The question of Irish fleet tonnage has major significance for the industry and if it is not resolved satisfactorily we can forget about the Irish Box and all the other issues because this is a big problem. It arose only in the past three months so had I addressed the committee at the beginning of March we would not be discussing this issue. It is like a bombshell that has hit the industry, the Minister and the Department since March. On the fleet tonnage issue, we made a presentation to the committee last November on the Common Fisheries Policy. A new policy was agreed in December 2002. While we had certain misgivings about many of the issues, one that we thought had been put to bed was that concerning the size of our fleet. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
There are two distinct articles in the new Common Fisheries Policy agreed by the Council of Ministers in December - articles 12 and 13. Article 12 is of huge significance in terms of the way the Commission is interpreting it. That article states that the reference levels shall be the sum of the objectives of the multi-annual guidance programme 1997 to 2002 - pursuant to the Council decision 97/413. To put that in plain language, Ireland had fleet targets to reach by the end of last December, which we actually met. Going forward, the Council of Ministers signed up to those targets. In terms of numbers, when one is talking about fleet capacity there are two central issues - the gross tonnage, which is the volume measurement of the vessel; and the power of the vessel, which is measured in kilowatts.
In terms of gross tonnage, the figure that Ireland had to reach by the end of December 2002 was just over 83,000 gross tonnes. In terms of kilowatts, roughly 215,000 was the reference level. Those two figures are important to remember because the nub of the problem lies in those figures. The Commission is no longer accepting that these are the reference levels for the Irish fleet.
Article 13, which the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources signed up to, deals with vessels coming off and on the register. There are two different categories in this. One deals with vessels that are to be grant-aided in the future. However, it is unlikely that Ireland will have a grant-aid scheme in the future. If one was to bring in a boat, one would have to remove 35% of tonnage and kilowatts to receive grant aid. One would also have to reduce the overall size of the fleet by 3%. This is a non-runner for Ireland going forward. A major issue for us was the non grant-aided vessels. It was to be a one-to-one replacement capacity. For the first time, that is written into EU legislation. There was provision for an entry-exit regime before this, but this is the first time it has been defined as one-to-one. It is important to remember Ireland has operated such a scheme for the past ten years.
In March 2003 the industry was first informed verbally. In May we saw the Commission's proposal. What the Commission is saying is that the reference levels for the Irish fleet are not the 80,000 GT and 215,000 kilowatts. Instead, it is actually what was physically on the Irish register on 1 January 2003. That is contrary to what the Council agreed in December 2002. I defy any Commission official to show me in the text of the Common Fisheries Policy where it is stated that the reference levels should be as on the fishing vessel register on 1 January 2003. It is not there. One wonders can the Commission read plain English or is there another argument taking place?
This is not just a fisheries issue. There is a fundamental point of principle involved here. What is happening is that the Commission proposes and the Council disposes. The Commission is taking on powers that it did not get from the Council. If it does manage to get this through, we are calling on the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the Government to challenge it using whatever means are necessary. The fundamental principle here is that the Commission cannot go beyond the powers that the Council gives it. It is also a fundamental principle in the treaties of the European Union. We have a battle taking place between the Council and the Commission.
What are the implications if these proposals go through? This is an issue that will have an impact from Clogher Head to Malin Head. There are many individuals in Ireland who had tonnage off-register on 1 January and there are many reasons this was the case. The bottom line is that all those individuals would have received letters of comfort from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources that they owned so many kilowatts and tonnes. Now, at the stroke of a pen that is wiped away. My estimate, given my knowledge of the Irish fleet, is that if the Commission gets its way on this proposal on 15 July, we are talking about reducing the fleet at the stroke of a pen by 15%. In GT terms, it brings us down to 70,000 instead of 85,000 and down to 183,500 kilowatts.
At those levels, the viability of the Irish fleet is in question. If it does go ahead, there will be large scale unemployment in coastal areas - it will not be in just one area, but in all coastal areas. There will also be bankruptcies. There is no justification for these proposals by the Commission. If we cannot resolve this issue satisfactorily, the other issues we are discussing become irrelevant.