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Norwegian policy during the Anglo-Icelandic fishing disputes after the Second World War was guided by the determination to advance and protect Norway’s national interest. This study has shown, however, how difficult that was since the various aspects of the national interest could conflict or contradict each other. Moreover, it has been established how the defence of purely Norwegian interests influenced decision-making in Oslo more than sympathy for Iceland or the desire to follow an “ethical foreign policy”. During the disputes, Norway primarily offered its good offices and tried in various ways to find a solution because of the egocentric concern that a prolongation of the conflicts could harm the defence interests of Norway, or make it difficult for the authorities in Oslo to follow their chosen course of action in matters of the law of the sea and territorial waters. Thus, Norway’s policy could be unfavourable to Icelandic interests. But even if it was selfish rather than enlightened, the Icelanders sometimes had every reason to be thankful for Norwegian interest and intervention in the disputes. Furthermore, Britain and Iceland, the two warring sides, were of course only fighting for their own particular interests, so why should Norway not do so as well?
In 1948-52, the first phase of the extension of Iceland’s fishing limits, the Norwegians and the Icelanders appeared to be in the same boat. Both nations wanted to enforce a four-mile limit and both could base their claims on even wider fishing limits from the time when they were together under Danish rule. Both nations faced opposition from Britain and although Iceland began to get rid of the treaty with Britain from 1901 on three mile territorial waters around the island, it was Norway which took the lead in this period. From the autumn of 1948, Norway fully enforced its Royal Decree from 1935 on a four-mile limit off North Norway, measured from baselines between headlands and the outermost islands and skerries. In late 1951, when the International Court of Justice endorsed this method of delimitation, there was great jubilation in Iceland. A fellow Nordic nation had had its way against Britain and the Icelanders could now follow.
By then, Iceland had already extended the fishing limits off its north coast to four miles, thus closing some traditional grounds to Norwegian herring fishermen. The response in Norway to this action had not been positive, even if it was based on the Norwegian precedent, and Norwegian attitudes did not improve when the Icelanders went all the way in 1952, declaring a baseline-measured four mile limit around the whole island. The authorities in Oslo wanted to protect the “herring” aspect of the national interest, i.e. the right to maintain long-established fishing rights off Iceland. They realised perfectly well, however, that if they issued formal protests they could be accused of hypocrisy and selfishness. The clear desire to do raise objections still demonstrated that the Norwegian policymakers did not think that they shared a common cause with Iceland. The Icelanders, meanwhile, felt that Norway was duty bound to support them and were indignant when they found out that the Norwegians would at best be neutral in the looming struggle between Iceland and Britain. Hence, tension was inevitable: on the one hand, the newly independent nation could be self-centred and naïve about the willingness of other nations to support its point of view. On the other hand, the Norwegian authorities showed no interest to follow an “ethical foreign policy” in their dealings with the Icelanders.
Icelandic displeasure over Norwegian attitudes continued in 1952-56. In this period, British trawler owners (with tacit blessing in London) imposed a ban on the landings of iced fish from Icelandic trawlers. Where was Norwegian sympathy and Nordic unity when it was needed? The Icelanders were enraged that Britain, an ally in NATO, would resort to economic coercion and they were also disappointed with the lack of pressure on Britain from Norway. Here the Icelanders continued to expect too much moral support from Oslo and the whole Nordic region, especially with regard to the apolitical Nordic Council. The authorities in Oslo also had to keep the herring interests in mind and, in general, the conflicting interests of Norway’s inshore fishermen and the distant-water fishermen and hunters (of whale and seal) made it difficult to formulate a clear policy on fishing limits and territorial waters. Shipping interests intervened in this regard as well. But when the OEEC decided to work towards the lifting of the landing ban the Norwegian delegate, Arne Skaug, played an important part. Other Western nations clearly felt that the Norwegians were most likely to be able to reason with the Icelanders.
