With the economy in meltdown, the threat of a hard border on the island of Ireland, a rocky relationship with mainland Europe, and the public enduring wartime restrictions on their freedoms, it often feels like the nation is in the midst of a most unwelcome 70s revival – minus the great music and wacky fashions that made that decade worth living through. The Three-Day Week and the Winter of Discontent were probably the last occasions remotely comparable to what we’ve had to put up with in 2020, and looking back on those (literally) dark days can no longer be entered into with the same sense of ‘can you believe people put up with all that?’ smug detachment. But the final icing on a quite unappetising cake of nasty nostalgia has now come via the latest chapter in the ongoing Brexit farce, i.e. the prospect of a potential Cod War all over again – or something as near to it as we’ve had since the UK and Iceland battled it out for fishing rights on the high seas. If anything, we’re going even further back in time as we appear to be squaring-up against the old enemy across the Channel, more than a century on from the Entente Cordiale that was supposed to have ended our ancient animosity towards our Gallic cousins.
Actually, disputes over territorial waters with other maritime nations are just as old as our rivalry with the French; and we can blame it on the Vikings. The Nordic rapists and pillagers introduced cod and other North Atlantic whitefish into the British diet, centuries before fish and chips became the national dish. So engrained was our appetite for these delicacies by the 15th century that voyages by English ships into the plentiful Icelandic fishing grounds prompted King Eric of Denmark (who ruled Iceland) into barring Icelanders from trading with the English. Despite efforts to diplomatically resolve what evolved into a long-running dispute, vessels continued to set sail from Blighty and head north for hundreds of years, venturing deeper into Icelandic territory with the advent of steam-power. Denmark eventually declared a fishing limit around Iceland and the Faroe Islands of 50 nautical miles, though this tended not to be observed by British ships. There were a series of clashes at the back end of the 19th century, leading to the 1901 ‘Anglo-Danish Territorial Waters Agreement’; however, British catches in Icelandic waters remained substantial for the first half of the 20th century.
When disagreements rose again in the immediate post-war period, British ports imposed a landing ban on Icelandic fish, a move which proved highly damaging to the Icelandic fishing industry; sensing a way-in, the USSR began to import fish from Iceland, whilst the US – fearful, as ever, of Soviet influence being extended beyond Eastern Europe – did likewise, a move that effectively neutralised the damage done by the British landing ban. When this latest round of the never-ending dispute resulted in the extension of Icelandic fishery limits in 1958, British trawlers largely ignored it and were accompanied for the first time by Royal Navy warships during their forays into Icelandic waters. The ill-feeling between the two nations escalated into what is regarded as the First Cod War, with clashes, collisions and shots fired; NATO ended up acting as a mediator and the conflict officially ended in 1961 with an agreement that allowed British vessels to visit specific Icelandic fishing grounds at specific times of the year. This uneasy truce lasted around a decade.
When what is referred to as the Second Cod War erupted in the autumn of 1972, it somewhat contradicted the image of European unity that the EEC (of which Britain would be a member as of New Year’s Day 1973) and PM Ted Heath were so eager to sell to the British public. Iceland had decided to extend its waters once again, with its new left-wing government spurning the treaty agreed to by its centre-right predecessor, which required the involvement of the International Court of Justice in the Hague should any further disputes arise; aggressive patrolling of the new limits and the cutting of British nets inevitably provoked retaliation. By the beginning of 1973, the Royal Navy had become involved and anti-British feeling was so strong in Iceland that the windows of the British Embassy in Reykjavik were smashed by a mob; but in increasingly harsh economic times, fishing communities on either side were prepared to fight gloves-off to keep their livelihoods going. NATO – which Iceland threatened to leave – eventually became involved again and an agreement was finally reached in November 1973, albeit one that limited British catches in Icelandic waters; this agreement only lasted a couple of years before hostilities resumed at the end of 1975.
Iceland extended the so-called ‘exclusion zone’ once again, and as Britain refused to recognise the extension, the Third Cod War broke out. This chapter of the trilogy proved to be the most violent, with several serious incidents that exceeded the tit-for-tat exchanges of the previous two conflicts. The situation became so dire that Iceland broke off diplomatic relations with the UK in February 1976; when an agreement was reached that June, it may have been one that officially ended hostilities but it was also one with stipulations that resulted in heavy redundancies in ports such as Hull and Grimsby, whose economies were almost exclusively dependent on fishing. What always sounded to me like some sort of ‘joke war’ when I was a child dipping into ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ – after all, I associated cod with chips, not wars – had severe repercussions on British industry at a time when it was hardly in the healthiest of shapes.
40 years on from the end of the Third Cod War, the decision by a majority of the British population to leave the EEC’s bloated successor didn’t initially throw up concerns regarding a revival of disputes over fishing rights. However, with the EU stating its desire to maintain access to fishing grounds within the British ‘exclusive economic zone’, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit would complicate matters; Britain’s cause also isn’t helped by the fact that more than half of England’s fishing quotas are in foreign ownership – though that shouldn’t come as a surprise when one considers what has happened to other British industries in recent years. The seemingly doomed talks in Brussels have provoked the promise of the Royal Navy being deployed once more to police British waters – this time in the English Channel. Although the Royal Navy tends to patrol the seas around Britain anyway, shots are rarely fired in anger; were they required to be, the constant cutting and trimming of the service over the past few decades means it is a shadow of what it was at the time of the Cod Wars, so expecting a fleet of warships to tackle illegal fishing by the French in the Channel is pretty unrealistic.
What has predictably been labelled ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the wake of this threat could be viewed as the EU deliberately backing Boris into the kind of corner it knows he will react to with a futile jingoistic flourish. The EU has also refused to allow the PM to speak directly to Macron and Merkel, insisting he deal solely with Michel Barnier; indeed, events of this past week seem to have highlighted yet again how the EU is consciously punishing the UK for having the temerity to depart the club. Negotiations were destined to be difficult, but the EU needed them to be in order to make an example of Britain and further dissuade any other member state contemplating following suit. Southern Europe – Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece – has failed to reap the ‘benefits’ of both the Euro and free movement promoted as beneficial in France and Germany, but the less Britain emerges with from the melee, the less appealing the rewards of departure for anyone else. No, if anyone can lay claim to ruling the waves right now, it’s not Britannia, but Brussels.
© The Editor