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When tiny Iceland did beat England: It’s time to brush up on the Cod Wars

- June 26, 2016
Iceland’s Arnor Ingvi Traustason celebrates with Birkir Bjarnason after scoring the second goal during the Iceland v Austria soccer match in the EURO 2016 championship on June 22, 2016. (REUTERS/Darren Staples)

Tiny Iceland has surpassed everyone’s expectations in the Euro 2016 soccer championships. Even qualifying for the tournament was unexpected, but reaching the knockout stage (and doing so undefeated against Portugal, Austria and Hungary) deserves some bragging rights.

England are now set to face the overachieving microstate in the round of 16 on June 27. There is no doubt that the England team is an overwhelming favorite. However, as Lawrence Freedman cautions, Iceland has a history of overcoming great odds and defying common expectations in its battles with the British.

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Freedman is referring to the Cod Wars, when the two countries militarized over fishing rights disputes in the North Atlantic. Yes, “wars” over fish.

How did tiny Iceland defeat a great power?

The Cod Wars were disputes over Iceland’s territorial waters, fought in four bouts over a 25-year period: The Proto Cod War (1952-1956); the First Cod War (1958-1961); the Second Cod War (1972-1973); and the Third Cod War (1975-1976). Iceland wanted to expand its territorial waters and exclude foreign fishing fleets.

The U.K. would have none of that. The British distant fishing fleet fished extensively in the waters off Iceland — and supplied a lot of fish-and-chips shops. But the U.K. also wanted to prevent precedents that violated the principle of narrow territorial waters. Narrow territorial waters were key for the Royal Navy to sail freely and continue to project power across the world.

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The Icelanders were motivated by the prospective economic gains. An extension of its territorial waters meant greater catches — and a way to exclude competing trawler fleets and conserve important fishing grounds. The country’s heavy dependence on fishing meant that extensions had a significant impact on Iceland’s GDP (roughly one-quarter of which was tied to the fisheries sector), export earnings (one-half to two-thirds of which were tied to the fisheries sector) and employment (roughly 15 percent of which was in the fisheries sector).

Each Cod War broke out when Iceland unilaterally extended its territorial waters and the British failed to comply with the new Icelandic regulations. Clashes and confrontations ensued between Icelandic patrol ships and British trawlers. The harassment of British trawlers in the contested waters provoked the British to sanction the Icelanders in the Proto Cod War (preventing the Icelanders from accessing their largest export market) and send the Royal Navy into the contested waters during the last three Cod Wars. Neither side actively tried to cause casualties but the clashes at sea were still dangerous. Individuals were injured, and there was one fatality on the Icelandic side.

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Why didn’t they negotiate?

Surely bargaining would have saved both sides the inevitable costs and risks of unilateral, unrecognized expansions. Historians and political scientists have identified how domestic pressure on elites and the nature of alliance politics contributed to miscalculation on both sides that contributed to bargaining failure.

Neither Icelandic nor British leaders accurately discerned the public pressure that their counterparts were under. Icelandic politicians were particularly vulnerable to domestic pressure, as opposition parties, media and public sentiment likened compromise to treason. Contradictory statements from different members of the Icelandic government, diplomats and other elites contributed to the mistaken British view that the Icelanders were divided and not fully committed to expansive and legally dubious extensions.

The British trawling industry, which had a staunch ally in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, put great pressure on the British government. The Ministry favored aggressive and extreme actions in the disputes, while the Foreign Office was more conciliatory and concerned about the Cod Wars’ impact on British security interests and international standing. The Icelanders deemed it unlikely that their NATO ally and friend would sanction the Icelanders or send in the Royal Navy.

Both sides also believed that the U.S. and other NATO allies would side with them. Even though the American position on territorial waters tended to line up with the British view — and the U.S. opposed Iceland’s unilateralism — the U.S. ultimately intervened on Iceland’s behalf.

The U.S. had a stake in the outcome

The U.S. bought up unsold Icelandic fish, making the British sanctions toothless in the Proto Cod War. Then the U.S. pressured the U.K. behind the scenes in the last three Cod Wars. At stake was a strategically important U.S. base in Keflavík, which was needed to track Soviet submarine activity. For the U.S., Iceland also was an important chain in the line of defense in case of war with the Soviet Union.

Neither Iceland or the U.K. found the other’s threats and demands credible prior to the outbreak of conflict. However, as each Cod War intensified and Icelandic statesmen came under major domestic pressure, they found themselves forced to threaten to withdraw Iceland’s NATO membership and expel U.S. forces from the military base in Keflavík in desperate attempts to push the U.K. to give in to Iceland’s demands.

What started as minor disputes over fishing rights suddenly had implications for the Cold War. President Eisenhower (during the Proto Cod War) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (during the Second Cod War) talked about the Icelanders in terms of the  “tyranny of the weak,” as they felt compelled to oblige their small, obstinate, strategically important ally. With NATO allies heaping pressure on the U.K. to settle and Icelandic politicians clearly constrained by public pressure, the U.K. reluctantly gave in to most of the Icelanders’ demands. Iceland achieved favorable agreements in each Cod War, with the last Cod War concluding 40 years ago when the Icelanders achieved a 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

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So what does this have to do with soccer? As in the Cod Wars, the Icelandic players will have to show greater commitment than the English players to stand any chance of winning. The players have given their all to reach this point — and more than 8 percent of the Icelandic population traveled to support the team in France. Of those still in Iceland, fully 99 percent remained glued to the TV coverage of the matches. This suggests there is no shortage of commitment to the cause on the Icelandic side. Áfram Ísland!

Sverrir Steinsson is a researcher and lecturer in international relations at the University of Iceland. His study “The Cod Wars: a re-analysis” appears in the June 2016 issue of European Security. He tweets at @SverrirSte.