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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with EU Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius

The Marine Times has been offered the exclusive opportunity to interview EU Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius. Conscious of the answers recently given to the Marine Times by our own Department of Marine and the absence of the Minister himself from a key meeting with fishing representatives in relation to the Covid-19 crisis we put a number of questions to the Commissioner and wish to thank him for the replies received.

1) The Irish Marine Minister, Michael Creed, takes issue with the EU proposals, as per the following answer to our queries to him: "The Commission has proposed an amendment to the EMFF Regulation to permit Member States to implement additional supports in the form of storage aid and temporary cessation which is expected to be adopted by the Council and European Parliament this week. Importantly, no additional EU funds have been provided by the EU Commission and Member States must fund any such additional supports from existing unspent EMFF allocations or from National funds.

What is the Commissioner's response?

It is not my role to comment on replies given by the Minister to national media, but I am happy to provide clarifications on some elements of the EMFF support package.

I have discussed this, and other issues with the Minister over the phone. In fact, any modification to the EMFF budget implies changes to the Multiannual Financial Framework, which is the EU`s long term budget. Such modification would have prevented an immediate application of the proposed emergency package. There are currently sufficient funds available in the existing budget. What was most important now, was to give Member States the flexibility to reallocate, at short notice, existing financial resources within their operational programme to the specific measures. But it is true that this possibility will be limited by the budget allocations that Member States have already received, which they cannot exceed.

2) Further questioned on this point of applying EMFF support and asked - Is there a problem with available EMFF funds in the Irish context and if so, why? - the Minister responded: "Contrary to some commentary, no additional EMFF Funding has been made available by the EU Commission. The Department is working with BIM to identify possible savings within schemes on the basis that some projects are not now likely to proceed or are not a priority. This will free up funds that maybe directed at COVID – 19 support. A Storage Aid scheme is now possible following the amendment to the EMFF which would allow fish to be stored on a temporary basis and be quickly re-introduced onto the market. This would allow the fleet to continue to fish and support the continuation over the period of a supply of seafood for domestic and EU markets, while also providing a safety net if markets cannot be found for some catches. The Minister is currently examining the options, and a meeting at official level to consult directly the Producer Organisations who have a central role and other industry representatives has been arranged for tomorrow (21st April). The purpose is to ensure that any such scheme would be properly targeted within an appropriate budget and would not result in a withdrawal of fish which could be viably sold or a subsequent glut of stored product being released onto markets when they are recovering. The Minister is not proposing that a tie-up scheme is introduced at this time, as the main focus at this point is to work to continue to support the supply of food. In addition the horizontal supports available to both workers and business remains available to the seafood sector (please see above). The Minister will keep this tie up option in reserve, in the context of available funding and in case the situation develops to such an extent that such a scheme is required.

What is the Commissioner's position on this, as the Minister's answer appears to imply some reservation about "Member States must fund any such additional supports from existing unspent EMFF allocations and he is seeking extra funding....."

Is there some problem of which we are unaware in using "unspent funds." Industry sources have told us that there is such "unspent funding" and state dthat they should be used to deal with immediate issues in the current crisis. Can the Commissioner explain/comment? The Minister has not addressed our questions directly in this regard.

According to last information received on April 2020 from the Irish EMFF Managing Authority, around 80% of the total EMFF allocations were committed at the end of 2019. It should be noted that the Irish EMFF programme shows good progress, well above the EU average rate. However, it is very likely that less than 20% is still available, taking into account that the reported figures do not include commitments already made in 2020 and the on-going selection of projects.

Ireland can still redirect its unspent EMFF budget to the existing and new EMFF measures in its programme to support the fisheries, aquaculture and processing sectors during the coronavirus crisis. The amendments of the EMFF Regulation introduced more flexibility for the MS to reallocate financial resources within the operational programmes.

Furthermore, there were nearly 2.2 billion euros in operational programmes of all Member States not committed to beneficiaries at the end of March, which could be attributed to coronavirus crisis related measures following the adoption of this proposal. In order to facilitate such financial reallocation, the Commission adopted a simplified procedure for amending operational programmes with respect to the introduction of the temporary measures. This eliminates all superfluous administrative burdens; for instance, amending operational programmes will no longer require a formal decision by the Commission.

3) The Minister contends that he is "continuing to press the Commission" for additional support. This is his response to our questions: "The Minister has strongly supported this amendment to the EMFF. At the early stage of the crisis, the Minister wrote to Commissioner Sinkevicius on the impact of COVID -19 pandemic, he later talked directly to him by phone and made a strong case at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 25 March seeking the legal amendments as well as seeking the provision of additional EU financial support for the temporary cessation of fishing activity. This additional EU funding has not been provided at this point. The Minister is continuing to press the Commission for additional EU financial support for the fisheries sector and raised the matter again at an EU meeting on the EMFF adjustments last week."

Noting "unspent funds" reference already, will the EU consider additional funding or query why there are "unspent funds" not being applied?

Member States are encouraged to already start selecting and supporting operations under the temporary coronavirus-related measures , as they are retroactively eligible from 1 February 2020 until 31 December 2020. As of 25 April, when the legislative package will enter into force, Ireland and the other Member States are expected to come forward with amendments of their operational programmes to tackle, in the best way possible, the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak. The approval of these programme modifications will be treated in a fast, simplified procedure by the Commission.

