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.

Your comments

  • On 17 February 2013 at 21:20, by George Kipouros Replying to: Iceland, in or out, please decide

    FROM Sema Erla Serdaroglu Project Manager of the European Movement in Iceland and a member of the Social Democratic Alliance in Iceland

    The New Federalist published an article by JEF member Alessio Pisanò on 20 January, Iceland, in or out, which, as the name refers to, was about Iceland and the ongoing membership negotiations between Iceland and the European Union. Although I am still not exactly sure what Alessio was trying to gain with the article, I feel I need to respond to his remarks and clear up some misunderstandings the author has about Iceland and its relationship with the European Union. Firstly, it saddens me that Alessio regards all candidate countries as “self-interested” but not as partners in Europe where we are “united in diversity” and all equal. Is that really how to talk about partners and friends in Europe? And to say that these “countries look for a first contact with Brussels for nothing else but self interest” like they are doing something wrong by applying for an EU membership, and suggesting it is only when needed, is just offensive. Why should these countries have a different agenda from the founding countries and the 21 countries that have already joined the EU? And the one that is about to? For example, Turkey was the second country to seek partnership with the then European Economic Community in 1959, and has done so ever since. With regards to Iceland, Alessio says that “the tiny island first got close to the EU after its national bank system collapsed in 2008,” which is just entirely wrong. Iceland joined EFTA in 1970. Iceland has been a member of the European Economic Area since 1994 and is also a Schengen member. Through all of this co-operation with Europe, we sure know what it is to “follow common rules” although something else has been suggested in Alessio´s article. Out of the 35 chapters of the EU Acquis (or the 33 that need to be negotiated), Iceland has adopted 21 chapters through its agreements (10 entirely and 11 mostly) with Europe. So believe me, we know what it means to follow common rules. The only problem is, we do not take any part in the legislation process, we just receive these rules and regulations with a fax – a reason enough for many to actually join the EU! Secondly, Alessio mentions the Icesave dispute, a dispute between Iceland , the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. I must say I find it very inappropriate to speak about Iceland´s possible EU membership and the Icesave dispute in the same article. But since it has been done, I would like to point out that it has not in any way put Iceland “aside in Europe” as Alessio claims. The Icesave dispute is uncomfortable for everyone involved, and we are glad that a judgement is expected on 28 January from the EFTA Court, not the “European Court of Justice” like Alessio says in his article, because this dispute is not an EU dispute. Thirdly, I find myself in need to explain to Alessio how and why Iceland came to apply for an EU membership, and a bit about how it works. Alessio says that after the banks collapsed “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 debt. Here again we come to bare interests.” Firstly, our Prime Minister, Jóhanna, is the leader of the Social Democratic Alliance, a political party that has, since its foundation, had an EU membership on its agenda. So when the Social Democrats won the parliamentary elections in 2009, after having an EU membership its main priority, they of course applied for a membership, finally being able to do so. I mean, what would you have done? Secondly, I will not deny that the crisis was a factor in all of this, but perhaps it was more of a factor of the election results, not the EU application itself, as is suggested in the article. An EU membership and the adoption of the euro takes years. We have EU Member States that have not yet adopted the euro, even though they should have. Why? Because they have not fulfilled the criteria to do so, like Member States need to do. So do you honestly believe that after having our economy collapse, Iceland could just join the EU and adopt the euro overnight? Even we know that is not possible. Joining the EU is a long-term investment in the future. The reasons for joining are numerous and you would even hear different reasons for joining, depending on who you speak to. Thirdly, Alessio mentions the fact the Icelandic Government has decided to slow down the negotiations in the next few months, as we are getting ready for national elections in April, and he makes it sound like it is the end of all. Alessio quotes both the Icelandic ambassador in Brussels who says “that we are slowing down the negotiations, and we are not disbanding them,” and Štefan Füle, the Enlargement Commissioner, that does not mention anything about Iceland stopping the negotiations, yet, he says they have been “stopped.” The fact of the matter is that it is clear now that the negotiations will not be finalised before the Icelandic parliamentary elections in April. Out of the 33 chapters that need to be negotiated, 27 have been opened and 11 of them closed. Six chapters remain unopened and will not be opened before the elections. However, work on the others will continue despite the elections. Truth be told, when negotiating countries have gone through national elections during negotiations with the EU, they have slowed the negotiation process down, perhaps not as formally as Iceland has done, but that’s usually how it works. Whilst the political parties put all their efforts on getting elected, some things must be set aside for a short period of time. And a matter as big as an EU membership should not be rushed, mishandled or destroyed, it should be slowed down, in order to avoid mistakes and to make sure that the result of the negotiations are good for the Icelandic people. That way is obviously a better choice than rushing it and taking a chance on getting bad results. The negotiations need to be handled with care. And just so it is clear, the Social Democratic Alliance remains a great supporter of Icelandic EU membership. So my last words to you Alessio are: let us worry about our national elections, let us worry about our negotiations with the EU, let us finish our negotiations, let us, the people of Iceland, decide whether or not to join the EU, and in the meanwhile, do not jump to conclusions.

    Sema Erla Serdaroglu Project Manager of the European Movement in Iceland and a member of the Social Democratic Alliance in Iceland

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