Iceland: Coming in from the cold

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

“Iceland’s politicians need to conduct an open and transparent debate with the public and with the interest groups concerned, so that the final decision [on whether to join the European Union] is taken on the basis of the best possible information about the EU and what membership means,” wrote Graham Avery, a senior advisor at the European Policy Centre, in a September analysis.

“The debate is intensifying over how quickly [Iceland] might join the Union – and on what terms,” Avery remarks.

After elections in April 2009 installed the pro-EU Social Democratic party in a governing coalition with the anti-EU Left-Green party, the parliament voted in favour of joining the Union by a narrow margin of 33 to 28, and Iceland applied for EU membership on 23 July.

According to Avery, Iceland’s application for membership brings with it several positive factors from the EU’s point of view:

  • “Iceland satisfies the political and economic conditions for future membership,” the so-called Copenhagen criteria, as democracy is stable and the economy developed;
  • the country already belongs to the European Economic Area and the EU’s passport-free Schengen area;
  • “it is a long-standing member of NATO”, and;
  • with 320,000 inhabitants, it would be the smallest member of the EU (Malta has 410,000 and Luxembourg 480,000), thus “it is difficult to see how it could pose a significant problem for the EU’s population of 500 million,” Avery explains.

Nevertheless, Iceland “is recovering from an economic and financial crisis,” the country “may be reluctant to accept the EU’s fisheries policy” and “the two parties in the coalition government have different views on EU membership,” Avery points out.

Moreover, according to the author, “the EU itself faces problems,” including the “difficult economic and financial situation,” “the delay in ratifying the Lisbon Treaty” and so-called “enlargement fatigue”.

Finally, “public opinion in the EU is generally favourable towards Iceland […] but cautious,” Avery says.

Even though the country “already fulfils the main conditions for membership,” “the EU has to consider Iceland’s application in relation to others in the enlargement process,” Avery warns.

“However, differentiation is a fundamental principle of the EU’s enlargement policy,” the author recalls, highlightling the bloc’s “merit-based approach”.

“The biggest challenge for Iceland is the referendum on membership that will take place after the negotiations,” Avery warns. “If Iceland’s leaders wish to avoid the painful experience of Norway […] they must think and plan – well in advance – for that rendez-vous with the people,” he concludes. 

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