Published August 22, 2003


EU or not EU. That is the question. Or, at least, it should be. For some reason, it is barely debated among politicians, even though poll after poll shows that roughly half the nation, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the time of the month, would support membership. Of the political parties, the ones farthest to the left and to the right are most opposed. Ironically, the supposed extremes seem to be leading back to the same point. The closest Prime minister and leader of the Independence Party Davíð Oddsson has come to debating the issue is when he had his ministry prepare a poll asking very loaded questions, since much ridiculed, attempting to prove that the nation was opposed to membership. The poll concluded that the nation was in fact opposed, if this would lead to the virtual collapse of the economy, which so far has not been the case with membership.

Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, leader of the Left-Green party is also opposed, reaching the same conclusion for what we should hope are very different reasons. The Independence Party and the precursor of the Left-Greens last served together in government from 1944-46, and apparently got along like a house on fire until they fell out over the Yanks. If it hadn’t been for that all-divisive issue, perhaps they would have become natural coalition partners.

The parties in between are more favourably disposed towards the EU, but none of them have yet dared come out of the closet as head-on pro Europe parties. The social-democratic Alliance Party, in its mad dash for the centre has, like most such parties, sworn off anything that might sound like an issue.

After the last election, the ball seemed to be lying with Foreign Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson as to whether the question of membership might finally make the agenda. His party, sharing power with the Independence Party for the past 8 years, seemed in danger of disappearing from the public mind as an independent entity altogether. Perhaps this was the reason he, for a while at least, seemed to be flirting with the idea of becoming pro-EU, or perhaps his eye was on the generous agricultural subsidies the Union is known for, something that might appeal to his largely rural electorate. Politically, his party is somewhere between the Independence Party and the Alliance Party, the two towers as they have come to be known as we slide further towards a two party system, so essentially it is up to him to chose whom he wants to work with. For a while it seemed he might distance himself from the Independence Party and opt for the Alliance, perhaps securing the premiership in what would have been a much more EU disposed government. In the event, he opted for the secure bosom of Davíð yet again, securing a promise from his senior partner that he would finally be allowed to take over the position of top dog as Davíð has promised to retire two years hence after 14 years at the helm.

So should Iceland join the EU? As always, it comes down to fish. The problem with EU membership is that according to EU regulations, a nations exclusive fishing rights only extends to 12 nautical miles, whereas the area from 12 to 200 miles is common EU ground. For Icelanders, this is not just a question of economics, but of pride.

The Cod Wars

At the turn of the 20th century, Denmark made an agreement with Great Britain stipulating that Icelandic and Faeroese fishing rights only extend to 3 nautical miles, this at the time, and not quite coincidentally, being the range of Royal Navy cannon. In 1950, Iceland unilaterally extended this to 4 miles on the northern coast. Before then, British trawlers using gillnets, trawls and other mass fishing equipment had vacuumed up the oceans, giving fish stocks no opportunity to replenish themselves. After the extension of the fishing rights area, trawling was banned within 4 miles.

In 1952, the territorial waters were extended to 4 miles around the whole country. Great Britain, which was the country that fished the most off Iceland’s shores, responded by banning the landing of Icelandic fish in Britain, then the biggest market. Iceland responded by freezing its fish and transporting it to the USA and the USSR. The ban was lifted in 1956, but two years later, Iceland again extended its territorial waters, this time to 12 miles. Britain responded by sending naval vessels to accompany its trawlers, and for three years the Royal Navy protected the trawlers from Icelandic coast guards, until an agreement was reached that stipulated that Britain be granted limited fishing rights for three years.

For the next ten years the North Atlantic was peaceful, but off in the distance clouds were gathering. In 1972 Iceland yet again extended its boundaries, this time to 50 miles, and again the Royal Navy was sent on the scene. This time the Icelanders had a secret weapon, wire cutters, so they could cut the nets off British trawlers even when these were protected by the Navy. This final battle in the Cod Wars was to prove the longest and harshest. In 1975, territorial waters were again extended, this time to 200 miles. Diplomatic relations were broken off between Iceland and Britain, and several times Icelandic coast guard vessels and British frigates collided or ran into one another, leading to several frigates being dry docked, but no lives were lost. As far away as China the government seized upon the struggle for propaganda purposes, teaching in schools about the brave struggle of the oppressed against imperialism. A deal was eventually brokered by the Norwegian government, and in 1976 British trawlers left Icelandic territorial waters (as defined by Iceland) for the last time.

