Will Iceland turn cold on the EU?

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.

Of the 63-seat Althinge, 33 lawmakers voted in favor of application; 28 voted against and two abstained. Twenty of those voting “yes” come from Sigurdadottir’s Social Democratic Alliance, the only political party officially in favor of joining. The Left Green Movement, which forms the ruling coalition with the Social Democrats, remains opposed as a whole, though more parliamentarians voted for the measure than against, perhaps as a means of keeping the coalition intact.

Bjarni Benediktsson Jr., leader of the ousted conservative Independence Party, wasted no time in pointing out the fragility of those figures for the pro-EU camp. "What I think people should be concerned about is how weak of a majority it was in parliament,” he said, “and, in fact, that the two parties leading the country are not in agreement on the importance of applying for EU membership.”

Some of the comments by Foreign Minister Skarphedinsson make it sound like he himself is on both sides of the issue. Recalling what he referred to as the “sour experience” of seeing foreign trawlers in Icelandic waters during his own youthful career as a fisherman, Skarphedinsson made clear that maintaining sovereignty over fishing rights is not just an economic issue for a country dependent on those assets, it’s also an emotional one — and a red line. “Increasingly, people understand that today you protect your sovereignty by sharing it with friendly nations,” he said, adding “that doesn’t mean … that I am willing to share my fishing resources with anyone else.”

His comments underscore that the disagreement in Iceland is not just at the top. Last December, in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash that hit Iceland harder than any other European country, a Gallup poll showed that 39 percent thought EU membership “would be a good thing for their country,” with 27 percent saying it would be a “bad thing.” But when it comes to the economy, the numbers look much different. Asked how they would feel about adopting the common European currency, the euro, which has been credited with providing stability to its users, 60 percent of Icelanders were in favor while just 15 percent were opposed.

It's that last point that riles European Parliamentarian Markus Ferber, head of the German Christian Social Union (CSU) wing of the Christian Democrats and one of the few voices from Europe speaking out against Icelandic membership. Ferber recalls all the years Iceland rejected the concept of EU membership, enjoying the trading privileges of the EEA while not having to give up sovereignty over matters like fishing rights and not allowing the free movement of people — possibly workers — into Iceland.

Speaking by phone from Germany, Ferber said, “that’s why we have to ask the question: what are the changes in the position of Iceland? And I know only one thing, that they have an economic crisis, the banks are going down and the state by itself is going bankrupt. And I do not know if that’s a serious approach to joining the European Union.”

But Ferber said the argument against Icelandic accession might not come down to him and likeminded decision-makers. He is so sure that Icelanders don’t genuinely want to join that he believes when the country’s economy improves, citizens there may well use their referendum to remain outside the bloc.

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