Icelandic Brexit boost as seafood relations look set to deepen with the Humber

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 10 Oct 2017

ICELAND’S ambassador to the UK delivered a strong Brexit boost to Britain and Grimsby’s vital fish processing cluster as he addressed Humber Seafood Summit.

Thordur Aegir Oskarsson was guest of honour at the opening reception, and told of the strong desire harboured by the North Atlantic nation to build even better links as the UK prepares to leave the EU.

Four years ago Iceland canned talks of joining Brussels, with control over fishing policy the contentious issue, and is now watching closely as its gateway to the continent continues divorce proceedings.

MORE: Your complete guide to Humber Seafood Summit 2017

Taking to the lectern at Humber Royal Hotel, Mr Oskarsson said: “Iceland, through the centuries, has considered England, and latterly the UK, as a strong ally and trade partner. This relationship is even more vital now than ever before and Icelandic authorities have said it is the intention to deepen these relations for our mutual benefit.

“The fishing industry still remains a critical driver of Icelandic prosperity. The UK has played a critical role by providing us, during good and bad years, with the most important market for our seafood and that is still the case.”

The London-based diplomat, who has made three visits to the summit in his time, which comes to an end next month, underlined pressures on the relationship with Reykjavik too.

“We have had serious challenges, and I am not talking about the Cod Wars, and it constantly takes a lot of effort to sustain. We are finding a challenging exchange rate which has not been very helpful, a situation that will not necessarily last, but can be damaging for our trade. When you add the forthcoming exit from the EU the situation becomes even more unpredictable and riskier. 

“Your departure from the EU is your decision and we respect that as a democratic decision, just as in 2013 when Iceland decided to leave accession talks with the EU. Why did we do it? Because of fish, the fish is everywhere!”

Back on a serious note, Mr Oskarsson outlined his hopes for an outcome to Brexit negotiations. “It really important to reach an early agreement for seafood in particular, and trade in general,” he said. “A free trade agreement at the earliest chance and a continuation of undisrupted trade on exit day will be very important to us as the largest supplier of seafood to the UK and as a significant supplier of imports for processing and to the consumer market. 18 per cent of our seafood export goes to the UK.

MORE: Fisheries Minister addresses Humber Seafood Summit and looks ahead to 'independent coastal state'

“We even harbour the hope we can do a lot better than the present arrangement and would like to aim for full free trade for seafood.

“We need to be ready, and our relationship is not only about trade, it is also about people. 

“Let’s work together to keep it going, see if we can get better, continue and at least sustain.”

He underlined the importance of identity and thanked the work of those in the Humber for helping build the Icelandic brand through the seafood industry.

“This my third visit to Grimsby and the Humber and I think, without faltering, it should be every Icelandic minister’s duty to come and visit you when outside of London,” he said. “It is a great pleasure to be given a platform like this, though you probably know more about the seafood industry in Iceland than I do. 

“I am leaving London next month, I will not make a fourth trip. This has been a very important learning experience for me, to come here three years ago.

“Every minister I have met since I started his job has wanted to come to Grimsby and the Humber. It is amazing when you think about the history, when you think of the affect the Cod Wars had, the good feeling and welcome we get from people in this room. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Welcoming him, Seafish chief executive Marcus Coleman told how Mr Oskarsson had been in touch with many Grimsby businesses with Icelandic interests and was a “friend of the family”.

He described it as “something of a reciprocal visit” having enjoyed a British reception hosted by the UK ambassador in Iceland when there last month for World Seafood Congress 2017

STRONG BOND: Seafish chief executive Marcus Coleman and guest of honour Thordur Aegir Oskarsson.

Earlier in the day a Brexit workshop had been led by Simon Dwyer, secretariat to Grimsby FMA and a key figure on the cluster organisation Seafood Grimsby & Humber. 

Matt Whittles, Defra's head of trade from the fisheries team, had joined the session, held at Oaklands Hall Hotel.

He said: "It was really useful engaging with industry, and is so important. These are the people with the knowledge, they know how the trade works. It is really important having their views and I want to do more and look forward to coming up to Grimsby and working more in-depth,"

While catching sees a net benefit from leaving the EU - to the extent where flotillas were seen in the Humber and the Thames, processing faces a labour challenge, with a third of the workforce drawn from eastern European countries.

"Labour is going to be important," Mr Whittles said. "To some extent we can set the rules on labour ...as long as we set them right."

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