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26th Sep 2022

EU encourages Icesave 'resolution' ahead of referendum

  • Reykjavik: Icelandic voters will be called to the urns on Saturday (Photo: Johannes Jansson/norden.org)

The EU commission on Wednesday (6 April) said it would like to see a "swift resolution" of the Icesave dispute ahead of a key referendum on Saturday when Icelandic voters are being asked to approve a repayment scheme for Britain and the Netherlands, affected by the online bank's collapse.

"As regards Icesave (...) the Commission would welcome a swift resolution of this matter in the interest of all the parties involved," enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele told MEPs in Strasbourg when presenting the latest on Iceland's accession talks.

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The referendum has been called after the country's president refused to sign into law an agreement passed by the national parliament on repaying the €4 billion debt to the British and Dutch governments, who had to reimburse their citizens when Icesave was declared bankrupt in 2008.

A first referendum on the matter, held last year, was negative. Opinion polls show a slight majority in favour - 52 to 48 percent - but Icelandic officials are cautious in sounding too optimistic about the vote.

"It's a lot to demand of the public to say "yes" to such an obligation but it's something we have to do," Iceland's finance minister Steingrimur Sigfusson told The Scotsman on Wednesday.

MEPs meanwhile warned that if the EU is too vocal about the debt repayment, Icelandic voters may turn against the accession process - already not very popular on the island.

"Icesave is a very tricky issue and with Iceland's long standing democratic tradition, we see that voters are involved in every stage of the negotiation process," Italian Socialist MEP David-Maria Sassoli said.

"The role of the EU should be to stand back and wait for the referendum result, so as not to trigger any closure and rejection movements from the Icelandic population," he stressed.

However Romanian centre-right MEP Cristian Preda said that the new agreement, approved by the parliament, was a welcome step and he hoped the population would approve it, "thus marking the end of a dispute in EU talks."

A founding Nato member and part of the EU internal market since 1994, Iceland applied to join the EU in 2009 after it suffered badly in the economic crisis. Formal negotiations with the small Atlantic nation are likely to start in June, after completing the "screening process" of the 35 different policy areas, with fisheries and agriculture expected to be the most thorny ones, Fuele said.

An envelope of €28 million has been earmarked for Iceland for the next 3 years "to support strengthening of administrative capacity and prepare Iceland for the management of structural funds," he added.

Special attention is to be given to the public relations exercise, so as to avoid the "Norwegian experience" - with the Scandinavian nation twice rejecting EU accession, after the government had competed EU accession talks.

"I fully share your views on the need for a fact-based public debate on EU accession. It can indeed play a decisive role in increasing understanding of the realities of the policies and actions of the European Union and help to dispel myths," Fuele said, adding that the commission is planning to open an EU info-centre on the island.

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