Iceland pulled rug from beneath EU in major snub: ‘Interests better served outside!’

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The debate around fishing rights and catch areas became one of the most pressing issues during the UK and EU’s eventual Brexit deal. In November and December last year, the fishing industry found itself at the centre of a standoff between the UK and many of those EU nations who benefit most from British waters, including France and Spain. A deal was eventually struck, but the UK’s fishing industry viewed Boris Johnson’s agreement on quotas as a complete capitulation.

Many countries in and around Europe have similarly clashed with the EU over fishing rights and access to waters.

Iceland famously rejected EU membership, with many noting the decision was likely driven by the bloc’s fishing requests.

In Iceland, stocks shared with the EU are managed through annual bilateral negotiations, each year the total allowable catches are modified based on scientific advice.

As an independent coastal state, Iceland snubbed the EU in 2015 – just a year before the Brexit vote – announcing that it had dropped its bid to become the then 29th member.

In a brutal assessment of why it had decided to end membership talks, then minister of foreign affairs, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, wrote on his website: “Iceland’s interests are better served outside the European Union.”

Many have noted that Iceland’s initial application for membership had happened during a state of pure disaster following the 2008 financial crash.

Here, the country was in the depths of an economic crisis that saw the Icelandic krona lose almost half its value, making eurozone membership an attractive prospect.

But the thorny issue of fishing quotas was seen as the decisive obstacle to joining the bloc.

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This was never brought up in accession talks, however.

But, in 2016, Mr Sveinsson, who had been appointed fishing minister, said the country would “never join the EU” because its main desire was to retain control over fishing grounds.

Fishing constitutes a vital aspect of Iceland’s economy, and the country has one of the most modern and productive fishing industries in the world.

It was never made clear how differences between Brussels and Reykjavik over the subject could be solved.

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While Iceland’s government were completely averse to joining the EU, Icelanders felt different.

In 2014, thousands of people took to the streets of Reykjavik to protest their government’s decision without a popular vote.

But later opinion polls showed a growing resistance to the idea of EU membership among Icelanders.

More recently, in 2017, Iceland’s three party coalition government said it was willing to put the question of joining the EU back on the political agenda.

It was at the time uncertain whether MPs would vote on the issue or present the populace with a referendum.

Little has been said of the matter since.

It is believed the Brexit vote has fuelled calls for a different type of relationship with the EU.

Iceland has previously said it wants to maintain “close ties and cooperation” with the EU.

It is a member of Europe’s visa-free Schengen area and the European Economic Area (EEA), allowing it to export seafood to the mainland tariff-free, also helping boost tourism, something crucial to the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

While GDP levels have risen in recent years, financially, Iceland is still in a bad way because of the crash.

For many Icelanders, EU membership has not been a major priority, with concern focused on paying back loans taken when the economy seemed to be booming pre-2008.

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