Iceland, in or out, please decide

, by Alessio Pisanò

Iceland, in or out, please decide

It can be said that all the non-EU countries look for a first contact with Brussels for nothing else but self-interest. This is why there are five EU candidates (Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey), this is why the UK is still within the EU, and this is why Iceland recently freezed its accession talks. The announcement by the Icelandic Government on Monday to suspend its negotiation with Brussels until the national elections due to be held next April is just a matter of interest. Let’s see why.

The tiny island first got closer to the EU after its national bank system collapsed in 2008, an event which put many countries at stake. A questionable referendum over whether or not pay to back the international debts that Icelandic banks had caused put the country in dire straits with its closest partners, the UK and the Netherlands, and set it aside in Europe. A judgment is still pending at the European Court of Justice. People in Iceland have never been fancy of joining the EU as being in it means also following commons rules. For agriculture and fishing, external rules are not welcomed in Iceland.

After the 2008 banking collapse, the new Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir immediately found herself in the “heart of Europe” as, undoubtedly, the European Union and the adoption of the euro would have been a perfect deal to solve the country’s debts. Here again we come to bare interests. Since then, Iceland has started on the long path to EU accession and has fulfilled 11 chapters out of 30.

But now something has changed. The announcement on Monday made by the leading governing coalition, the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement, to put a stop to the negotiations “in order to better focus on the national elections.” On 17 January, the Icelandic ambassador in Brussels made it clear that this does not imply a drop in the country’s willingness to join the EU and the euro. “The correct message is that we are slowing down the negotiations, and we are not disbanding them,” he said. And again “the purpose is to ensure prudent and calm management of Iceland’s EU accession process during the election period”.

This might be true, but let’s see the issue from the other side. During an election campaign, each party tries to plays chances to win. In such a moment, the leading coalition decided to withdraw playing the EU card. Why? Apparently, the EU itself does not appeal much to Icelandic citizens anymore. The economic crisis and the uncertain destiny of the euro, despite all the efforts made by Brussels in the last few months, made the EU look like an old boat in a stormy sea. The Icelandic Government fears that making itself the official pro-European supporter would affect its own possibility to win. Indeed, in the next election the centre-left coalition will face a tough competition from parties that are pretty sceptical about the EU.

“We took note of what they decided. The European Commission continues to be convinced that the EU accession of Iceland would be of mutual benefit and remains committed to accompanying Iceland on its path towards EU membership,” Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said. The Icelandic ambassador admitted that his citizens’ perception of EU accession has changed as “the crisis had implications for how nations look at the Union”. Even if to some extend this attitude to the EU may be understandable, it is not going to pay off. If citizens do not develop a clear sense of what being in the EU means, in terms of advantages and duties, the country adhesion to the Union will never be sound and productive. The EU does not need another UK right now.