EU to open membership talks with Iceland

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At their summit on 17 June, EU leaders will recommend opening accession negotiations with Iceland, read draft Council conclusions obtained by EURACTIV.

Iceland's EU bid, presented last July, received a positive response as the Nordic country is seen as meeting the political criteria set by the Copenhagen European Council in 1993. The European Council therefore decides that accession negotiations should be opened, the draft reads.

Miguel Angel Moratinos, foreign minister of Spain, current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, confirmed that his colleagues meeting in Luxembourg yesterday (14 June) had agreed in principle to open negotiations with Iceland.

EU leaders mention that Iceland will be under scrutiny for "areas of weakness identified in the Commission's Opinion, including in the area of financial services".

Compared to other EU hopefuls, Iceland's EU bid is generally seen as unproblematic. However, a number of issues could become stumbling blocks in the accession negotiations.

One important area of contention is Icelandic fisheries policy, with sources telling EURACTIV that Iceland's position could affect its EU entry negotiations. Seafood accounts for almost half of Iceland's exports and 10% of its gross domestic product.

Bilateral disputes with Britain and the Netherlands cannot be ruled out either. In March, Icelanders rejected in a referendum the ratification of a deal aimed at repaying Britain and the Netherlands more than $5 billion that remains outstanding following the country's banking collapse (EURACTIV 08/03/10).

Some 300,000 people in Britain and a total of 128,000 people in the Netherlands lost a considerable amount of their savings after the collapse of Landsbanki in September 2008. 

London offers assurances

Britain "will not block the start of Iceland's accession negotiations, but we will want it to be clear at the start that Iceland is committed to resolving its financial and legal obligations," UK Foreign Minister William Hague said in Luxembourg, quoted by DPA.

The Netherlands had already announced it would not block the start of Iceland's accession talks with the European Union, despite an ongoing dispute over repayment of lost bank savings (EURACTIV 19/03/10). 

Meanwhile, Icelandic public opinion represents another challenge. A series of polls carried out between August 2005 and September 2009 by various survey groups show that although there is support for starting accession negotiations, the majority of Icelanders consistently oppose full membership.

This could turn out to be an insurmountable threshold if the Independence Party's desire to put Icelandic EU membership to a referendum were to see the light.

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Regarding Iceland, the draft Council Conclusions read:

"The European Council welcomes the Commission opinion on Iceland's application for membership of the EU and the recommendation that accession negotiations should be opened. Having considered the application on the basis of the opinion and its December 2006 conclusions on the renewed consensus for enlargement, it notes that Iceland meets the political criteria set by the Copenhagen European Council in 1993 and decides that accession negotiations should be opened.

"The European Council invites the Council to adopt a general Negotiating Framework. It recalls that negotiations will be aimed at Iceland integrally adopting the EU acquis and ensuring its full implementation and enforcement, addressing existing obligations such as those identified by the EFTA Surveillance Authority under the EEA Agreement, and other areas of weakness identified in the Commission's Opinion, including in the area of financial services.

"The European Council welcomes Iceland's commitment to addressing these issues and expresses its confidence that Iceland will actively pursue its efforts to resolve all outstanding issues. The European Council confirms that the negotiations will be based on Iceland's own merits and that the pace will depend on Iceland's progress in meeting the requirements set out in the negotiating framework, which will address i.a. the above requirements."

Iceland was hit badly by the economic and financial crises. Its troubles came to a head in September 2008 when all the three major Icelandic banks - Glitnir, Landsbanki and Kaupthing - were put under the control of the Icelandic Financial Supervisory Authorities. 

Since then, Iceland has been pushing for EU membership as a viable solution to its problems. The Nordic country, which is already a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), formally applied for EU membership on 16 July 2009 (see EU-Iceland Links Dossier).

Support for Iceland's EU accession bid is broad among the bloc's member states, despite the country's troubled economy. On 8 March, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said the possible reimbursement of €3.9bn lost by British and Dutch savers in the Icesave bank crash was a bilateral issue and should not affect the country's EU accession prospects (EURACTIV 09/03/10).

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