Whaling could blow a hole in Iceland's EU talks

BRUSSELS, June 20, 2010 (AFP) - Iceland's whale hunting tradition despite a ban, which it wants lifted, looms as a major hurdle in its upcoming membership talks with the European Union where all cetaceans are legally protected.

The EU membership talks haven't started yet, but a European diplomat stressed that "if Iceland continues to practise commercial whale hunting for scientific purposes, that's going to create a political problem."

In nearly all areas Iceland has been seen as a perfect EU candidate, and could have started talks earlier had it wanted to.

In a picture taken on June 16, 2010 in Japan, sushi shop owner Katsuji Furuuchi makes up whale sushi from sliced minke meats and pieces of blubber in Japanese whaling town Ayukawahama, Miyagi prefecture. Ayukawahama was once a major whaling port. AFP

Its European credentials are impressive already; a member of the unfettered travel Schengen area and the European Economic Area as well as a fully fledged NATO nation, Iceland ticks most of the boxes.

In trade terms the ties are equally strong, more than half of Iceland’s imports come from the EU and three-quarters of its exports go there.

All those factors are reasons why European heads of state and government gave the candidacy the go-ahead at an EU summit in Brussels last Thursday.

However a February report by the EU Commission on Iceland's application for membership was clear: "Necessary steps will need to be undertaken as regards the protection of cetaceans".

Britain and Germany have urged their EU partners to resist a call, expected at an International Whaling Commission meeting in Morocco this week, to lift the moratorium on whale hunting which has Iceland's support and that of fellow whaling nations Japan and Norway.

The German parliament in a resolution has urged the government to ensure that a whale hunting ban remains a sine qua non for Iceland's EU hopes.

An Icelandic diplomat said his country had applied to join the club, after the global downturn battered its economy, knowing a solution will have to be found, but not thinking that solution must necessarily be an end to whale hunting.

"Iceland would as a starting negotiating position seek a way to maintain this exception in order to preserve this centuries old, sustainable tradition," he said.

"We are aware that this is a very sensitive topic," an EU Commission spokeswoman said, citing the EU accession rule of "possible transitional periods or even derogation from some pieces of the (EU) legislation."

Icelandic hunters specialise in taking the fin whale, with a quota of 150 this year.

The country resumed commercial whaling in 2006, and in 2009 set a quota for 150 fin whales, the second largest animals, over five years, despite their "endangered" status, according to WWF.

Not only is that against EU rules but it is "also unnecessary," argues Saskia Richartz, marine specialist for Greenpeace in Brussels.

"Most of the 1,500 tonnes of meat produced last year continue to sit in freezers," she adds.

Icelandic political scientist Eirikur Bergmann agrees that whaling is not important for its economic contribution.

"It‘s more a matter of independence and emotions, nationalism."

And in Iceland opinions are divided, according to Arni Thor Sigurdsson, chair of the Icelandic parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

"I personally don‘t think we should do it because it doesn‘t help our economy in any way," he said.

What is sure is that the matter will have to be addressed as Iceland attempts to negotiate the 30-plus accession chapters, including one on the environment, which all candidate nations must do to the satisfaction of the current EU members.

Nor is whaling the only potential pitfall.

Indeed fisheries in general were already being seen as a major sticking point after EU leaders on Thursday agreed to grant Iceland candidate nation status.

The part-Arctic nation is fiercely protective of the abundant fishing waters around its shores and has shown no sign that it is prepared to freely open up these seas to European partners.

Britain and the Netherlands also want Reykjavik to negotiate a compensation deal for their citizens hit by the fall of the online Icesave bank in October 2008.

"If whaling becomes the main obstacle, then we‘ll just have to reconsider the whole process," said Sigurdsson.

The European Union expects Iceland to reconsider the whaling, rather than the membership.

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