The Fine Art of Breaking Treaties

History is, of course, what they want you to know. The Cod Wars are the story of a small, newly independent country’s struggle against a declining Empire, the story of a country with no army at all (forget about the Americans for a while) fighting against a country which had long prided itself on ruling the waves. And to some extent the struggle was necessary, at least initially, to protect the fish stocks. But it is also the story of a country that broke every agreement it ever made regarding territory of a consistency that would have made Hitler proud. It is also the story of the mass unemployment that resulted in the former fishing towns of Grimsby and Hull, when their livelihood was cut off, towns where many people to this day still curse the “scrobs,” as Icelanders are known.

But every nation needs a national struggle, and an external enemy. For a country with little in the way of military victories, and not a single heroic fatality in the struggle for independence, we need our mythology of triumphs against foreign foes. After all, who are “we” if there are no “they”?

Nationalism, as has been pointed out, is neither rational nor irrational; it is nonrational. To put it another way, it follows its own rules. Those striving for independence might have the well being of the nation at heart, but this is rarely based on economic rationale alone. It might perhaps have made economic sense for Iceland to remain a part of Denmark which certainly was a more viable economic entity in the mid-19th century than the 50.000 souls living in Iceland when the struggle for independence started. This was especially true after 1855 when the Danes exclusive rights to trade were lifted, and hence the issue was no longer a question of economic independence. And yet no one seems to have ever even considered this.

This also means that, since nationalism is nonrational, it can be used to further many ends. Those who originally sought independence were intellectuals, students from the University of Copenhagen caught up in the romantic nationalism of the day, most of whom were convinced liberals. This was then picked up on by the landowners, the major farmers who were afraid the Danes would start meddling and modernising the country after the end of absolutism in 1849. They seemed to have had a premonition that the influx of modernity would lead to people leaving the farms for fishing villages and bigger towns, hence bringing about an end to their predominance.

The Highjacking of Nationalism

As happened seemingly everywhere else, nationalism became hijacked by the conservatives. It first emerged as a potent political weapon in the French revolutionary wars. Those not willing to die for the revolution often turned out to be willing enough to die for France. When the king had been beheaded and could no longer serve as the unifying symbol of the regime, the idea of the nation took over this function. As the armies of Napoleon stormed into one capital after another, the rulers of Europe (and their recruiting sergeants) who could no longer rule by divine right took note of this powerful new ideology. Nationalism became the new opium of the masses when religion failed. By the end of the century, the idea of unifying people into states was being used to further expansionist policies under headings such as pan-Germanism or pan-Slavism (although it aroused considerably less enthusiasm in Vienna, as the Habsburg Emperor had more difficulty in embodying the national spirit of a multicultural empire). The monarchs were eventually toppled in the First World War, but new people and parties arose to embody the nation. Here it became the raison d etre for the aptly named Independence Party, formed by the ruling elite in 1929 out of the Conservative Party.

It is interesting to note, however, that in countries such as Scotland, still under the British crown, nationalism remains a part of leftist ideology, intermingling freely with otherwise supranational ideologies such as socialism.

The Myth of the Evil Foreigner

Back in Viking days, everything was great. Every man was a chieftain, had his stable of (mostly Irish) slaves, drank heartily, fought bravely and held lavish parties. Then the Norwegians took over, superceded by the Danes, and darkness descended upon these shores. It was not until the latter 19th century that the country tore itself from out of this darkness, and lived happily ever after.

Such, in short, is the history we are to a large extent still taught in schools, a history forged as a weapon against the Danes in the struggle for independence. In actuality, one of the main reasons the Norwegian king was asked to take over was constant bickering between the ruling families, resulting in a state of virtual civil war and persistent blood feuds. Icelanders at the time were simply incapable of governing themselves. It is true that after the end of independence, living conditions became worse. But this had less to do with foreign kings than with worsening climate, and in fact the kings had little say over what happened in Iceland anyway. They did not have a standing army here, and when Icelanders finally rose up with the introduction of Protestantism, every Dane in the country was tracked down and killed, so ill defended were they. The Danish king, however, quietly reimposed his authority, and no one seemed to mind very much, so a nationalist uprising it was not. If Icelanders were oppressed in the period 1262-1918, the oppression was carried out by local chieftains rather than foreign kings. For example, in 1861, the same year that the serfs were finally freed in Russia, the Danish government insisted that Icelandic laws, forbidding people to leave farms, where they were virtually owned by the farmer, to seek work elsewhere, be changed. The members of the Icelandic parliament all protested, and instead insisted that the shackles around farm labourer’s feet be tightened yet further. A compromise so was eventually reached. People could buy their freedom, but at a price that ensured few could afford to do so.

