Icelanders can be described as “reluctant Europeans” akin to their Scandinavian neighbours. Denmark, Finland and Sweden all joined the EU and have to a greater or lesser extent participated in the EU’s development. Iceland and Norway, though, have stayed outside the EU, yet have close relations with the EU since 1994 through their membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).
Until the meltdown of its banking system in the autumn of 2008, the Icelandic political elite was still far from eager to join the EU, happy with the halfway house of the EEA. But when the international financial crisis hit, not only did Iceland’s oversized banking system come crashing down, its currency plunged instantly, with devastating effect. Many soon decided to opt for the safe haven in European integration. The present left-wing coalition government, which came to power after the ‘Pots and pans revolution’ of 2009, applied for EU membership.
Iceland’s contribution to the EU will be substantial. Iceland belongs to Europe, and has contributed significantly to the common European cultural heritage. During the Cold War era, Iceland was strategically and geopolitically part of the American continent, and of the European security community’s frontiers extended to Iceland when the U.S. formally closed its military base there in 2006. And when Iceland joins, the EU as a whole will gain access to the Arctic and the strategic shipping routes that are opening up with the melting of the ice cap. Iceland will also contribute its substantial expertise in sustainable fisheries and geothermal energy.
There are striking similarities between Iceland and Norway in their attitudes towards the EU and European integration. In common they have the political importance of farming and fisheries, and an “Atlanticist” orientation coupled with their interests in natural resources.
The Icelandic economy’s key sector has long been fishing, still the largest generator of exports. Its importance is diminishing though, from 90% of all exports in the 1960s to less than 40% now. Exports of aluminium overtook marine product in 2008. But because fisheries have been the source of disputes with some EU members, notably the UK, ceding control to Brussels as the EU’s Common Fisheries policy will be sure to provoke fierce debate and some popular resistance to accession.
Other than that, there stand obstacles in the way of Iceland’s EU membership bid. From the European side, that is. As to Iceland itself, both public opinion and the political parties are still divided on the question. Public opinion has become more negative since the summer of 2009, once the banking crisis had begun to recede in peoples’ minds. During the previous decade public opinion about joining the EU had been more positive, with the polls showing majority support. But the Icesave dispute between Iceland and the UK along with the Netherlands re-kindled negative sentiments towards the EU, so last December’s outline deal for reimbursing British and Dutch investors, who had online Icesave accounts with the collapsed Landsbanki bank, appears now to leave fishing rights as the main stumbling block, not least because of Iceland’s escalating mackerel dispute with the EU and Norway.