EU snub after Iceland walked out of fishing talks: ‘Not willing to share!’

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After nine months of fraught negotiations, Britain and the EU sealed a post-Brexit trade agreement on Christmas Eve last year. Despite Downing Street calling it a “mutual compromise,” it does seem Prime Minister Boris Johnson capitulated on one of the most contentious areas of the talks: fishing rights. The UK wanted any fishing agreement to be separate from the trade deal with access negotiated annually in a similar fashion to Iceland’s agreement with the bloc.

Iceland is an independent coastal state, with the rights and responsibilities under international law associated with that status.

Stocks shared with the EU are managed through annual bilateral negotiations. Each autumn these talks set total allowable catches on the basis of scientific advice.

This contrasts starkly with the position of the UK fishing industry within the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – something Brussels wanted to maintain at all costs.

In the end, the UK agreed to a further five-and-a-half years of “predictability” for fishing communities, with the UK leaving the CFP.

Stock quotas for UK fishers will increase over a five-year time-frame, incrementally between now and 2026.

This means Britain will fish just over 66 percent of UK waters – in stark contrast with Iceland, which catches 90 percent of its own fish.

During the transition, EU fishing vessels will still have full access to fish in UK waters and after that, negotiations will be annual just like the ones between Iceland and the bloc.

However, the EU will be able to retaliate with tariffs if Britain refuses to grant it access, meaning London will never be fully in control of its waters.

Iceland only managed to achieve that after walking away from talks with the EU.

In 2009, former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir saw EU membership as a way of rescuing the country from economic decline.

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However, from the very beginning of the negotiations, Reykjavik made clear it was not willing to sacrifice its waters.

Former foreign minister Ossur Skarpheoinsson believed Iceland could have taught the EU how to manage fishing resources.

He told the EuObserver: “Of the two cod stocks in the world that are on the increase, one is in Iceland.”

He also claimed Icelanders, for whom the issue was “emotional” and not just about economics, would have been “quite angry” if they had got a “rotten deal” on fish.

The minister emphasised that while there was an increasing tendency to think that sovereignty could only be protected if it was shared, it did not mean Iceland “was willing to share its fishing resources with anyone else”.

Brussels did not back down on the subject of fishing quotas, and in the end Iceland walked away from the talks.

Iceland suspended its EU bid in 2013, and Ms Sigurðardóttir’s successor, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, withdrew the country’s application two years later.

In 2015, Mr Gunnlaugsson breathed a sigh of relief that his country never joined the bloc.

He said: “I am pretty sure our recovery couldn’t have happened if we had been part of the EU.”

Mr Gunnlaugsson argued that if his country’s application, made in the midst of an economic collapse in 2009, had succeeded, then Iceland might have suffered the fate of Greece, with its long-running economic collapse, or Ireland, which saw its public debt skyrocket as the government took on the bad debts of the banking sector.

He added: “We might have even gone the other way and become a bankrupt country.

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“If all these debts had been in euros, and we had been forced to do the same as Ireland or Greece, and take responsibility for the debts of the failed banks.

“That would have been catastrophic for us economically.”

Iceland is in the single market accepting the free movement of goods, services, capital and people to and from EU countries but it is not a member of the eurozone.

It is also not signed up to the Common Agricultural Policy, the CFP or the customs union, meaning that it can strike its own trade deals with countries outside the bloc.

In 2013, Reykjavik became the first European nation to conclude a trade agreement with China.

In an exclusive interview with, historian and head of an Icelandic free-market think tank Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson insisted countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) will soon want to leave their current arrangement.

He said: “In Norway, you now have political parties calling for Norway to reconsider membership to the EEA.

“They are calling for a comprehensive trade agreement, something similar to what the UK has negotiated with the EU.

“This is actually the form of trade agreement that most countries around the world are now asking for.

“They are waiting in line for it.

“They are not waiting in line for an agreement similar to the EEA.”

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