Ambassador: Iceland is on a ‘fair track’ to EU accession

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Iceland is not on a 'fast track' to EU accession, but on a 'fair track', Ambassador Thorir Ibsen told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview. Iceland's envoy to the EU said he expected his country to open all or almost all negotiation chapters by June, before the end of the Danish presidency.

Thorir Ibsen is a career diplomat. He has served previously as his country's ambassador to France, as chief negotiator for climate change and as deputy permanent representative to NATO. He spoke to EURACTIV Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

The Fitch agency has upgraded Iceland. This looks good at a time when most EU countries are being 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 to 6.1% from 7% last year. Unlike nine EU countries, Iceland has 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 less difficult because we were the first country of Europe on the brink of falling.

As a result, there was less of an understanding amongst our European neighbours 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 – we ran a fruitful cooperation with the International Monetary Fund.

This is normal procedure in order to have an external view of how to deal with the situation and through that we jointly established a rigorous programme for turning the situation around, stabilising the economy and building a new economic future. This 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 decided to apply for EU membership all of a sudden – 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 close cooperation between Iceland and the European Union since the EEA [European Economic Area] agreement of 1995, deepened through Schengen and combined with political cooperation. There are certain political parties in Iceland in favour of joining the EU, others are sceptics and others are fully against. The population is also divided on the question…

But broadly speaking, over the past 15-20 years it's fair to say that interest has grown, especially amongst 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, taking interest in EU membership one step further into concrete action. But it has a long, historical background, at least 15-20 years of history lies behind this decision.

Yes, Iceland has been moving expediently through the process. It is not because Iceland is on a fast track, rather, Iceland 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 single market. As I mentioned earlier, we have been members of the single market since 1994 and members of Schengen since 2001, which means that to a large extent we have taken over the bulk of the EU acquis. As a result, the whole accession process has evidently been much faster in our case than that of countries 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 of ensuring that this objective becomes a reality.

There was a rather harsh press release published a few days ago by the European Commission jointly with 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 negotiations about how to share the mackerel stock have their own history and have their own process. And as you noticed, there are other parties involved in that discussion – not only the EU and 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 one when you open the fisheries chapter…

I have difficulty seeing any links. On the one hand, we have four partners trying to share a stock that straddles 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 1995. This stipulates the requirements for countries to be able to fish and also enforces an obligation on all coastal states to find a joint management regime together that ensures the sustainability of the stocks.

That process is running its course. Like any fisheries negotiations,  they are difficult. These are high-stake negotiations and lots of interests are involved. Fish is a valuable product so everybody is defending their interests and their future interests and it is a complex issue from a scientific perspective: how the stocks distribute where they travel, how to share them.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to reach a conclusion despite the full commitment of all partners to come to a conclusion. Evidently, we need more time to discuss this. There has been a slow progress but it has been progress. The last meeting was in Reykjavik in February and the fishing season is starting in 9 March.

On the other hand, we are negotiating accession to the European Union, a project to which Norway has no direct link and there we are dealing with the totality of becoming a member of the EU. This is  not specific to the mackerel issue, we are talking about a much bigger project and it’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 acquis and we’re starting negotiations on a chapter, the core 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, the European Commission – what’s the right time to open negotiations on the fisheries chapter so that the negotiators know exactly what’s at the core of the negotiations. That’s a reality and we will consult further on that.

And no: it does not create difficulty 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. The discard ban is something that we have practised for a long time and we strongly support it. It’s absolutely necessary to secure, in a sustainable way the commercial fish  stocks and to ensure the reputation of this industry. The focus on regionalisation is in line with our argumentation to ensure that the management responsibility is given to those that are using the resource and managing the resource.

In this way, the responsibility would be on the local level, so regionalisation is something that we favour. And transferable concessions are aligned with what we practise in Iceland with the fishing quotas that we have, although this proposal hasn’t really changed much. Every country can apply transferable fishing concessions in the existing regime. Damanaki has proposed that it becomes obligatory for member states and that’s an issue for the member states to decide upon. We find it to be a useful approach, ensuring the economic efficiency of the sector and the ecological efficiency, but it’s up to other countries to decide if it fits them. That said, 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 the facts. The reality is that we are 300,000 people and we fish 1.5 million tonnes of fish. The EU has 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 we have been working for years to build sustainable fisheries. It has turned out to be economically efficient; our fishing operations are run by businesses, 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 policy has not been successful in fulfilling its objective and that's why the fisheries policy is being revisited and reformed. And therefore, it is not wrong that we offer 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 be discontinued if Iceland wants to join.

That's a subject of the negotiations.

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