LONDON — SIR FRANCIS DRAKE earned fame by attacking and sinking the Spanish Armada, but Prime Minister John Major seems unlikely to make history repeat itself.
The latter-day threat to his country's sea lanes does not take the form of stately galleons manned by swashbuckling sailors from the Iberian peninsula.
Instead, hundreds of Spanish trawlers and their crews are poised to pluck as many fish as possible from waters traditionally exploited by English and Scottish fishermen. Starting Jan. 1, the European Union's fisheries policy will let the Spanish lower their nets. And there is little Mr. Major or British trawlermen can do about it - if they obey EU law.
An attempt by Britain on Dec. 22 to convince its EU partners that its fisheries policy needs modifying produced only minor concessions. Three days earlier in the House of Commons, the imminent arrival of the Spaniards produced one of the prime minister's worst embarrassments in an already difficult year.
More than a dozen Conservative members of Parliament (MPs), urged on by the fisheries lobby, rebelled against Britain's support for the EU policy and defeated the motion on fishing quotas.
The defeat will not in itself change Britain's EU policy. As an EU member, Britain has no option but to support the policy that will let the Spaniards fish in British waters. But the rebel MPs, many representing coastal areas, were under pressure to register their protest.
"I am a government supporter, but I must also represent the interests of my constituents, many of whom depend on fish for a living," says David Harris, a Conservative MP from Cornwall in the west of England.
The Commons vote underlined the fragility of the government's majority, now down to five seats. The fisheries issue also embodies the contradictions that have made European policy a minefield for Major's government.
On the one hand, as EU membership expands, more countries are allowed to fish in waters that are traditionally the preserve of individual European nations.
For example, when Spain joined the EU it gained the right, after an interval, to its share of the fish in waters around Britain, long among the world's richest.
On the other hand, the more countries that fish in the EU's richest waters, the heavier the pressure on the region's finite resources.
According to Alasdair McIntyre, a fish conservation expert at Aberdeen University in Scotland, the example of Canada provides "a terrible warning."
"Against the advice of experts, Ottawa allowed stocks in eastern Canadian waters to be run down to a point where entire fishing grounds collapsed," Professor McIntyre says. "The EU's fisheries policy is an attempt to prevent the same thing happening in European waters."
But the London government finds itself pig-in-the-middle between Spain's determination to fish in British waters, and the need, under the common fisheries policy, to cut back the overall "take" by EU fishermen to conserve available stocks.
Under the fisheries policy, 40 Spanish boats at a time will be allowed into waters from which many of their British counterparts will soon be excluded.
The EU has proposed cuts of around one-third in the fishing of plaice, herring, sole, and mackerel in the North Sea.
John Townend, a rebel Conservative MP, denounces this situation as "a betrayal of the British fisheries industry."
"Just as a new Spanish Armada is lining up to exploit our waters, British trawlermen are being told to accept big reductions," Mr. Townend says.