Iceland in EU by 2015, prime minister says
09.02.06 @ 18:22
BRUSSELS - Icelandic prime minister Halldor Asgrimsson has predicted his country will join the EU by 2015, sparking lively debate in the small island state.
"I foresee Iceland will be in the EU in the year 2015," the leader said at a meeting of the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce in Reykjavik on Wednesday (8 February).
"I think the decisive factor for Iceland will be the future and the size of the eurozone. Decisions by the Danish, Swedish and British will have a serious impact on that," Mr Asgrimsson added.
Iceland is currently a member of NATO and the European Economic Area (EEA), a free trade zone that also includes Norway and Liechtenstein.
Sweden, Denmark and the UK are the only old EU member states that have stayed out of the euro.
Government spokesman Olafsson Steingrimur explained that the Icelandic crown is strong against the euro and the dollar, making it harder for Iceland to export fish.
The fish factor
Public debate about the EU in Iceland revolves around EU fishing quotas, which Iceland is free to ignore under the terms of the EEA.
Fishing accounts for 70 percent of Icelandic export income and 10 percent of its economy, while providing employment for one out of every 12 workers in the 290,000 strong country.
"There is always someone who says we can't do it [join the EU] because of fishing problems and then the discussion ends," Mr Steingrimur indicated.
Mr Asgrimsson's remarks have dominated headlines and TV talk shows on the island since Wednesday night.
The prime minister's liberal party currently rules in coalition with the larger Independence party which has stood against EU memberhip for the past 12 years.
Independence party member and foreign minister Geir Haarde indicated he did not see a reason to react whenever Mr Asgrimsson expressed himself on EU issues.
Real EU debate next year
The liberal prime minister, who stands low in public opinion surveys ahead of next year's elections, admitted that "We don't have the [right] political situation at the moment to take a decision on this."
But the government and the liberal party have each established separate committees to look into ways to protect fishing privileges in case of EU accession.
The results are due out in early 2007, with spokesman Mr Steingrimur saying "the real debate on the EU will begin next year."