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Will Iceland turn cold on the EU?

While the country's leaders propel accession, others raise doubts.

A man walks past a fishing ship being repaired in a dry dock in Reykjavik, April 24, 2009. After a meltdown of the north Atlantic island's economy, Iceland's parliament narrowly backed the government's plan to begin talks to join the bloc. But skepticism to the move is widespread among Icelanders, who jealously guard the traditional waters teaming with red fish, cod, haddock and halibut. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — When Johanna Sigurdadottir became Iceland’s prime minister in April, trouncing the conservative party that had ruled for 18 years, she said it was a signal that Icelanders supported her view that European Union membership was the right path for the country.

Despite opposition within her own ruling coalition to joining the bloc, Sigurdadottir managed to secure the parliament’s required approval earlier this month to begin negotiations with Brussels — with the caveat that it will be a citizens’ referendum that gives the final “yes” or “no.” 

Submitting the official application July 23 in Stockholm (Sweden holds the rotating EU presidency), Icelandic Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson called it a historic day for his small nation. “We feel European,” he said, standing alongside Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. “We feel this is a logical next step in our approach to Europe.”

Clearly, many in the EU feel it’s a logical step too. After all, Iceland already belongs to the European Economic Area (EEA), which gives it trade benefits with the EU, and to NATO. Some three-quarters of its legislation is already in line with EU laws.

So while Reykjavik’s application is not officially to be treated differently from the other aspirants, from the Balkans or Turkey, for example, there’s no question the Icelandic case is viewed as “special.” Bildt said he was personally pleased with Reykjavik’s decision. Icelandic membership "will strengthen the union,” he said, forgoing the “would” of a hypothetical. “It will bring us into the high-north issues, the environmental concerns, the resource-management issues, the Arctic issues in a way that I think will over time strengthen the European Union.”

On July 27, EU foreign ministers formally gave the go-ahead to Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn to begin preparations for the negotiations, which both sides envision taking about three years. Simultaneously, Rehn and his counterparts are working to calm the ire of the other applicant countries who aren’t soothed by his and Bildt’s assurances that “there will be no shortcuts” for Iceland.

The uproar should come as no surprise for the European Commission. It was four days between the Icelandic parliament’s decision and the foreign ministers’ instructions to get things moving. Turkey applied to join the EU in 1987 and was given official candidate status 12 years later, in 1999. Nobody speculates with any credibility on when the negotiations with Ankara might end up in membership, if ever.

A statement from the foreign ministers July 27 emphasizes their "support for the Western Balkan countries, and states that they will return to Albania’s application for membership after the conclusion of the process following the Albanian elections.” A press conference following the session was dominated by questions about the progress of other candiate countries compared with Iceland.

Back in Reykjavik, the application remains controversial too, despite the official sanctioning of it.