Norwegian interest in the termination of the landing ban intensified in 1956 when a left-wing government came to power in Reykjavík, seemingly determined to expel the U.S. troops from the island who had been stationed there since 1951. Within NATO, it was agreed that the Icelanders had to be convinced of the benefits of Western co-operation and it was easy to conclude that the British coercion would then have to end. As before, policymakers in the West were also of the opinion that when it came to persuading the Icelanders, their close friends the Norwegians were the obvious choice. However, during the crisis in Iceland in 1956 when the United States appeared ready to treat the new leftist regime as an outcast, Norwegian representatives did good by counselling moderation in Washington rather than in Reykjavík. In doing so, they based their advice on their knowledge of Iceland’s domestic politics where there was in fact a majority in favour of the continuation of the U.S. presence. Furthermore, they knew that undue external pressure would not have the desired effect on the “obstinate” Icelanders. Norway’s soothing voice, in particular that of Foreign Minister Halvard Lange, contributed to the easing of tension between Iceland and its Western allies. For that the pro-Western Icelanders could be grateful, but it must be noted that Norwegian efforts were primarily based on the worry that in the unlikely event of Iceland actually ordering the removal of U.S. forces, NATO defences in the North Atlantic would be weakened and pressure on the Norwegians to accept foreign troops on their soil would greatly increase. Norwegian interests were at stake; hence the involvement. This self-centred approach was also evident when Norwegian officials and politicians expressed concern about economic assistance to Iceland and possible means to decrease its trade with the Soviet Union, established because of the infamous landing ban. Would such efforts not harm the Norwegian fishing industry? Norway had been put in a “no-win situation,” it was argued in Oslo in 1956-57. Ultimately, the Norwegian government was willing to offer Iceland a modest financial loan but was then spared the nuisance of supporting the Icelanders, a keen competitor on some of the world’s fish markets, by their own refusal to accept a string of small loans from the NATO countries (for fear that Iceland might be considered a beggar in Western circles).
By 1957, one crisis had been solved but another lay ahead. Ever since the end of the Second World War, the law of the sea had developed in favour of coastal states. Although a United Nations conference in early 1958 failed to secure an agreement on the width of fishing limits and territorial waters, it was clear that the status quo could not be maintained. In September that year, Iceland went ahead and declared a 12 mile fishing limit. The Norwegian authorities had hoped that the Icelanders would not act unilaterally in such a manner, both since it would lead to increased calls for similar action in North Norway, and since they rightly feared that Britain would not accept the extended limit. Indeed, the rulers in London had asked the Norwegians to get that message across in Reykjavík. As with the United States and the base crisis in 1956, Halvard Lange and the other Norwegian representatives concluded that not only would they be unable to persuade the Icelanders to back down but that they should rather recommend the British side to show restraint. That did not happen, however. The Royal Navy sailed to the waters off Iceland and protected British trawlers from harassment by Icelandic coast guard vessels. The first Cod War had begun. Norway obviously wanted Britain to withdraw their warships and acknowledge defeat in the dispute because of the damaging effect its continuation could have on Icelandic attitudes towards NATO and the U.S. base. Still, the Norwegians understood the British point of view and were accepted as mediators by both sides in the conflict. In early 1960, after a stand-off in the disputed waters for more than year, Foreign Minister Lange and NATO Secretary General Paul-Henri Spaak secretly sought a solution. Although they were not successful, their ideas for an end to the conflict were heavily in favour of Iceland and contributed to the feeling in London that it would ultimately be necessary to withdraw the warships and accept Iceland’s 12 mile limit.
Indeed, the Royal Navy left the waters off Iceland before the second United Nations conference on the law of the sea, held later in 1960. This time, the international community was only one vote from accepting the principle of 12 mile fishing limits (with a ten year phase-out period for traditional distant-water fishing). After the conference, the Norwegian government announced that it would impose a 12 mile but that it would of course negotiate phase-out rights with interested countries. Norway was never a “unilateralist” on the oceans. Then again, the Icelanders grumbled that the Norwegians had simply let them do all the hard work in the fight against Britain and then they wanted to follow and reap the benefits. While there was some truth in that, it was of course not Norway’s fault that Iceland had acted unilaterally and precipitated the Cod War. In late 1960, Britain and Norway reached agreement on the 12 mile extension, with a ten year transitory period. Then, in early 1961, the Cod War came to an end as Britain accepted the 12 mile limit off Iceland, in return for three year fishing rights inside the new line and a commitment by the Icelandic government to refer possible disputes in the future to the International Court of Justice. The Norwegians obviously wanted to achieve the same phase-out rights in Icelandic waters which Britain (and West-Germany) had achieved but reluctantly refrained from making formal requests because of Icelandic warnings that such selfishness was not expected from “friends” and “cousins”.
