In the third of three articles for EUROPP on Iceland’s EU accession process, Benjamin Leruth looks at the importance of the country’s fisheries, and the ongoing dispute or ‘mackerel war’ between the country and the EU over fishing rights. Until the conflict between Iceland’s historic fisheries and the Common Fisheries Policy can be resolved, any chances the country may have of joining the EU are dead in the water.

Against the background of turmoil across the Eurozone, Iceland had continued its slow march towards membership of the EU. In previous articles on EUROPP I have focused on the evolution of the domestic political and economic situation in the country, and how issues such as the Eurozone crisis and the Icesave dispute affected public opinion on EU accession. The importance of another dispute, commonly referred to as the “mackerel war”, should not be underestimated due to the cultural and economic importance of fisheries in Iceland,  and negotiations on fisheries will have a decisive impact on Iceland’s application for EU membership.

School of mackerel By NMFS/Southwest Fisheries Science Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An expression used as a reference to the “cod wars” which occurred between Iceland and Britain in the 1950s and the 1970s, the mackerel war is an economic dispute over fishing quotas between four main players: Iceland and the Faroe Islands on the one hand, Norway and the European Union on the other hand. Recently, it appeared that shoals of mackerel had begun migrating to Icelandic exclusive economic zones (EEZs), probably as a result of global warming. While the mackerel stock used to be co-managed by the EU, the Faroe Islands and Norway, Iceland demanded to participate in the policy, but this request was rejected by the three actors who claimed Iceland is not a coastal state in this fishery. As a consequence, Iceland unilaterally set national quotas for 2010 of 130,000 tons of mackerel, which contributed to the country greatly exceeding the total allowable catch recommended by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES).

Shortly after this decision, Iceland received an invitation to participate in coastal state negotiations on mackerel. Since then, negotiations on mackerel quotas have taken place in order to solve the situation, but these have so far been unsuccessful. The situation worsened when the Icelandic and Faroese authorities unilaterally decided to increase their national quotas for 2011, leading to a total estimated catch 45 per cent over the amount recommended by the ICES. Recently, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament agreed to impose sanctions against the Faroe Islands and Iceland if they continued to practice unsustainable fishing. However, despite this call for sanctions, the Icelandic and Faroese authorities have repeatedly defended their position, citing arguments related to the economy and to the ecosystem.

Fisheries have always constituted the backbone of Iceland’s economy, and this industry is also strongly represented in the popular culture. The origins of the “age of rowing boats” in Iceland date back to the 9th century, and many urban citizens are descended from fishermen. Furthermore, many Icelandic coins are illustrated with representations of fish. The mackerel war threatens the industry, meaning that both the population and the government are reluctant to accept any strong limitation of quotas, as the European Union intends. This not only threatens negotiations related to Iceland’s application for EU membership, but also reduces the popularity of the European Union within Iceland as it touches upon a very sensitive issue.

While the mackerel war is the most visible conflict related to fisheries, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) also constitutes a major (if not the biggest) obstacle to Iceland’s application for EU membership. Economically speaking, “income from fisheries accounts for 100 times more per person in Iceland than the EU average”. Whereas the Government of Iceland acknowledges that the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy are fully in line with their own, it also describes the policy as “not designed for Iceland’s circumstances, much as the Common Agricultural Policy was not designed for the Arctic”. The main issue is stated in Article 17(1) of the basic CFP Regulation: “Community fishing vessels shall have equal access to waters and resources in all Community waters”. Basing themselves on the EU principle of relative stability (whereby the EU should safeguard the particular needs of regions where local populations are especially dependent on fisheries), the Icelandic authorities call for “defining the Icelandic exclusive economic zone as a specific management area where Icelandic authorities continue to be responsible for fisheries management”.

Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy is likely to come into force in early 2013, but this reform will not make things easier for Iceland’s accession process. Negotiations on this particular chapter of the acquis communautaire (agreements to adopt and follow the EU’s existing legislation and institutions) could take a long time, as both Iceland and the European Union stand firm on the issue. The issue of whaling will also be raised and might be a trick up the sleeve of Iceland in the negotiation process. More importantly: as long as the mackerel dispute is not resolved, one might consider that Iceland has little chance of joining the European Union.

In a nutshell, the importance of the fisheries industry in Iceland (from an economic, political and cultural perspective) leads to more obstacles in the application process. While this particular chapter of the acquis communautaire has not been opened yet, it is believed that months of negotiations will be needed to reach an agreement. In order for Iceland to join the European Union, a fair agreement has to be reached for both parties and the Icelandic population has to be convinced that such an agreement is beneficial for the industry, which is not a simple matter. In the meantime, opposition to EU membership in Iceland continues to rise, as well as among members of the Left-Green Movement, the second party of the governing left-wing coalition. This will make the EU issue central to the next Parliamentary elections, which will be held during the first part of 2013.

Update: As of yesterday (12 September), the European Parliament has voted for a range of sanctions against Iceland and the Faroe Islands, including banning their mackerel imports. This will now make any possibility of Iceland joining the EU even more remote.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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About the author

Benjamin Leruth – University of Edinburgh
Benjamin Leruth is a PhD student at the School of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the relations between the European Union and the Nordic States. He will be a guest researcher at the ARENA Centre for European Studies (University of Oslo) from September 2012.

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