The EU should not give an inch on fishing and whalingby Stephen Tindale / August 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Mackerel war”: the EU argues that Iceland’s fishing quota is unsustainable Iceland is the world’s longest running democracy. At a time when European Union institutions are still being criticised for a democratic deficit, Iceland would be a valuable and welcome member of the club. However, the European Commission should remain firm on its negotiating demands on fishing and whaling. Iceland applied to join the EU in 2009, in the aftermath of its banking crisis. The island saw EU membership as a route to economic recovery. Out of the 35 negotiating chapters, 18 have been opened. Ten of these have been provisionally completed. Iceland’s accession bid has support among member states. The main obstacle is that Icelanders themselves are likely to reject it. Once negotiations are completed, Icelanders will vote on membership. Polls suggest that a quarter will vote yes, with over half against and a fifth undecided. Support for membership has fallen since negotiations began in 2009, in part because Iceland has recovered from the 2008 banking and debt crises, and is growing at over four per cent per year. EU membership is no longer seen as a source of stability. But support for membership has also fallen because of the Commission’s perceived (by Icelanders) unfairness over Icesave, the online savings bank, and the current “mackerel war.” And the totemic issue of whaling remains to be confronted. Icesave was run by Landsbanki between 2006 and 2008, with over 300,000 customers in the UK and 125,000 in the Netherlands. But in 2008 Landsbanki went into receivership. The British and Dutch governments argue that Iceland’s government is obliged to pay €20,000 to each depositor. Reykjavik argues that this would place the bank in €2.6bn of negative equity, which would have had to be paid by Icelandic taxpayers. The time for negotiation over Icesave has passed, since the matter is now before a court and half the debt has been paid. So the key negotiating issues are fishing and whaling. The European Commission should remain firm on both. It would be counter-productive to lower existing EU standards to attract a new member. If this firmness leads to Iceland voting no in a referendum, so be it. Iceland sets its own fishing policy and the industry provides 40 per cent of its export earnings, and eight per cent of employment. The current dispute focuses on mackerel. Iceland has increased its annual quota for mackerel from 2,000 tonnes to 146,000 tonnes. Reykjavik argues that this is sustainable because climate change is resulting in more mackerel in its waters. The Commission disagrees, and argues that Iceland’s quota is 36 per cent above what is sustainable. Ireland, France, Portugal and Spain are demanding sanctions. The Commission has threatened to block Icelandic ships from unloading mackerel at EU ports. The EU and Iceland (plus the Faroe Islands and Norway) will meet in September for talks. Some movement by the Commission to defuse the argument would be understandable. But the Commission should continue to base its position on its scientific estimate of a sustainable catch. On whaling, the Commission should not move at all. In 2006 Iceland resumed commercial whaling of fin whales and minke whales. Thus it joined Norway in defying the international moratorium on commercial whaling. Iceland has always caught some minke whales for “scientific research.” So the 2006 decision made little practical difference on minke—it simply represented Iceland becoming more open about its reasons for whaling. But it did represent a restart of fin-whale hunting. Fin whales are an endangered species. Iceland maintains that there are enough fin whales in Icelandic waters for a small catch to be sustainable. This may or may not be correct, but is anyway not relevant to EU negotiations. EU law prevents the killing of any whales, even those which (like minke) are relatively numerous. EU law is based partly on the need to protect biological diversity, but partly also on the need to prevent animal suffering. Being killed by harpoons is a particularly painful, and often slow, way for an animal to die. Not all Icelanders favour whaling. Whale watching is an important part of their tourism industry—and increased tourism is one of the drivers of economic recovery. Yet some Icelanders argue that whaling is an important part of their culture and tradition. Culture is important, and European integration must respect most cultural traditions. But not all, and not those which involve cruelty. The ongoing dispute about Icesave and the Icelandic economic recovery may well result in Iceland voting no to EU membership, whatever concessions the Commission has offered on fish and whales. The EU should not lower its standards whatever the rewards. To lower them and get no reward would be particularly unwise.