Thorir Ibsen est un diplomate de carrière. Il a précédemment occupé le poste d'ambassadeur auprès de la France, de négociateur en chef sur le changement climatique et de représentant permanent adjoint auprès de l'OTAN. Il s'est confié à Georgi Gotev, rédacteur senior chez EurActiv.
The Fitch agency has upgraded Iceland. This looks nice at a time when most EU countries get downgraded. So Iceland is now BBB with a stable outlook, and the OECD's latest forecast said that growth will be 2.4% this year, contrasting with a negative figure for the EU. Unemployment in the EU is increasing, while in Iceland it will fall down to 6.1% from 7% last year. Unlike nine EU countries, Iceland opened its labour market to nationals of Bulgaria and Romania. If I remember well, your country was close to default - if it was not real default - during its crisis in 2008-2011. How do you explain this fast recovery?
Evidently the situation of Iceland was very difficult in this so-called fall of October 2008. It was both a big shock economically for the government, and for the population and it was not the least difficult because we were the first country of Europe on the brink of fall.
As a result, there was less of an understanding in the European surrounding of the situation that we went through as there is today. But through determined actions of the government to rework the situation - and a change of government evidently - we ran a fruitful cooperation with the International Monetary Fund. This is usual to get the outside view of how to deal with the situation and through that we jointly established a rigorous programme for turning the situation, stabilising the economy and build a new economic future. This result is the result of that determined effort of the government and the cooperation with the IMF.
I remember that when Iceland had all these problems, all of a sudden your country decided that it was a good idea to join the European Union and you started the whole process. Where are we now: we know that Iceland is on a fast track. What is the calendar for Iceland’s accession to the EU?
If I can qualify a bit your opening statement, that Iceland certainly decided to apply for EU membership - things don’t happen that way. Iceland has been part of the European project ever since the Second World War through different international and European organisations. There has been a close cooperation of Iceland with the European Union since the EEA [European Economic Area] agreement of 1995, deepening cooperation [through] Schengen, political cooperation. There are certain political parties in Iceland being in favour of joining the EU, others are sceptics and still others against. The population has been divided on the question...
But broadly speaking over the past 15-20 years it's fair to say that it has been a growing interest, especially among the electorate, about the possibility of deepening our cooperation with the European Union. Admittedly, the economic crisis of 2008 acted for sure as a catalyst at taking interest one step further into concrete action. But it has a long, historic background, at least 15-20 years history behind this decision.
Yes, Iceland has been moving expediently through the process. It is not because Iceland is on a fast track, it is on a fair track, that is to say, that the timing of the process is in accordance with the integration of the Icelandic economy into the internal or the single market. As I mentioned earlier, we have been members of the single market since 1995 and members of Schengen since 2002, which means that to a large extend we have taken over the bulk of the EU aquis. As a result, the whole accession process has evidently been much more faster in our case than of countries that come new to the integration process.
The process is on track, we have opened 11 chapters, one-third of all the chapters, and closed eight. And the ambition of the government is to open up the remaining chapters, if not all then almost all, no later than the June accession conference under the Danish presidency. We are having very good cooperation with [the EU Commission Directorate General for Enlargement] and the member states, with the view to ensure this objective becomes reality.
There was a rather harsh press release published days ago by the European Commission jointly with the Norwegian Minister [Lisbeth] Berg-Hansen on mackerel fishing. Does it have anything to do with the context of your country’s EU accession?
The current negotiation about how to share the market stock has is own history and has it on process. And as you noticed there are other parties to that discussion - not only EU but also Norway. Two other countries come in - Faroe Islands and partly Russia also. This tells anyone that this is not an EU-Iceland matter, it’s a separate matter about how to share the mackerel fish stock.
It’s not an accession-related issue today, but it could become when you open the fishery chapter…
I have difficulty seeing any links. On the one hand, you have four partners trying to share a stock that struggles and migrates in their waters, and those negotiations are based on the law of the sea convention and more specifically on the fish stocks agreement of ’95. That stipulates the requirements for countries to be able to fish and also enforces an obligation to find together a joint management regime that ensures the sustainability of the stocks. That process is running its course. Like any fisheries negotiations, it’s difficult negotiations, these are high-stake negotiations, lots of interest are involved. Fish is a valuable product so everybody defending their interest and the future interest and it is a complex issue from a scientific perspective: how the stocks distribute where they travel, how to share them. We have not been able to reach a conclusion unfortunately despite the full commitment of all partner to come to a conclusion. Evidently we need more time to discuss this. There has been a slow progress but it has been a progress. The last meeting was in Reykjavik in February and the fishing season is starting in 9 March. In other words, that has been on a track.
On the other hand we are negotiating and accession to the European union, a project to which Norway has not direct link and there we are dealing with the totality of becoming a member of the EU not being specific with the market issue of the fisheries, we are talking about a much bigger project and that’s in a different track
The fact that the EU is revamping its own fisheries policy, wouldn’t it make the things more complicated? It’s like a moving target: Can you be certain of the objectives if the EU is in a process of fine-tuning its policies?
Yes and no. Yes, it is more complicated because we have an aquis and were starting negotiation on a chapter, the key of which might change after 6 or 8 months. In that sense you’re right about the moving target. It does pose the question for Iceland and for the EU and more specifically Commission. What’s the right time to open a negotiation on fisheries chapter, so the negotiated part to know exactly what’s the key of the negotiation. That’s a reality and we consult on that.
And no: it does not create difficult on the substantive side because in fact the proposals that have been presented by Commissioner [Maria] Damanaki promise they will bring the common fisheries policy of the EU closer to an approach that we apply in Iceland.
Indeed, we are rather fond of these proposals. Discard ban is something that we practice for a long time and we strongly support it, it’s absolutely necessary to secure in a sustainable way those stocks and ensure the reputation of this industry. The focus on regionalisation is in line with our argumentation of ensuring the responsibility of those that are using the resource and managing the resource. Also the responsibility on the local level, so regionalisation is something that we favour. And transfer of concessions are aligned with what we practice in Iceland in the fishing quotas that we have, although that hasn’t really changed much. Every country can apply transferable fishing concession in an existing regime. Damanaki is proposing it becomes obligatory for member states and that’s an issue is up to the member states to decide. We found it to be a useful approach, ensuring the economic efficiency of the sector and the ecological efficiency, and it’s up to other countries to decide if it fits them. But the overall approach of the reform brings us to the same mindset.
Your country has huge experience in fisheries but isn’t there a risk that you would convey a wrong message by telling the Commission: look guys, we know more than you about fishing?
[Laughter] One has to be polite to one's partner, yes. But one has to recognise facts. The reality is that we are 300 000 people, we fish 1.5 million tones of this product. The EU numbers 500 million people and its total catch is 4 million tones. If I remember my statistics correctly the catch of Iceland amounts to the one-third of the catch of the EU. We have stocks that are sustainable, that have been working for years to build sustainable fisheries. It has turned out to be effective economically; our fishing operations are run by business, they have to survive on the market and this is being matched with what fish stocks can support in terms of catches. There are many good things that you can say about the EU but the common fisheries policies has not been successful in fulfilling its objective and that's why fisheries policies are being revisited and reformed. And there is not wrong that we come with our experience and say that we have more experience in this field than the EU.
You will not deny that whaling will be an issue in accession talks. The EU will probably very strongly insist that this practice is discontinued if Iceland wants to join.
That’s the subject of the negotiations.