Iceland walks out on EU membership talks

  

Iceland said yesterday (22 August) that a recent election which brought eurosceptic parties to power had been interpreted by constitutional advisors as a signal to stop EU accession talks.

The foreign ministry said it had received an opinion from its constitutional advisors that the government was not bound by a 2009 parliamentary vote to launch the membership talks.

"After receiving this opinion the foreign minister has decided to consider dissolving the negotiation committee," the ministry said in a statement, quoted by the AFP news agency.

On a recent visit to Brussels, the new Prime Minister of Iceland Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson was told by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to decide “without further delay” whether it wanted to continue accession negotiations or abandon plans to join the EU.

>> Read: Barroso tells Iceland to make up its mind on joining the EU

The committee's dissolution effectively signals the abandonment of these negotiations.

On 27 April, Iceland held elections, inflicting to the ruling pro-European Social Democrats the the biggest defeat any ruling national party has suffered since independence from Denmark in 1944.

Gunnlaugsson, 38, is Europe's youngest democratically elected head of government. Since 2009, he has led the Progressives, a centre-right and liberal party affiliated with Liberal International.

The Progressive Party draws most of its support from farmers and fishermen. In coalition with the Independence Party (see background), the Progressives oppose EU membership.

In May, the new government announced a halt to the country’s EU accession talks until Icelanders vote in a referendum within the next four years on whether they want membership negotiations to continue.

The decision of Iceland to stop the accession talks can be seen as bad news in Brussels. Croatia's recent accession gave EU leaders the opportunity to boast about the attractiveness of EU membership, despite the economic and sovereign debt crises.

Iceland was put on a fast track to EU accession, as it had already taken on board much of the EU legislation as member of the European Economic Area (EEA). It formally applied for EU membership on 16 July 2009 and started accession talks only one year later. The process has taken much longer for any other applicant country.

>> Read: Iceland gatecrashes EU antechamber

But Iceland is a special case, as the country’s powerful fishing industry is in deep conflict with the EU over fishing quotas. The Commission says it can accommodate Iceland’s “specificities”, but in fact the differences between Reykjavik and Brussels are not only of technical but of political nature.

The EU considers that Iceland is overfishing and that the island nation should accept strict quotas. Iceland says it has more experience in fishing that the Union itself and that it could teach Brussels best practices.

Recently, Iceland backed the Faroe Islands in a fishing quotas conflict with the EU and objected to the EU position in the strongest terms.

>> Read: Herring loss sparks EU-Faroe Island trade spat

Positions: 

Alp Mehmet, former British ambassador to Iceland (2004-2008) wrote a comment in reaction to this article. EurActiv republishes it below:

"The truth is the accession process ended the moment it became clear which parties were going to form the present coalition after the spring elections. The 2009 Althingi vote is neither here nor there, it never carried any legal force and did not bind future governments or indeed parliaments to the membership negotiations. It really did not require constitutional experts to arrive at his conclusion.

The decision to halt the process is a political one, albeit one supported by the majority of Icelanders who for a variety of reasons feel especially antipathetic towards the EU at the moment. They particularly resent the EU's role in the collapse of the banks in 2008 and its part in the Icesave issue. While the mackerel dispute is a running sore between Iceland and and the EU. There is also a general belief that the EU is simply after Iceland's fish and abundant natural energy resources. And of course there is the widely held view that membership would pose a threat to Iceland's language and cultural identity. The thorny issue of whaling is closely tied to a number of these issues.

The irony is that Halldor Asgrimsson, a former Fisheries Minister, Foreign Minister and Prime Minister and leader of the Progressive Party when they were last in coalition with the Independence Party, saw EU membership as not only desirable but inevitable. Thorsteinn Palsson, another former Fisheries and Prime Minister and leader of the Independence Party, who happens to have served as Ambassador to the UK and Denmark since leaving active politics, is also of the view that Iceland's interests would be best served by membership of the EU.

It now looks as if the Icelandic people are unlikely to get an opportunity to assess for themselves what the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership might be and to make up their own minds on whether or not to join."

 

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