But in retrospect, it is more convenient the enemy be foreign. After all, we need our leaders to protect us from the foreigners. Now, foreigners are ganging up on poor little Iceland once more, this time attempting to forbid us from hunting whales. It is not a question of economics, of course, the resumption of whaling will almost certainly have no impact one way or the other. But it is a great way to distract attention from more boring issues like the economy (see: The Bush Administration), it is a question of rooting for your own side, a matter of us and them. It follows a logic of its own.

Is the EU necessary?

The EU, whether you like it or not, is a necessity. For a continent that twice tore itself apart in the first half of the last century, preventing this from ever happening again it is a necessity. For Eastern Europe, wrecked with poverty and war, it is a necessity. Had Europe spoken with a single voice in 1991, the Balkan wars could probably have been avoided, or at least brought to an end earlier. For those countries entering the European Union, it promises at least the hope of stability and prosperity for those previously stuck in limbo between a collapsing east and a prosperous west. It might even help to bring peace to the Middle East, bringing a new, powerful actor to the stage, which might lead, as the US once did, by example rather than arms.

For an increasingly global world, where most vital problems, be they drugs, prostitution, pollution or international terrorism, in a world where corporations are rapidly outgrowing governments, it is a necessity. Just as the city states in ancient Greece proved inadequate to deal with problems after the advent of the Romans onto the stage, so today the nation state is rapidly proving unable to deal with the problems posed to its citizens, the Roman Empire in this case being played, not so much by any government, not even the one in Washington DC, as by the various multinationals who actually run things.

So, the EU is a necessity. But must Iceland necessarily join? As far as the EU is concerned, it doesn’t really matter. It’ll do just fine without us. But how about for us? Is it in our own interest to join? The question is often posed as one of fishing rights. If we join the EU, popular conception tends to be, the greedy foreigners will gobble up all our fish. It is true that foreigner will be allowed to fish within the 200 mile limit, the one our forefathers fought for. But will this mean Icelanders will become destitute?

Does Iceland Have a Future?

Independence at the time, even if sought in order to preserve the traditional farmer’s society, was a necessity. It is seldom good for people to be dependent upon another, and Icelanders who go to the Faeroes often fare well, being more energetic than the locals used to seek support from overseas, in much the same way the people around the US base have became over reliant on employment there, and hence have neglected developing other industries. But an association of nations, entered into out of free will, is something else all together. As history has progressed, people have learnt to think of themselves in ever larger groups, progressing from clans to city states to nations. The nation state came into existence less than 200 years ago. It may have been a necessary stop on the way, but it is important not to miss the train as it continues on. But what, then, about the fish?

The future of fishing is not solely a matter of whether Iceland joins the EU or not. The Chinese have started to export fish that is much more cheaply produced, and can seriously underbid Icelandic product. Iceland simply cannot continue to be as dependant on fisheries in the future as it was in the last century.

The head of EU fisheries, Franz Fischler, was here on a visit in the first half of August. He stressed that those wanting to join the club must abide by its rules. Yet, he said, he was sure some agreement could be reached wherein Icelanders would preserve their fishing, as has already been done in Ireland. He was upset that Icelanders had decided to fish more than has been recommended by international regulators, but maintained Iceland and Norway could do far more to influence policy within than without, and that common policy was important for fish preservation. Icelandic fisheries minister Árni Mathiesen, however, was not as optimistic, and said that there were still fundamental differences, and that the fish in the sea belongs to the people. In effect, however, this means a quota system wherein a few major quota owners own most of the fishing rights. But at least those quota owners are Icelandic. Nationalism, in the end, is not about economics. It follows a logic of its own.

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