MEP: Iceland needs EU, not the other way around

Indrek Tarand.JPG

Icelanders may appear sceptical about joining the EU, but the country needs the European Union more than the other way around, Estonian MEP Indrek Tarand (Greens/European Free Alliance), a member of the EU-Iceland joint parliamentary committee, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Estonian MEP Indrek Tarand is a member of the joint EU-Iceland parliamentary committee, which held its first meeting on 4-5 October in Reykjavik. He was chancellor of Estonia's foreign affairs ministry from 1994-2002.

He was speaking to Paul Hutchison.

Iceland applied for EU membership in mid-2009 and the negotiations officially opened in July, so what happens now? Its government set a target of joining the bloc by 2012.

In November, we will hear from the negotiators on how things are proceeding. It's common knowledge that it should be easy for Iceland, because it has already applied almost two-thirds of Community law due to the European Economic Area agreement and its participation in Schengen. So most things are already done.

However, former EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn used the metaphor about the end of a marathon being the most difficult part. So it depends how they negotiate. Do they start with the difficult issues – environment and fisheries? And there are others, such as the financial matter with the British and Dutch [who lost billions of deposits during the Icelandic banking crisis], which is not officially linked but nobody can deny its impact.

If you start with these difficult issues, you cannot close the chapters quickly. But if you finalise them, the rest can come easily and quickly. I don't know which way they are working, but we'll find out in November.

Icelanders are clearly wary about joining the EU and public opinion is swaying. In June, a poll showed that 60% wanted the country to withdraw its application, but in September another suggested that 64% wanted the talks to continue. Can this be explained?

At the beginning of October, the European Parliament delegation went to Reykjavik and we had pretty good meetings with members of the Icelandic government and parliament. This question was asked frequently: how do you explain it? There is no easy explanation – my view is that it depends on what you ask.

Icelanders think about fisheries, fisheries, fisheries. They are convinced that their system for catching fish, maintaining stocks and managing the financial aspects of the industry is far better than the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). In my opinion, in many ways they are right – their policies are better. With the EU policy, they think that they are going to lose something. So when you ask a question like that, this is what brings a 70% 'no'.

But, if you say that perhaps, during the negotiations, we could find a formula for pursuing reform of the CFP and you could contribute to changing the whole continent's thinking, then people may think – why not?

The European Commission has admitted that the CFP, which sets quotas for each EU member state, has not really worked. The policy is under review and should be reformed by 2012. Could Iceland take part in the review?

My understanding is that Iceland can discuss this during its negotiations, but until it is a member it can not be part of EU talks on the CFP. I think that one of the few justifications for having joint parliamentary committees like the one with Iceland is that we can really talk, without strict limits. We may agree or disagree but we can talk freely.

It was very interesting in Reykjavik because MEP Pat the Cope Gallagher, the chair of the delegation, has served in Ireland as fisheries minister and Iceland's Foreign Minister Össur Skarphédinsson is a former fisherman. They had a high-level, specialist talk and found some – but not much – common ground.

Icelandic politicians are also divided on joining the EU – seven MPs in the Icelandic parliament are now pushing for a referendum on whether to carry on the talks. Does it have a chance of success?

In my understanding, for the time being it doesn't have a chance of success, because the counter argument seems to be that they will finalise the negotiations and then have a deal which can be proposed and voted on.

If I were an Icelander I would support this kind of approach, because it's not so serious to file an application and then have a referendum on the talks – we've applied and it was a parliamentary procedure, so let's wait for the outcome and then vote. It would be cheaper and easier.

Would it be cheaper and easier though? They could go through the whole process with some difficult negotiations but then face a potential 'no' on accession…

We've had this kind of experience with other Nordic countries: with Norway [which has had two negative referenda on joining the EU], and also with Denmark opting out of the euro. It's definitely somewhat of a disappointment – doing a lot of hard work but not getting a deal that people approve.

Norway negotiated a long time ago [completed in 1972] so they didn't have all these fascinating rules – the 'Copenhagen Criteria' and the enlargement process that is now in place. I think they had even negotiated that Norway would have the commissioner for fisheries, but the people said 'no'.

Whales are protected by EU law and public opinion is strongly against the practice of whale hunting. In Iceland, it is a tradition and they commercially hunt whales despite an International Whaling Commission ban. How will the EU approach this clash and could it be a deal breaker?

I think they cannot join without offering some kind of plan to phase it out. Before the Parliament's resolution on Iceland – which has one point on whaling – we held a public hearing and workshop and not a single official from the Commission, NGO or elsewhere stated anything other than whaling is forbidden under EU law. The Icelanders say that it is not an environment issue – in their understanding it is about sustainable management of maritime resources. Their theory is that the whales eat a lot of fish and are therefore a natural competitor to the fishermen.

In Estonia we don't have whales, but we have had a problem with seals, which the fishermen think eat all their fish. We had a special regulation and then we gradually harmonised it, so I think this is what Iceland has to do. There is an argument that Iceland's claim about a whale hunting tradition is not very true, as they started doing it only after the Second World War. They have been rather egocentric to pull out of the International Whaling Commission.

But I think that the European Union is not going to change its position. Iceland's other argument is about numbers – that compared to Norway and Japan they are tiny, that it won't do any harm. But rules are rules, even if you may not like them.

Does Iceland need the EU? Its economy suffered two years ago and the government has asked about joining the euro without becoming a full member – but the EU said 'no'. Is membership a must for its long-term economic stability or are they better off outside?

There is a lot of talk about this. Even the president of Iceland, Mr. Grimsson, said quite freely in our meeting with him that ''you need us more than we need you'' – because they can cooperate with China, with Russia, with anybody interested in developing geothermal projects or trade. So there is a view that they don't actually need the EU.

But then it comes to the finances, which was the starting point. It really seems to me that if Iceland could have the euro and stay out of the EU, that would be a very popular option – but in the real world it's not going to happen. Many Icelanders seem to think that there are minuses to the current systems of the EU, but it's still better to be in rather than out and make lots of cooperation with Russia and China.

You mentioned the view that the EU needs Iceland more than the other way around. Is this because of its Arctic influence and geothermal energy projects?

These are issues that are floated around. I personally think the EU needs Iceland – and also Norway. Winston Churchill said that democracy is "the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried" and I think this can be applied to the EU. It should be balanced and if we have the southern part coming in – Croatia and the other Balkan countries – then it would be normal to have northern people too, so that the decision-making comes closer to everyone in a way. But this is idealistic thinking.

In practical terms, I haven't seen any convincing proposals for the EU using Iceland's geothermal energy, because it's still very far away. As for the Arctic, shipping routes could be useful.

I still tend to think differently to many Icelanders: I think their need to gravitate towards the EU is a little bit bigger than the other way round. The EU is very inward-looking right now, compared to ten years ago. We have this notion of 'enlargement fatigue'. At a certain point the EU could say if you really don't want to, let's be friends, but I think it's a little more difficult for Iceland.

If you were an Icelander would you vote to join to EU?

That's a difficult question. As an Estonian, I would very much like to have them in because we have a certain feeling that Iceland is the best country in the world because it recognised the restoration of Estonia's independence in 1991 before the US or anyone else. It also has an aura and mythology with all its geysers and volcanoes.

But if I was an Icelandic fishing boat owner I would be rather alarmed, imagining all the Spanish and Portuguese fleets arriving. People vote at this 'micro' level, but they should think about the 'macro' level – on this level I think there are more plusses than minuses for Iceland – even for its fishermen and whale hunters.

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