After decades of holding out from EU membership, Iceland finally decided to apply to the union last year. The global financial crisis severely wrecked tiny Iceland’s economy, and all three of its major banks collapsed. Seeking to stabilize its economy, the Icelandic government decided that the benefit of joining the Eurozone outweighed the risk of opening up its fisheries and relinquishing some of its sovereignty to Brussels.

Now, a European Commission group on Iceland has recommended that formal talks begin with Iceland regarding membership, only seven months after the initial application. While countries like Turkey wait for decades to join the EU, Iceland will likely be ushered in fairly quickly due to its existing membership in the European Economic Area trade bloc and the general harmonization that already exists between its laws and those of the EU’s acquis communautaire. It also has a strong democracy, excellent record of respect for human and civil rights, and government transparency. Some laws will have to be changed in the areas of fishing*, agriculture, and banking.

Yet, one other issue speeding up Iceland’s accession process is its proximity to the Arctic. The EU is especially interested in increasing its role in this strategic area. Denmark is a member of the EU already, yet its Arctic coastline is in Greenland, which is becoming more and more autonomous. Furthermore, in a blow to its Arctic strategy, the EU’s application to become a permanent member of the Arctic Council was summarily rejected last April due to a tussle between Canada and the EU over the latter’s ban of seal fur imports. Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon remarked,

“Canada doesn’t feel that the European Union, at this stage, has the required sensitivity to be able to acknowledge the Arctic Council, as well as its membership, and so therefore I’m opposed to it.”

The next full ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council will not take place until November 2011, but this will allow plenty of time for Iceland to join the EU. Iceland is already a permanent member of the Arctic Council. The EC suggested that Iceland’s application will be fast-tracked and take about 12-18 months to process.

However, this strategy might not bode well if countries like Canada continue to shut out Iceland from other forums on the Arctic. In the European Commission’s Policy Objectives for multilateral governance in the Arctic, the EC seeks to

“promote broad dialogue and negotiated solutions and not support arrangements which exclude any of the Arctic EU Member States or Arctic EEA EFTA countries.”

Thus, Icelandic membership in the EU could possibly increase tensions between the EU and Canada in the Arctic. Regardless, if Iceland becomes member #28 in the EU, it will probably have more weight as an Arctic player, as will the EU. It seems that the situation will strengthen both the country and the organization’s positions north of the Arctic Circle. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt remarked that the “EU is virtually absent from the big play” in regards to Arctic issues, yet Icelandic membership could significantly change this for the better.

In addition, Stefan Fuele, the European commissioner for enlargement, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that many of the EC’s talks involved the “strategic importance of the Arctic.”

You can read more about the EU’s involvement in the Arctic here.

*It will be interesting to observe how the negotiations on fisheries proceed. Norway is one other Nordic country which has held out from the EU in large part because fishing is one of its major export industries and a historical part of the national identity. Allowing Spanish trawlers free access to the rich Norwegian waters would threaten both the country’s exports and identity, a danger that Iceland is trying to avoid. Yet whereas Norway has the financial wherewithal to remain outside the EU thanks to its oil industry, Iceland does not – and hence, it will probably have to sacrifice some of the sanctity of its fisheries.

News Links

“Green light for Iceland-E.U. membership talks,” European Commission

“E.U. Body Sees Strategic Reasons to Encourage Iceland,” New York Times

“Yes, Iceland can talk fish to Europe,” The Guardian

Categories: Geopolitics Iceland

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