Britain and the EU sealed a post-Brexit trade agreement on Christmas Eve, after nine months of fraught negotiations. Despite Downing Street calling a “mutual compromise,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced criticism for capitulating on one of the most contentious areas of the talks: fishing rights. The UK wanted any fishing agreement to be separate from the trade deal with access negotiated annually in a similar fashion to Iceland’s agreement with the bloc.
Iceland is an independent coastal state, with the rights and responsibilities under international law associated with that status. Stocks shared with the EU are managed through annual bilateral negotiations. Each autumn these talks set total allowable catches on the basis of scientific advice.
This contrasts starkly with the position of the UK fishing industry within the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – something Brussels wanted to maintain at all costs.
In the end, the UK agreed to a further five-and-a-half years of “predictability” for fishing communities, with the UK leaving the CFP.
Stock quotas for UK fishers will increase over a five-year time-frame, incrementally between now and 2026.
This means Britain will fish just over 66 percent of UK waters – in stark contrast with Iceland, which catches 90 percent of its own fish.
During the transition, EU fishing vessels will still have full access to fish in UK waters and after that, negotiations will be annual just like the ones between Iceland and the bloc.
However, the EU will be able to retaliate with tariffs if Britain refuses to grant it access, meaning London may never be fully in control of its waters.
Iceland only managed to achieve that after playing hardball with Brussels for years.
In 2013, Iceland’s former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson even accused the bloc of being in breach of international law over fish quotas.
In July of that year, the EU imposed sanctions on the Faroe Islands due to a dispute over the fishing quota of herring and mackerel.
The boycott banned Faroese vessels carrying herring or mackerel from all EU ports, including Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
Similar sanctions to Iceland were expected to follow.
Mr Gunnlaugsson said at the time: “The EU’s ongoing campaign of threats of coercive measures against Iceland and the Faroe Islands is in breach of various obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and general international law.”
He noted the threat of sanctions was in breach of the obligation on coastal states to agree together on measures to assure the protection and development of a common stock.
JUST IN: Biden made ‘orange’ joke to Irish Taoiseach in St Patrick’s Day gaffe
The former Prime Minister added: “Furthermore, such measures would not be in accordance with the EU’s obligations under the WTO or, as regards Iceland, the EEA Agreement.
“It is of great concern to the government of Iceland that the EU seeks to prejudice the rights of free negotiation and agreement of other coastal States in the region, in pursuing the interests of certain member states.
“It is of further concern to Iceland that the EU intentionally circumvents mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of disputes, available under the convention.
“The government of Iceland rejects and objects in the strongest terms to the EU’s resort to threats of coercive measures against Iceland and the Faroe Islands as a means of settling disputes on the management of shared fish stocks.
“The government calls on the EU to withdraw these threats, thereby abiding by its obligations under international law.”
The boycott was lifted on August 20, 2014 after a breakthrough in negotiations which saw the Faroese share of the total mackerel quota jump from 4.62 percent to 12.6 percent.
Iceland was never sanctioned.
Earlier that year, Mr Gunnlaugsson had suspended his country’s bid to join the bloc.
In 2009, former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir saw EU membership as a way of rescuing the country from economic decline.
However, from the very beginning of the negotiations, Reykjavik made clear it was not willing to sacrifice its waters.
Former foreign minister Ossur Skarpheoinsson believed Iceland could have taught the EU how to manage fishing resources.
He told the EuObserver: “Of the two cod stocks in the world that are on the increase, one is in Iceland.”
Barnier’s hearing exposes France’s fears over Brexit Britain [REVEALED]
Merkel’s hands tied as German court ruling blocks EU integration [EXCLUSIVE]
Sturgeon’s bluff exposed as SNP ‘reluctant to use full powers’ [ANALYSIS]
He also claimed Icelanders, for whom the issue was “emotional” and not just about economics, would have been “quite angry” if they had got a “rotten deal” on fish.
The minister emphasised that while there was an increasing tendency to think that sovereignty could only be protected if it shared, it did not mean Iceland “was willing to share its fishing resources with anyone else”.
Brussels did not back down on the subject of fishing quotas, though.
Iceland suspended its EU bid in 2013, and Mr Gunnlaugsson withdrew the country’s application two years later.
In 2015, Mr Gunnlaugsson breathed a sigh of relief that his country never joined the bloc.
He said: “I am pretty sure our recovery couldn’t have happened if we had been part of the EU.”
Mr Gunnlaugsson argued that if his country’s application, made in the midst of an economic collapse in 2009, had succeeded, then Iceland might have suffered the fate of Greece, with its long-running economic collapse, or Ireland, which saw its public debt skyrocket as the government took on the bad debts of the banking sector.
He added: “We might have even gone the other way and become a bankrupt country.
“If all these debts had been in euros, and we had been forced to do the same as Ireland or Greece, and take responsibility for the debts of the failed banks.
“That would have been catastrophic for us economically.”
Iceland is in the single market accepting the free movement of goods, services, capital and people to and from EU countries but it is not a member of the eurozone.
It is also not signed up to the Common Agricultural Policy, the CFP or the customs union, meaning that it can strike its own trade deals with countries outside the bloc.
In 2013, Reykjavik became the first European nation to conclude a trade agreement with China.