17th Jan 2019

Brussels worried about falling support for EU in Iceland

  • Reykjavik, the seat of Iceland's government (Photo: European Commission)

The European Union formally launched negotiations with Iceland on Tuesday over the north Atlantic island's accession to the bloc even as negative opinion towards the EU mounts, a development that has not gone unnoticed in Brussels and other national capitals.

"I'm concerned by the current lack of broad public support for European Union membership in Iceland," said enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele speaking to reporters alongside Icelandic foreign minister Oessur Skarphedinsson after talks were opened.

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"This shows that there's a need for more objective information about the EU and its policies," he added.

The worry echoes those coming from France. Ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday France's Europe minister, Pierre Lallouche said that Paris strongly backed the island's adhesion, but wondered if Iceland felt the same way.

"We are in favor, of course, but I don't have the impression based on the polls that the Icelanders are that much in favor," he said. "That's obviously the whole problem. We aren't going to force them."

A recent opinion poll put opposition to joining the EU club at 60 percent. Analysts say that the sharp drop in support is a product of the perception that Brussels has sided with the UK and the Netherlands in their dispute with Reykjavik over the fall-out of the collapse of Icesave, an Icelandic online bank.

After the Icelandic Icesave internet bank collapsed in 2008, depositers in the UK and the Netherlands were compensated by their governments to the tune of €3.8 billion. The Hague and London now are demanding Reykjavik pay them back.

The government has agreed to do so, but the terms are considered onerous by a majority of the population. Under the terms of the agreement the loan will be paid back over 15 years with interest, with estimates suggesting every household will have to contribute around €45,000.

The European Commission for its part has repeatedly described the dispute as strictly "bilateral", but the most recent meeting of EU premiers and presidents, the European Council, made the issue a common concern of the entire bloc, "as the commission would do well to remember," according to one EU diplomat.

Separately, fishing is shaping up to be less of a stumbling block to negotiations than perhaps had been feared, if hints from the commission are a good gauge of discussions.

Mr Skarphedinson on Tuesday proposed that his country's fishing waters be offered a special status within the EU, a "specific management area," which only domestic fishermen could access.

Iceland is worried that its stocks, which in comparison to the EU's heavily overfished waters have been more sustainably managed, would be threatened by a sharing of its waters with EU member states.

Mr Fuele, for his part, while noting that the EU could not offer any "permanent" such status, the possibility of one for a limited period could be on the table.

Many member states have won exceptions to EU rules upon entry, from Sweden's sale of ‘snus' tobacco to Spain's bull-fighting.

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