In contrast with other EU hopefuls, some of which waited for many years on the road to accession, Iceland was fast-tracked through the procedure.
In comparison, Turkey applied for full EU membership in 1987 and symbolically opened accession talks 18 years later, in 2005. But East European countries also had to wait several years before starting EU talks – Bulgaria and Romania applied in 1995 and started accession talks in 2000.
Announcing the decision on Monday (26 July), Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, admitted that while the 27 foreign ministers had taken the decision unanimously, some had insisted "a lot" that Iceland's accession talks must be seen as giving positive impetus to the enlargement process as a whole.
Although Iceland enjoyed a head-start thanks to its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the Schengen passport-free travel zone, Vanackere said the accession talks would be as rigorous as any other candidate's.
"There are some issues to be settled and we will of course encourage Iceland to take them into account," Vanackere said. "Think of the environment, think of whale hunting, think of the financial sector, the discussion on Icesave," he said, referring to the failed Icelandic bank (see 'Background').
The minister did not elaborate on the environment, but Iceland plays host to many aluminium smelters. The country attracts aluminium companies due to its abundance of clean renewable electricity. Aluminium smelting is extremely energy intensive and companies are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprints.
However, such energy production often comes at a high price for nature, as rivers are dammed or geothermal boreholes are drilled. One such dam, Karahnjukar, is the biggest in Europe and was constructed solely to power the Alcoa smelter in eastern Iceland, which opened last year.
Iceland's tradition of whale hunting could also represent a hurdle in the country's membership talks. In the EU, all cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – are protected by law. Despite an ongoing ban imposed by the International Whaling Commission and opposition from several countries, Iceland currently permits commercial whaling in its waters, with a quota of 150 fin whales for 2009-2013.
Asked if banning whale hunting had now become a condition for Iceland to join the Union, the Belgian minister said that he was not going to enter into details or "dictate the solutions".
Asked about Icesave, Vanackere said that in negotiations, "until the last chapter is resolved, nothing is resolved".
"The chapter of the [country's] obligations on the financial level will have to be dealt with. If you ask me how crucial it is, then when everything else is settled and one thing isn't settled, this last thing becomes crucial. But if we can settle it earlier, it's less crucial," he said.
Asked about a recent opinion poll according to which 60% of Icelanders said they were against EU membership, Vanackere said the Union was aware of such communication problems, as he called them.
He added that both sides "should have the courage" to communicate to populations in Iceland and in the EU in a manner that would make accession possible.
He concluded by saying that the reservations revealed by the poll had not discouraged or prevented EU foreign ministers from deciding to launch accession talks with Reykjavik.