BRUSSELS, Belgium — A dispute over fishing rights has frosted relations between the European Union and Iceland in recent weeks — and not in the festive sense.
Today, “the cold war is becoming a hot war — the first salvo has been fired from Brussels,” said one European politician.
Decades ago the “cod war” spiraled into a naval standoff between Britain and Iceland. In the current “mackerel war,” months of dispute between the European Union and Iceland over mackerel quotas have digressed to the point that Brussels is threatening sanctions against Reykjavik, including blocking sales of Icelandic fish to the EU. Fish is Iceland’s No. 1 export and the EU is by far its largest trading partner, not to mention an organization that Iceland has formally asked to join.
Struan Stevenson, vice-president of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee, welcomed what he called the “salvo” from EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki. She announced that in January she would urgently convene the committee that manages trade relations with Iceland to discuss blocking Icelandic ships from landing their mackerel catches at EU ports for as long as quotas are in question.
Stevenson has been pushing the bloc to do more than just talk tough about protecting EU fishermen. Stevenson is a member of the European Parliament from Scotland — fishing is of crucial importance to two EU nations, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The mackerel mess has been cooking for months. Coastal fishing nations, including the countries of the EU, Norway, Iceland and the semi-autonomous Faroe Islands, generally come to agreement on sharing the “Total Allowable Catch” (TAC) of different fish stocks to prevent overfishing. The 2011 TAC for mackerel in this region, determined by EU ministers based on scientific recommendations from the International Council for Exploration of the Seas, is 646,000 tons, up from 572,000 in 2010.
But the bartering broke down this year. With unusually heavy mackerel migrations sending millions more fish north than in decades past, Iceland and the Faroe Islands are demanding the right to scoop more of them up. In summer, Iceland said its quota for this year would be 130,000 tons, up from the 116,000-ton quota in 2009.
Even though the increase was small, Scottish fishermen in particular were furious, claiming Iceland’s tiny size doesn’t warrant such a large catch and that it was unacceptable to unilaterally decide quotas outside of an agreement. Brussels was bristling too: Damanaki said earlier this month that she was considering several options for retaliating against Iceland, including banning the sales of all Icelandic fish in the EU.
Stevenson said he won’t allow “plundering Vikings” to repeat history in his country.
“Icelanders seem to now want to raid and pillage our fish stocks,” he said. “The combined population of Iceland and the Faroe Islands is 370,000 people and yet they’re going to catch more mackerel than the 500 million people who live in the EU … . It’s scandalous!”
But Tomas Heidar, the diplomat serving as Iceland’s negotiator in the mackerel talks, said it’s neither fair nor customary to base a coastal country’s catch on its population.
“It’s nothing new that small nations heavily dependent on fisheries have a proportionally larger share than bigger countries,” he said, pointing out that many of the EU’s 500 million citizens live in landlocked countries, with only the United Kingdom and Ireland sharing the relevant coast and commercial interest in mackerel. “We should, rather, look at dependence on fisheries and the geographical location,” he said, to gauge whether quota numbers are appropriate.
Along those lines, Iceland was outraged by the EU-Norwegian announcement last week that together they would take in 583,882 tons — or 90 percent — of the mackerel TAC in 2011. That would leave all of 62,118 tons to be shared between Iceland and the Faroe Islands to stay within the amount considered sustainable.
“Obviously, these parties have disregarded the legitimate interests of the other coastal states, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and of Russia,” Iceland’s fisheries ministry said Monday in a statement. “The quota decision of the EU and Norway is in fact a decision that the total mackerel fishery next year will exceed the recommended total allowable catch and these parties bear full responsibility for that.”
The statement proceeded to announce that Iceland will raise its quota from 130,000 to 146,818 tons next year.
Stevenson sees an ulterior motive in the Icelandic government’s actions. The current administration has applied for EU membership, which is not supported by the majority of the population, nor even by all the cabinet ministers, who come from different parties. One who openly opposes joining is Fisheries Minister Jan Bjarnason.
Stevenson said he suspects the government coalition wants to give up the fight for EU accession and the fishing dispute provides it a handy excuse.
“The government wants to get itself off a difficult hook,” he said. “They are trying to provoke the EU into blocking them.”
Heidar rejects that theory. “EU accession has no effect on this issue whatsoever in Iceland,” he said. “We are dealing with this as a fisheries issue.”
Icelandic political journalist and commentator Johann Hauksson doesn’t think either of those scenarios adequately describe the complicated situation. Explaining that fishing is a “patriotic, national” issue in Iceland, Hauksson said Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir must try to support both the fishing industry and her own party’s desire to become an EU member — while convincing a skeptical public that joining the bloc is in its interest.
He explained that Sigurdardottir is trying to convince citizens that if Iceland were inside the EU, Brussels would be fighting against Norway instead. While Iceland would then have to share in the EU portion of the annual quota, “Iceland’s sovereignty over its fishing grounds would probably not be questioned.” So the prime minister must perform a balancing act “to keep Brussels calm and not disrupt the accession negotiations or provoke sanctions, and to support Bjarnason’s mackerel quota at the same time,” Hauksson said.
But Brussels doesn’t appear to be giving Sigurdardottir any slack. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, backed by Damanaki and Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht, sent a letter to Reykjavik months ago warning that its attitude on mackerel would be weighed heavily when it comes to membership.