority. In fisheries governance processes, these power relations have particular resonance in the informal and rescaled environments of RACs.

Power struggles – for example over the annual allocation of fishing quotas – between the European Commission and the fishing industry, and between the Commission and Member States – are also centrally manifest in, and enacted through, a ‘politics of scale’. In them, for example, we might see how apparently ‘local’ stakeholders can manipulate ‘the centre’s’ targets so that the latter’s authority is thwarted. Additionally, ‘local’ bodies can sometimes shape governance agendas well beyond their immediate locality. And political claims and power unrealised at one geographical scale can be expanded to another, if, for example, outwardly weak local lobby groups overcome their disadvantaged position at the national level by ‘jumping scales’ to successfully command political attention at the EU level.

And, far from being a neutral aspect of fisheries reform, regionalisation has had a profound impact on the strategies of power open to stakeholders and policy actors. In the rescaled milieu afforded by the RACs, interest groups have been able to jostle for position and shape agendas. For example, fishing industry groups are arguably becoming better able to realise their aims than they were in the pre-2002 reforms. A North Sea fishing industry representative claimed that the pre-reform balance was weighted towards the greens; now, however, the consensual compromise reached in deliberations tend to favour the industry rather than the greens :

If you allow these people [greens] to stay outside the system, they outnumber you 100 to 1… if we can then push them into the Regional Advisory Council, where we outnumber them …then we’ve got somewhere to steer these people to (interview with fishing industry representative).

Against the good governance principle of optimising participation, other equally legitimate interests may become marginalised through this sort of process. The kind of power manipulation operating here is often obscured by new governance arrangements, where it is not easy to discern the lines between private and public responsibility. Decentralised participation in fisheries policy via RACs has rescaled the space of deliberation and altered the set of competing objectives to be reconciled, so that it now tends to reflect the agenda of those empowered by this rescaling – in this case private interest groups. In RACS these groups have been able to jostle for position, dominating agendas to the effective exclusion of other values and further underlining the fact that rescal¬ing is never a neutral process.

The Promise of the 2013 Reforms

In part response to the failings of 2002, the CFP is today undergoing further reform. Good governance principles are to be strengthened and plans are afoot to further regionalise fisheries management. The impetus for this partly lies in persistent appeals for a less centralised CFP, emanating primarily from the fishing industry. Additionally, plans for regionalised fisheries are an attempt, if only rhetorical, to bring an ecosystem perspective to bear on fisheries management. It is hoped, too, that a more regionally tailored approach will provide for adaptive governance capable of better reacting to changing environmental conditions. Regionalisation is also being allied to a rescaling of time frames, with a move towards longer-term regionally-focussed management. Talk of regionalisation also comes with a pledge to include the fishing sector more in policy-making through RACs, on the basis that fishers’ further involvement will contribute to more sensitive regulation and greater compliance with CFP rules.

In a joint statement, all the RACs have supported the 2013 proposals but want them to go further. For instance, they want regional bodies such as themselves to be able to define important overarching concepts’ like ‘Maximum Sustainable Yield’, ‘overfishing’, ‘fishing capacity’ and the ‘ecosystem approach’. The fishing industry has taken issue with current definitions of such key concepts, attempting to redefine them in a regional context in a way that better matches their interests. For the industry this is a potent strategy for exercising discursive power. The North Sea’s RAC in particular has pressed for ‘genuine’ decentralisation involving self-management of fishing governance in this regional sea.

However, there can of course be no guarantee that regional decision-making will deliver the benefits wished for. This is because scales are not pre-given containers for policy but are continually and historically constructed and reconfigured by power plays between actors and discourses. There is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about any scale. They are hence always open to political manipulation. For example, though the North Sea is often understood in policy rhetoric to constitute a distinct ecological scale, the political map of the North Sea RAC’s geographical coverage below, with its arbitrary rectangular boundaries is clearly more socially constructed than naturally given.

Moreover, there is some debate amongst scientists as to whether the North Sea is, in fact, two or even three ‘ecosystems’. Consequently, it is difficult to sustain the argument that the North Sea is a discrete scale in any a priori sense. The North Sea region is ultimately, a political entity rather than a scientific one and as such we must recognise the political processes and power plays which makeup and sustain its status. Such power plays may have profound implications for whether good governance and sustainability is ultimately realised.

Regional bodies can be just as corrupt and elitist as supranational ones.  And clearly good governance is not inevitably achieved at the regional or local scale. Regionalism is not inherently sustainable or democratic. As if to underline this, some green groups and politicians, in contrast to the fishing industry, have been pushing for regulatory control to remain at EU level. This, especially since certain green groups feel they have less influence over policy advice produced at the regional level. Thus, although environmentalists commonly favour rescaling towards local management the situation is curiously reversed in fisheries.

Power, then, is exercised in a relatively hidden way through the politics of scale. Both the rescaling and redrawing of boundaries as part of the turn to good governance in EU fisheries have contributed to a discourse transformation where new power relationships have been forged. This transformation has produced a new set of ‘truths’ in fisheries and these have brought with them less obvious opportunities to exclude some stakeholders views, and new assumptions about who ought to have regulatory authority.

So what hopes for the 2013 reforms? Unfortunately, there can be no guarantee that regionalisation will deliver the benefits wished for. This book’s evidence suggests that it does not produce predictable results and despite almost unanimous support, I believe we should be cautious about claims on its behalf. If we are to understand the limits to good governance we must pay attention to the power effects inherent in the politics of scale.


Liza Griffin is a Lecturer with the UCL Development Planning Unit

This article was originally published by Routledge