In 1971, a new left-wing coalition came to power in Iceland. It was intent on extending the fishing limit to 50 miles and decided to ignore the treaty obligations from a decade before, on the referral of disputes to the International Court. The Norwegian government did not like this hard-line stand, not only because of the obvious risk of renewed conflict with Britain but because the opponents of Norwegian membership of the EEC used the Icelandic example to support the contention that Norway should extend its national jurisdiction instead of opening its waters to European fishermen. In this sense, the Icelandic policy undoubtedly contributed to the Norwegian rejection of entry into the EEC in September 1972. At the beginning of that month, the 50 mile extension had taken effect off Iceland. The Icelandic coast guard vessels had developed a new “secret weapon” in the shape of “cutters” which severed the trawl-wires of the British trawlers. The trawlermen demanded naval protection but initially the authorities in London refrained from that action, mindful of the experience in the first Cod War when the Royal Navy presence had been costly, risky and ultimately unsuccessful.
Furthermore, in its manifesto the Iceland regime had promised to order all U.S. troops out of Iceland within the next four years. That, of course, was bad news for Norway. The Soviet naval build-up, which had begun in earnest in the 1960s, meant that Western defence and surveillance installations in Iceland were even more important for the country than before. Even the neutral Swedes, no friends of the United States in this period, emphasised that Scandinavian security was dependent on the U.S. presence in Iceland. The Icelandic Prime Minister, leader of the centrist Progressive Party, acknowledged Norwegian concerns and apparently gave the secret pledge that Iceland would take no final action on the U.S. presence before consultations with the government in Oslo. Within his coalition, only the most left-wing party was genuinely behind the pledge to expel the Americans. The Norwegian authorities were somewhat reassured by that but they realised quite well that an escalation of the conflict on the fishing grounds could evoke strong feelings among the nationalistic Icelanders against NATO and the U.S. base.
The feared escalation began in May 1973, when the Royal Navy reappeared in the waters off Iceland and began to protect British trawlers from the coast guard vessels and their hated “cutters”. Tempers ran high and the Norwegians immediately offered to mediate in the dispute. The rather far-fetched idea of offering to send unarmed Norwegian vessels to keep peace in the disputed wasters was even mooted in Oslo. The Icelandic authorities were not willing to accept Norwegian arbitration or mediation and they clearly felt that the Norwegians were only interested in the dispute because of its strategic connotations for themselves. By the fall of 1973 it looked as if Norway’s involvement in the Cod War would take the form of looking after Iceland’s interests in Britain. The rupture of diplomatic relations between the two countries was imminent when, at the last moment, both sides backed down and reached a two-year compromise on British fishing within the 50 mile limit, rather in favour of Iceland. Norway’s Cod War engagement in 1973 had never been decisive. The Norwegians did play a noticeable role, however, by constantly arguing in both London and Brussels that a solution was impossible unless the Royal Navy left the disputed waters. The offer to take care of Icelandic interests also demonstrated the close ties between Iceland and Norway. No other state was such an obvious candidate for this role. Denmark was ruled out because of the “colonial” link and no other state was a likely candidate.
In 1974, the leftist regime in Iceland collapsed and was replaced by a centre-right coalition which was quick to abandon all plans for the expulsion of U.S. troops from the country. The new government was determined to extend the fishing limits once more, this time to 200 miles. That extension took effect against Britain in November 1975. Trawls were immediately cut and this time Britain did not hesitate to send in the Royal Navy. Nasty clashes occurred at sea and in February 1976, Iceland broke off diplomatic relations with Britain. The irate Icelanders even seemed willing to leave, or threaten to leave, NATO and once again the future of the U.S. base was in jeopardy. After the rupture of diplomatic relations between the two NATO states (a unique event in the history of the alliance), negotiations between Iceland and Britain appeared impossible. As had been planned in 1973, Norway took over the protection of Icelandic interests in Britain and Foreign Minister Knut Frydenlund increased his efforts to facilitate an end to the conflict. While the self-centred concern for Norwegian security interests lay behind these endeavours, Frydenlund sincerely wanted to be of assistance in the conflict. That he managed to do, with assistance from the NATO Secretary General, Joseph Luns. Both sides needed a mediator who could convey tentative proposals and counter-proposals, make fresh suggestions and keep up the pressure for talks. Britain also needed a “face-saving” formula in the shape of talks in a third country, in order to avoid the impression of total defeat in the dispute.
On June 1, an agreement to end the Cod War was signed in Oslo after brief “negotiations”. In fact, they only confirmed a solution which both countries had previously accepted in secret talks, brokered by Norway and NATO. Five months later, the last British trawlers left Icelandic waters for good. While this last Cod War would probably have come to a similar end without Frydenlund’s active involvement, it could also have escalated with the loss of life at sea and even Iceland’s resignation from NATO. Thus, his efforts were certainly valuable for the majority of Icelanders, usually pro-Western at heart. In that context it made no difference that the protection of Norwegian defence interests lay primarily behind the Norwegian involvement, as always.