As many of you will know, last week our YT travelled to Brussels in order to check out the European Union. It was at the EU’s expense, and as far as I can tell these trips for “stakeholders” happen as a matter of course when a country has applied for membership to the Union.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve done these sorts of trips before, induction-type tours to various government institutions or international bodies, and they usually consist of long, drawn-out PowerPoint presentations, with the presenters droning on until you’d give anything for a pair of toothpicks to hold your eyelids open.
Either that, or you feel you are being so blatantly manipulated that the whole experience turns into one long shuddering ordeal.
Perhaps it was because my expectations were nil that it actually turned out to be a very interesting and enjoyable trip. I expected stuffy bureaucrats in suits yacking at us for the duration of the two days we were there, but instead I found many diverse individuals who were extremely well-informed and committed to their work, and most of whom were more interested in engaging in a dialogue with us than knocking us upside the head with propaganda. [Although to be completely fair there were a one or two occasions when I wished I’d brought those toothpicks with me.]
I have experienced manipulation during a tour of this sort in the past [see my posts about the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Facility, starting here], but I did not experience any of that in Brussels. On the contrary: no one tried to convince us of anything. We were simply introduced to the European Union’s regulations and principles, and it was made clear that Iceland was free to continue with the membership application or withdraw at any time. It was also made clear that Iceland would get no special concessions. If it wanted to join the club, it would have to play by the rules. [Something that no doubt would be a healthy maxim for many of my countrymen and -women.]
A lot of the dialogue concerned the public discourse and fears of the Icelandic people about joining the EU. There is plenty of fear to go around in this country, and that fear is used relentlessly by EU opponents. In particular, those fears centre on fishing [i.e. losing control of the fishing grounds around the island] and agriculture [Icelandic farmers fear the abolishing of all tariffs on agricultural products, which would mean a steady flow of inexpensive – or, shall we say, reasonably priced – agricultural products into the country, which would no doubt put some of them out of business].
Until now, the public discourse about the EU here in Iceland has been characterized by a lot of ineffectual information and/or outright misinformation, in addition to the aforementioned fears and emotional interjections. There is vast polarization between the pro- and anti- camps, and no real middle ground in which to engage in a balanced discussion that is based on facts.
Case in point. One of the main anti-EU cries is this: The moment we join, our waters will be full of Spanish trawlers who will vacuum our fishing grounds. They’ve managed to destroy their own; now they want to come here and do the same with ours.
The fact of the matter is that yes, Iceland will have to adopt the Common Fisheries Policy, which, as it happens, is currently under review. However, fishing quotas for species around Iceland will be allocated on the basis of experience of fishing in those waters, i.e. only those vessels who have fished in the Icelandic jurisdiction for the last ten years or so [read: only Icelandic vessels] will be allocated the quota. According to one of the members of the Icelandic enlargement unit the Spanish are well aware of this and will not even attempt to stake a claim on the Icelandic fishing grounds because they know it will be futile.
The quotas that will be calculated for each species will be largely based on scientific data collected by the Marine Institute of Iceland, just as it is today. The only thing that will change is that the quota allocation will be issued in Brussels, rather than in Iceland, i.e. a Brussels bureaucrat will sign on the dotted line. This is the basis of one of the frequent emotional arguments, namely that Iceland will be losing its independence to Brussels.
I could write a lot more about my EU encounter, but I think the main thing that emerged from this trip for me was that the EU is not some terrifying soulless monster just hovering and waiting to swallow up poor little defenseless Iceland. What I saw was an assembly of very diverse people who are committed to working together for the greater good of the whole. Don’t get me wrong: I harbour no illusions that the EU as an institution is perfect and that corruption and mismanagement and all the rest of it don’t exist there. What I did see, however, is an institution that has been set up according to an ideal and guided by the principles of democracy, where myriad regulations and guidelines are in place to attempt to ensure that corruption, nepotism, cronyism and other nasties don’t take root.
In other words, a system of government that is a lot more evolved than what we have seen here in Iceland in previous decades.