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Where does Iceland’s national interest lie? Iceland and the European Union

Published on April 6, 2012 by: in: Politics

What is the European Union for Iceland? Opinions are divided on that matter. Until recently a satisfying choice for Icelanders was a membership in EFTA and since 1994 in the European Economic Area that guarantees their access to European home market without necessity of membership in the EU. Yet this access did not include fishing or agriculture, which were regulated by separate bilateral agreements. Such state of matters lasted until 2009, regardless of a constant support for the idea of membership by the Social Democratic Alliance Party. However, its voice has been played down to a large extent by those in authority since 1995 – the right-wing liberal coalition of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party that both were against Iceland’s accession to the European community. The most important argument used by Eurosceptics was then – and still is – the binding Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Fishing and catches of other marine fauna give approximately 40% of Iceland’s exportation income and provide work for as much as 7% of people. Like the majority of common policies, European strategy concerning catches demands decision-taking for all the members in Brussels. To Icelanders this requirement appears exceptionally hard to accept. Moreover, freer access to territorial waters for subjects coming from different member countries seems to be a real challenge for them.

photo: Skender

photo: Skender

2008 crisis and takeover of power by social democrats were factors that changed Iceland’s position towards the EU. Trade unions were the first force that opted for the membership right after a significant weakening of the country’s economy. Issues connected with the European Union became also one of the most important catchphrases in electoral campaign in 2009 and bringing them up largely contributed to the victory of the Alliance Party. Immediately after the victory Iceland’s new Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir publicly spoke in favour of the accession to the EU and adopting euro. Iceland officially applied for a membership in the community in July 2009.

A vital consequence of the crisis was the change of Icelanders’ attitude towards the accession to the European Union. Until recently they have been definitely negative about it, yet the financial crash resulted in a significant growth of support for the idea of membership. According to the majority of opinion polls taken immediately after the beginning of the recession every second citizen declared support for launching of the accession procedure. Current polls demonstrate that this support has once again fallen, but still approximately 50% of Icelanders back the continuation of negotiations with the EU; though only every third citizen speaks in favour of the membership itself.

Initially it was assumed that Iceland shall join the Union together with Croatia on July 1, 2013. It turned out before long that this day is too soon due to the fact that Iceland does not fulfil all the criteria of accession. In June 2010 the accession negotiations have begun that encompass 35 fields. So far the talks finished regarding just 8 areas, half of the remaining requires introducing a number of vital amendments, and therefore a plausible date of accession has been postponed by next 2 years.

Negotiations are already sufficiently advanced to suppose that the accession shall happen soon. Yet after taking a look at Icelanders’ attitudes, it seems possible that they may reject the future treaty in a referendum. One may get the impression that a certain distrust of great transboundary organizations lies to some extent in nature of the majority of Scandinavians. In case of Iceland it appears strange, since almost from the moment of its gaining independence, it has been strongly involved in cooperation with another international organization, namely NATO, while its relations with the United States are exceptionally close. Therefore, maybe this transatlantic course is of such a crucial significance to Iceland’s foreign affairs that this country simply does not need the European Union. Present economic situation of the community has shown though that in a time of crisis the EU may be much more helpful than other international entities. Perhaps then soon recent words of the present minister of finances, agriculture and fishing, Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, suggesting that “Iceland’s national interest lies outside the European Union” shall cease to reflect the real attitude of the majority of Icelanders.

Translation: Alicja Bratkowska

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About Ewa Litke

Graduate of the Politics at the Department of the International and Political Relations at Łódź University. Studied at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu and in 2011 did internship at the European Parliament. She is interested in nearly all issues connected to Scandinavia, mainly political. Great fan of lounging around Finnish lakesides, secretly in love with Swedish kötbullar.

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