On Ice – What happened in Iceland’s accession to the EU?

In the numerous offices in Brussels, hidden away in large and stacked storage rooms, are folders filled with content forgotten by many bureaucrats. These folders contain countless reports, minutes and agendas about one particular topic; the Icelandic accession to the EU. It was in June 2010, when the EU formally began the Icelandic accession talks, with the Icelandic economy battered from being the small ship, battered by the great storm. With their ongoing participation in the EEA and Schengen, Iceland’s entry into the EU appeared the most straightforward of processes. However, fishing and agriculture proved to be too slippery to agree upon and, in May 2013, Iceland walked away from the negotiating table and the negotiations have been categorised as “frozen” ever since.

In Iceland, the fishing industry accounts for approximately 25-30% of Icelandic GDP and directly employs 5% of the population, with a further 15% working in industries directly related to the sector. Estimates suggest that these percentages add up to about 35,000 people. Icelanders catch more fish per annum than the United Kingdom and Spain, second only in Europe behind Norway.

In comparison the Icelandic agriculture sector ranks significantly less important than that of fishing. Indeed car rental makes up a greater share in Iceland’s GDP than agriculture. The main challenge is that just 1% of Iceland has the arable land necessary for sustaining crops and Iceland therefore only has around 4,000 farmers who are predominately producing for the small domestic market.

For many Icelandic politicians the Icelandic fishing and agriculture sectors are fundamentally at odds with those sectors in the EU. During a press conference on accession in 2010, the Icelandic negotiators claimed the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was “not designed for Arctic conditions”. This claim has merit when considering that, in the EU, 25 million people work in agriculture, compared to just 350,000 in fishing. This slant towards agriculture is reflected in how EU spends its budget. 38% of the EU budget is spent on the CAP. It has long been considered the farmers who had the largest plots of land and could produce for the largest possible markets were the ones who benefited most from CAP. Icelandic agriculture, with its limited levels of fertile land and producing mainly for their domestic market, does not have the means to reap the rewards that CAP provides much of Europe.

Conversely, a little less than 1% of the EU budget is spent on the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Alarmingly for Iceland, under the CFP, all EU countries share fishing rights in the European exclusive economic zone, which EU negotiators and politicians have been adamant Iceland would need to join.

Iceland’s own exclusive economic zone, an approximately 758,000 km2 area of ocean has been a point to which much of Icelandic national sovereignty has been defined and Icelandic negotiators quickly developed Iceland’s fishing rights into the ultimate red line in its accession negotiations. For Iceland, fishing constituted part of Iceland’s “cultural heritage” and that it shapes Iceland’s “self-identity”. The three Cod Wars, fought between Iceland and Britain between 1958 and 1973 and which resulted in Iceland being awarded large exclusive fishing concessions, were alluded to in every soundbite provided by Icelandic politicians in Brussels between 2010 and 2013. In practical terms, allowing any suggestion that Icelandic exclusivity of fishing waters erode would leave the Icelandic fishing industry extremely vulnerable to the overzealous advances of British and Spanish fishing vessels, wreaking untold damage on the sector.

In January 2017, Icelandic Europhiles had their hopes of a renewed Icelandic push towards the EU and it was raised with the help of the new Icelandic coalition government, headed by the Independence Party’s Bjarni Benediktsson. It was indicated that a vote in parliament may take place on allowing the issue to go to a referendum. These faint hopes were quickly dashed in the following months as fresh elections were held in October 2017, following a domestic scandal involving Benediksson. Only 11 MPs of the 63 in parliament were voted in under a pro-EU mandate, down from 14. Most Icelandic politicians now show little appetite to reopen the folder on Icelandic accession to the EU, a point which pro-EU parties have conceded.

Recent poles show that most Icelanders remain content to stay out of the EU, with 58.9% against and 40.2% for. Another pole puts the number against joining the EU at 69%. For most, the EEA and Schengen are enough Europe.

With neither the political will nor the desire of the people to put the EU back on the agenda, Icelandic accession to the EU seems a distance possibility. Failure to follow formal protocol on the part of the Icelandic government in 2015 is the only point keeping Icelandic EU talks alive. A letter was sent to Brussels asking for Iceland to no longer be considered for EU member, a letter which did not receive the approval of parliament and was rejected. With a tourism boom fueling economic growth, Iceland is in a strong position to forge its own path outside of Europe. However, without Iceland officially out of formal consideration, any fresh political or economic crisis would likely see the question of EU membership resurface.

Chris Becton

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