Iceland held its very first round of European Union membership talks on Tuesday, an event which participants on both sides labelled as historic.
Iceland applied for EU membership in 2009 after the world financial crisis brought its banking sector to its knees. The EU is keen to see the island nation join, but public opinion in Iceland is sceptical about the benefits of membership.
“This is a day for celebration,” said Icelandic Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson after talks with the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, and Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
“This is indeed a historic day for the EU and a historic day for Iceland,” Mr. Fule said.
The talks were largely a formality, as they dealt with the general negotiating process and did not go into the specifics of the technical changes which Iceland would have to make to its laws to bring them into line with EU standards.
Mr. Fule said that the commission, the EU’s executive, would begin a detailed screening of Iceland’s laws in November, and hopes to finish the process and identify where changes are needed by next summer.
Iceland is already a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA)and the border—free Schengen zone, meaning that over half its laws are already broadly in line with EU norms.
Officials on both sides said that it was already clear which the main problem areas would be: fisheries, agriculture and rural development, the environment and financial markets.
Iceland is heavily dependent on its fisheries sector, and is loath to hand control over its fish stocks to the EU, which is seen in Iceland as being, at best, a poor manager of such resources.
The world’s fisheries suffer from “endemic overfishing”, with stocks “on the border of decimation,” Mr. Skarphedinsson said, saying that Iceland’s model was more effective.
That is borne out by official figures, which show that up to 85 per cent of EU fish stocks are seriously overfished, while Iceland’s stocks are in better shape.
“Europe could do worse than model her fisheries on the Icelandic model,” Mr. Skarphedinsson said. Iceland’s territorial waters do not touch those of any other EU state, and therefore do not fit into the EU fisheries policy (CFP), he argued.
But Mr. Fule said that, while the EU would show the “necessary level of creativity” to find a compromise, there would be “no permanent derogations” from EU rules, including the CFP.
Negotiations are also expected to be complicated by the so—called Icesave issue, in which Britain and the Netherlands compensated those of their citizens who lost money in the Icelandic banking crash, and now want Reykjavik to pay them back with interest.
The EU sees the affair as a bilateral issue, not a question for accession talks, but argues that Iceland will have to solve it in order to prove that it is capable of living up to EU market rules.
The affair is a “bleeding nuisance in our exchanges with the outer world,” Mr. Skarphedinsson said. The issue “might have an influence” on accession talks, but this would be deplorable, he said.
Negotiators also highlighted the lack of support in Iceland for the EU bid. The most recent poll said that 60 per cent of Icelanders oppose it, an increase of 6 percentage points in as many months.
“I’m convinced that if we manage to solve the most difficult issues ... that will go a long way to convince the Icelandic people of the benefits of joining,” Mr. Skarphedinsson said.