From Iceland — To EU Or Not To EU

To EU Or Not To EU

Published August 27, 2010

Iceland’s EU accession talks commenced on July 27, and Bloomberg implied
that they were fast tracked to July primarily due to increased pressure
from Britain and the Netherlands to settle the Icesave issue. “EU
governments sped the talks from a planned September or October start to
counter the growing anti-EU mood in Iceland. Opposition to EU membership
rose to 60 percent in June from 54 percent in a November [according to a
Capacent Gallup poll].” And although the Icesave issue is not formally
being discussed during the EU accession talks, Deutsche Welle points out
that, “it could end up being a stumbling block to eventual membership.
Fulfilment of EFTA rules is necessary to qualify for EU membership, and
those rules require Iceland to resolve its debt…”
On this first day of talks, Foreign Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson told
Bloomberg that he felt that the Icelandic people would support joining
the EU once the 5.1 billion $ dispute is solved. He also told the
foreign media that the Icelandic fisheries sector—in particular, as
regards quotas and fishing bans—is not up for discussion. In an
interview with Deutsche Welle, France’s EU Minister Pierre Lellouche
said, “You have to want to join Europe. I don’t have the impression from
the opinion polls that the Icelanders themselves are very favourable:
that’s the problem.” EU ministers appear wary of Iceland repeating
Norway’s two-time rejection.
Icesave issue aside, to join the EU Iceland may have to adapt fishery
polices—at least meet EU halfway—and will probably have to pack in
whaling altogether. It is hard to imagine that other major EU fishing
nations such as Britain, Ireland and Spain will accept an ‘opt-out’ on
the fisheries front. At a June meeting of the International Whaling
Commission, Kristján Loftsson, CEO of Hvalur and anti-EU campaigner,
mentioned that he really didn’t see the difference. “Whales are just
another fish,” he told the AFP. During the meeting, a proposal to reduce
Iceland, Japan and Norway’s hunt was put forward, but talks broke down
early. Kristján, who maintains that whaling is an integral part of
Iceland’s heritage and economy, recently commented to EUbusiness webzine
that Iceland should not enter the EU, not only in the interest of whale
hunting, but to protect Iceland’s fishing industry in general. noted that “there will be demands from some member states
for the country to abandon its controversial whaling policy, which
allows it to take 150 fin whales a year supposedly for scientific
In a similar vein, a July FT article stated: “To qualify for EU
membership, Iceland would have to participate in the bloc’s common
fisheries policy, which sets national quotas for how much each species
can be caught. Rule-bending is rampant. France, Greece, Italy, Malta and
Spain will each receive a reprimand…from the European Commission for
failing to curb unsustainable fishing.” After decades making their own
decisions, one wonders how well an outside authority will go down with
Iceland’s fishermen. also pointed out in July that “the
Irish, backed by at least eight EU countries including Britain, have
made a formal complaint about Iceland’s unilateral mackerel quota and
warn that it could damage its bid to join the EU.”
Could this be a sign of things to come?
Just a few days ago, Timmo Summa, head of the European Commission
Delegation in Iceland, in an interview with euinside, a Bulgarian
website, said, “This is going to be a challenge for the EU. To the East
people sit on the negotiation table, ready to sign everything just
because they want the money of the German taxpayers. The Icelanders are
totally different.” The EU, it seems, expects Iceland to pursue a hard
line at the negotiating table. Summa added, “We still have no
negotiations but everyone knows that we do not like opt-outs.” On the
surface, for the moment, it appears this will be unavoidable. “Iceland
will be subject to exactly the same kind of scrutiny and seriousness as
any other candidate,” Steven Vanackere, Belgium’s foreign minister told
Deutsche Welle.
Another contending issue would be the EU Commission’s rules on the free
movement of capital, which, among other things, would allow European
companies to buy up Icelandic competitors. Somehow, looking at the
current Alþingi debate—in particular the issue of foreign ownership in
natural resources—I can’t quite see Iceland agreeing on changing its
laws to fit the EU’s purposes. One of Iceland’s EU advocates’ main
arguments to join the EU is, of course, the stabilisation of the króna
and the economy. It doesn’t seem likely that you can have your cake and
eat it too, but you never know.
When the FT questioned Páll Vilhjálmsson, leader of the anti-EU movement
Heimssýn, why Iceland applied to join the EU in the first place, he
said, “The short answer is that we had a national nervous breakdown.”
And if the last months of the Icesave negotiations are anything to go
by, fast track or no fast track, don’t expect Iceland to join the EU
anytime soon.

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