Iceland halts EU talks as elections loom
By Benjamin Fox
Iceland's government has suspended negotiations to join the EU ahead of parliamentary elections in April that could see a eurosceptic government elected with a mandate to halt membership talks.
The government said in a statement that a deal would not be reached in time, commenting that "it is now clear that the negotiations will not lead to an Accession Treaty during the present electoral term."
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Elections are scheduled for April 27, with opinion polls indicating that the centre-left coalition government is lagging around 15 points behind the conservative Independence party, which opposes EU membership and is widely expected to form a coalition with the liberal Progressive party.
The governing coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats and the Left-Green party swept to power in 2009 in the aftermath of a banking crisis which saw Iceland's three main commercial banks collapse in 2008 with liabilities of over ten-times the size of the country's annual GDP.
Since the crisis, Iceland's debt to GDP ratio soared from 25 percent in 2007 to 130 percent in 2011 after needing an €8 billion euro bailout to avoid defaulting on its debts.
The country is also still facing court actions in the court of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) over the compensation of over 500,000 EU depositors who lost their savings in Icelandic banks following the crisis.
Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir submitted the country's EU membership application in July 2009, promising to hold a referendum on the completion of negotiations.
Iceland membership of EFTA already requires it to adopt large chunks of EU single market law, but it has faced difficulties in reaching an agreement with EU officials over fisheries policy - traditionally the main branch of the Icelandic economy - and the Common Agricultural Policy.
The government said that it had addressed 29 of the 33 chapters of the EU's rule-book known as the acquis communautaire in relation to the membership talks. However, it acknowledged that "there have been delays in opening negotiations on important chapters such as fisheries as the EU has postponed finalising work on its screening report on the chapter for many months."
"Regarding the 16 chapters which now stand open, Iceland‘s negotiating committee and experts will continue their cooperation with the EU," said the government statement but added that this would not require "further government or parliamentary decisions."
Peter Stano, spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, said that the EU executive was hopeful that talks would resume.
The commission "continues to be convinced that the EU accession of Iceland would be of mutual benefit and remains committed to accompanying Iceland on its path towards EU membership," he said.