EU ministers put Iceland on road to accession
27.07.09 @ 09:25
Updated 12.43 Brussels time The EU has accepted Iceland's bid to join the bloc at a meeting of its foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (27 July), signaling a speedy pace on accession.
The ministers asked the European Commission to analyse Iceland's legal preparedness to start membership negotiations. The move marks the first formal step in the enlargement process.
"The Commission is invited to submit to the Council its opinion on this application," they said in a statement.
The decision comes after Iceland officially submitted its EU application just last week.
If the commission completes the analysis before the end of the year, Iceland could start accession talks in 2010 and enter the EU as early as 2011 or 2012.
The rapid pace stands in contrast to the progress of some Balkan countries. Albania submitted its EU application in April but is still waiting for EU states to refer its papers to the commission. Montenegro applied last December and had to wait until April to get its green light.
Iceland is starting from a different point of departure, however. The small island nation already has a GDP per capita higher than all EU states except Luxembourg and has been part of the European Economic Area for 15 years.
"There is no fast-track for Iceland but rather a shorter track because they are already a part of the single market and the Schengen area [the EU's passport-free travel zone]," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said ahead of Monday's meeting, Reuters reports.
The enlargement climate inside the EU is tricky due to looming German elections and lack of clarity on the Lisbon treaty.
But some EU states are already keen to befriend the potential new member, with Lithuanian foreign minister Vygaudas Usackas visiting Reykjavik on Saturday to endorse its EU bid.
"Iceland is a wonderful candidate. It should be seen by the Balkans not as a competitor but as pushing the envelope on EU enlargement and re-invigorating the whole process," Mr Usackas told EUobserver.
Inside Iceland, the economy is quickly recovering after the shock collapse of the country's banks last year, which prompted the EU application.
Unemployment is below the eurozone average of 9.5 percent. GDP is to contract less this year than in some euro-using states such as Ireland. Trade is up and the government surplus is shrinking.
A recent poll on EU accession - which must be approved by referendum - by Capacent Gallup in May showed an even split, with 39 percent of Icelanders supporting the move and 39 percent against.
Correction: the story originally said the Gallup poll was out in July