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So What’s This Letter To The European Union I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Letter To The European Union I Keep Hearing About?

Photos by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

Published April 13, 2015

In July of 2009, Iceland applied to become a member of the European Union. On March 12 of this year, the Foreign Minister of Iceland, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, delivered a letter in person to the European Union saying that it was the will of the Icelandic government that Iceland should not be considered an applicant country anymore. To which the EU has replied with a puzzled: “Uhh…?”

What’s the confusion? It seems pretty clear to me.

The confusion stems from two things. First, the original application was made after the Icelandic parliament passed a resolution authorizing the Icelandic government to apply for EU membership. Most people who are not members of the two parties currently in government have said that a formal withdrawal would require parliament to make another resolution. Second… well, the whole thing is a bit weird.

It’s not like the letter was written with paint on a whale carcass. It wasn’t, right? Right?!

You would think that something as big and important as whether Iceland completes its talks to join the European Union or not would require some big and important meeting. Instead the Foreign Minister dropped the letter off while on his way to a meeting in Slovakia. He stopped in Riga to meet with Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, whose name happens to be the fourth most common mispronunciation of Reykjavík.

Ah good, so I’m not the only one who thought it was called Edgars.

It was not an entirely random person to give the letter to, as Latvia currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. However, it was a pretty random person to give it to, as the Council of the European Union is essentially the upper chamber of the EU’s legislature. So it is a bit like if Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State wrote a letter saying that Puerto Rico was not interested in being a state and gave it to the senator whose job it is to sit next to Vice President Biden. Sure, the Senate would have something to do with it eventually, but they are hardly the first people you would contact.

Hold on a second… Iceland is the EU’s Puerto Rico?

Sort of, yes. Iceland is a member of the European Economic Area, along with the EU countries, plus Norway and Lichtenstein. That means Iceland is a part of the EU’s single market. It also means that Iceland is among the countries which, although outside the EU still have to adopt almost all EU legislation. The exception is laws on agriculture and fishing, in case you were interested.

Agricultural and fishing laws are what I read to my kids at night.

Fishing laws are fundamental to Icelandic opposition to joining the EU. Fishing makes up about a quarter of the total economy. Icelanders worry that joining the EU would mean losing control of Icelandic fisheries as well as compromising the nation’s independence.

Foreigners should keep their dirty hands off stinking Icelandic fish!

Ideally for Icelanders, foreigners should pay money to eat fresh and fragrant Icelandic fish as tourists in Iceland. Fishing and tourism are the country’s two biggest industries, and both benefit from the free flow of goods within the European Economic Area and the free movement of people within the Schengen Area. Few Icelanders wish to see Iceland leave either. However, because Iceland does not have EU membership, it has little say in writing the laws which it is treaty-bound to adopt.

Well, I guess if you’re making lots of money compromising your independence is okay.

Iceland was a colony of Denmark for centuries. Not being responsible for its own laws is not a new thing for Iceland. But this lack of control sometimes causes friction in the Icelandic government. One recent example was when Sigrún Magnúsdóttir, Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, idly wondered whether perhaps different words could be used to make EU regulations milder. Which caused something of a backlash and brought about one of the finer headlines of recent times: “EU Directives Are Not Poems.”

Which explains why I got nowhere on dates by reciting “Airborne Noise Emitted by Household Appliances Directive.”

The Icelandic Association of Translators and Interpreters released a statement saying that the Minister had “attacked the professional honour and integrity” of translators who work for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs translating the laws, regulations and directives that Iceland adopts from the EU. Gauti Kristmannsson, Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Iceland, added that it was striking that the boss of those translators, Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, had not defended his subordinates in his ministry. But perhaps he has written a letter in their defence and left it with a bathroom attendant in the Vatican, hoping it will be delivered to the right people.


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