However, the EMFF is only one part of a broader emergency package put in place by the EU and available to support the sector. Amongst the initiatives, a Temporary State aid Framework enables undertakings to receive a maximum amount of EUR 120 000 of state aid. The Commission put forward Temporary Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency – SURE – which provides up to EUR 100 billion in loans to Member States to ensure that workers receive an income and businesses keep their staff. All these and other instruments should be mobilised in a strategic and complementary manner by Member States to respond to the crisis in the most appropriate way.

4) The Irish industry has stated that there has been a 50 per cent drop in market prices, so says it will be raising with the Minister to what level can fishing proceed as the Minister has stated that he does not intend to introduce a tie-up scheme and the industry also disputes that there is sufficient storage available, this in their comment on the Minister's statement that 'Storage Aid' is being made available.

Has the Commissioner a view on this aspect?

From the first week of the crisis, the Commission has set up a system of monitoring the sudden disruptions to fishery and aquaculture supply chain ensuing from the coronavirus outbreak through its market intelligence tool EUMOFA . Indeed, there was a sharp fall of market prices, mainly from a decrease in the demand. Our latest intelligence for week 15 - 6 – 12 April- shows first-sales data for a handful of Member States with increases in first-sales prices for several ground fish and flatfish species. However, volumes sold at first-sale stage were in general low, and in a number of local fishing communities, some species continued to be sold at low prices.

As an immediate response, the Commission proposed the reintroduction of the storage mechanism for storing fishery and aquaculture products for human consumption with a view to foster greater market stability. The storage mechanism will be managed by national Producer Organisations (POs), which also have a mandate to progressively adapt their members’ activities to the evolution of the market, through their production and marketing plans. The responsibility of the management of the storage aid lies fully with the Member States and their Producer Organisations.

5) The Minister says that "the Government has put in place a number of measures to help support the fishing industry through this crisis period. The Government’s National COVID-19 Income Support Scheme includes the COVID-19 Wage Subsidy scheme, an enhanced COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment of €350 per week and an increase in the COVID-19 Illness payment to €350 per week. The self-employed are also eligible for the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment, which is particularly relevant for the fishing industry as a large proportion of fishermen are self-employed “share fishermen” on board vessels or are self employed inshore fishermen. The Banking Sector has put in place a co-ordinated approach to support individual and business customers affected by COVID-19, including flexible arrangements such as payment breaks for mortgages and other loans. Last month, the Minister met with the banks’ agriculture and fisheries lending teams to confirm that these supports will be extended to the fishing industry. "

However, to this point, there has been no specific response from the banking sector to the industry and the perception within the industry is of an unfavourable banking attitude. In addition, many Irish fishing operations are family-run and the proposals outlined by the Minister are not considered a satisfactory response to the specific circumstances of the industry. What is the Commissioner's response?

Already at the early stages of the outbreak, we realized at the Commission that coronavirus would affect the entire European economy on an unseen scale, and we needed to act swiftly and decisively to counter the socio-economic impact, now and in the long term.

We proposed amendments to the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) to mitigate the impact of this crisis on the fisheries and aquaculture sectors that were quickly adopted by the European Parliament and by the Council. The latest exceptional measures are part of the Part of the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative Plus and include support for the temporary cessation of fishing activities due to coronavirus, financial compensations to aquaculture farmers and to processing enterprises, specific measures for the outermost regions and support to producer organisations for the storage of fishery and aquaculture products. There are also additional amendments to the EMFF Regulation that allow for more flexible reallocation of financial resources within the operational programmes of each Member State and a simplified procedure for amending operational programmes with respect to the introduction of the new measures. Operations supported under the temporary coronavirus-related measures will be retroactively eligible as of 1 February 2020 until 31 December 2020. Therefore, Member States can already start selecting and supporting these operations.

In addition, the Community-led local development under the EMFF gives the opportunity to local community particularly hit by the crisis to meet their most urgent needs. Now more than ever local groups are best placed to develop specific responses to the local problems due to the crisis. Great initiatives have emerged such as direct sales to consumer and the development of local delivery network through social media.

The latest series of measures come in addition to the the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, which was adopted in March, redirecting € 37 billion of the EU budget to the fight against the crisis, as well as the special temporary state aid regime, allowing EU countries to support companies in the fishing and aquaculture sectors by up to € 120,000.

6) The Aquaculture sector has outlined its situation and sought Government attention and support - reference interview on MARINE TIMES UPDATE website currently by IFA Executive. There is no reference to the Aquaculture sector in the Minister's response to our question about its situation and the sector has told us that it has not been invited to take part in a meeting which the Minister has indicated will take place tomorrow (April 21) "at official level to consult directly the Producer Organisations who have a central role and other industry representatives" - quote from Department statement today on behalf of Minister.

What is the Commissioner's view - Should Aquaculture be included in discussions and support?

In recent weeks, the EU has taken strong measures to help Member States alleviate the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis on individual aquaculture producers. This includes specific temporary measures to support aquaculture farmers for the suspension or reduction of production, as well as support to producer organisations for the temporary storage of fishery and aquaculture products.

These sectoral measures come on top of the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative proposed by the Commission on 13 March 2020 and last month’s revised state aid rules, which aimed to bring immediate relief to the seafood sector.

The measures will be applicable retroactively as of 1 February 2020 and will be available until 31 December 2020.