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21st Apr 2019

Iceland membership talks formally begin Tuesday

  • Fishing rights are expected to be one of the toughest areas of negotiation (Photo: European Commission)

At their last meeting before the summer break, EU foreign ministers on Monday (26 July) gave the greenlight for the start of negotiations on Iceland's membership bid.

Talks will formally begin on Tuesday. The small north Atlantic island, with a population of just 320,000, has aligned itself with many EU laws and is seen as fitting snugly with the slightly more ineffable European 'norms', but negotiations on a few key issues - such as fishing rights and its traditional whale hunting - are expected to be difficult.

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Iceland, whose fishing policies have largely been a success in terms of sustainability, is keen to see that its rich fishing waters are not over-fished by EU member states. The EU's common fisheries policy has led to the severe depletion of stocks in western Europe.

"Efforts will have to be made by Iceland," Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere said after chairing the meeting in Brussels. "Think of environment, think of whale hunting."

In addition, the UK and the Netherlands have linked actual membership with resolution of a dispute over the €3.8 billion in British and Dutch savings, lost in the banking crisis that consumed the nation in 2008.

After the Icelandic Icesave internet bank collapsed two years ago, depositers in the UK and the Netherlands were compensated by their governments. The Hague and London now are demanding Reykjavik pay them back.

"It's clear that all the chapters need to be discussed ... When the last chapter isn't resolved, nothing is resolved," said Mr Vanackere, when specifically asked about whether the Icesave issue could stymie talks.

Icelanders themselves in a recent referendum rejected a payout plan that would have cost each household tens of thousands of euros. The disagreement has soured the population's sentiment towards the EU. Immediately after the crisis, a majority of Icelanders looked to the EU as a solution to their problems, but the bitter fight with London and the Hague has slashed support for EU membership on the island.

In addition to potential controversial policy issues, there is also the increasingly negative opinion of Icelanders towards EU membership.

"I don't have the impression from the opinion polls that the Icelanders themselves are very favourable: that's the problem," said France's EU Minister Pierre Lellouche.

"Popular opinions have to be taken on board, and you have to communicate the value [of becoming an EU member]," said Mr Vanackere.

A June poll showed that public opposition to joining the EU has risen to 60 percent. In November last year, it was 54 percent.

The negotiation process is expected to take up to 18 months. EU legislation covers 35 different areas, known as chapters, ranging from the justice and home affairs to environment, energy, social and transport policy.

Through its membership of the European Free Trade Association and the Schengen border-free zone, many of Iceland's laws already comply with those of the EU.

Croatia and Turkey have also opened membership negotiations with the EU. Zagreb is expected to conclude talks in 2011 while Ankara's talks are proceeding much more slowly.

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