Low support among the Icelandic people and a difficult compromise on fisheries are among the issues threatening to make Iceland’s road to the EU very hard. Expert deems it unlikely that Iceland will vote to join the Union, unless presented with a lucrative deal
By Mads Nyborg Anneberg
Only one in three Icelanders want to join the EU, according to a recent opinion poll. At the same time, accession negotiations on fisheries are most likely to take place later this year – a delicate issue where Iceland fears giving up sovereignty. But in spite of the gloomy shadows cast upon Iceland’s candidacy, the accession talks go on with the next meeting taking place on March 30.
Iceland is on the fast track in the negotiations because they are already a part of the European Economic Area and Schengen. Eight of 35 chapters of the negotiations to join the EU have been completed. However, the biggest hurdle, the fisheries chapter, is yet to be opened. The negotiating parties are hesitant to predict the outcome of the negotiations, but it does seem that Iceland will be able to get some advantages when it comes to fisheries, which is the backbone of its economy.
“Iceland will join on equal terms, but there will be negotiations as to their individual concerns and priorities,” said Minister of European Affairs of Denmark, who holds the EU presidency, Nikolai Wammen.
Icelanders hesitate about joining EU
67,4 % of the Icelandic population would vote no to EU-membership. That’s the result of an opinion poll made by Capacent Gallup for The Federation of Icelandic Industries released in February. Asked about the issue, Nikolai Wammen said that all negotiations will take place, regardless of any opinion polls.
“The negotiations will have a merit-based approach, and at the end of the day, it will be up to the Icelandic people,” said Wammen.
Icelandic Chief Negotiator in the accession talks, Stefan Haukur Johannesson, said one should be careful in drawing to strong conclusions from opinion polls.
“We don’t get our mandate for the accession talks from opinion polls. In 2009, the Icelandic parliament gave us a mandate to apply and negotiate and it’s by this mandate we are working,” said Johannesson.
However, Mads Christian Dagnis Jensen, PhD with Centre for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen, underlines that numbers that clear will not change overnight.
“When the resistance is so substantial, it will take a long time to alter, unless Iceland gets a really lucrative deal with EU in the accession negotiation,” said Jensen.
Special deal on fisheries seems likely
If not a lucrative deal, it at least seems Iceland will be able to reach a compromise in regards to fisheries.
“We prioritize quality over time, so it very much depends on the willingness to reach the compromise that would reflect the Icelandic specificities and preferences but also will not be contrary to the EU principles,” said EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Füle.
Wammen chose his words carefully on the matter but did not reject the possibility of a special agreement on fisheries.
“One should notice that there has never been given permanent exceptions to new member states regarding common EU policies, but the EU has done what it could to take individual considerations in the negotiations,” Wammen said.
Stefan Johannesson points to the fact that some of the rules in the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy are designed to suit specific geographical areas.
“Circumstances are also different in Iceland, so we think we need special solutions that recognize and take into account these specificities in Iceland,” said Johannesson.
Mads Christian Dagnis Jensen says it’s not even out of the question that Iceland can get permanent exceptions on areas as fisheries. Scottish MEP for European Conservatives and Reformists and Vice-Chair of Fisheries Committee, Struan Stevenson, however, states very clearly his opposition towards Iceland getting special agreements and opt-outs in particular.
If Iceland opt-out of the Common Fisheries Policy and become a member, I will be asking for Scotland to opt-out as well,” said Stevenson.
National and international resistance
There are circumstances in Iceland’s relations with some member states that make life hard for Iceland.
” UK and the Netherlands are still mad that Iceland chose not to compensate customers of the collapsed Icelandic banks during the beginning of the financial crisis. They can make the process harder, which they also say they intend to,” said Jensen.
Besides, there is also a very current issue aggravating other EU member nations. Iceland negotiates its fisheries quotas with Norway, the Faroe Islands and the EU. However, Iceland and the Faroe Islands have heavily raised its quotas on mackerel without consent from the other parties. A move that may even trigger EU sanctions.
“I think that this extremely bad behaviour is not the most credible way of asking for membership of the EU. There’s a long way to go, I think, before we can get an accession of Iceland,” said Struan Stevenson.
Within Iceland there is also heavy criticism of EU accession. Not least from The Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners, who oppose EU-membership.
“Even if we get a long transition period, that’s not enough. We would still have the inevitable outcome that we would lose control over fisheries,” said Population Ecologist from the Federation, Dr. Kristjan Thorarinsson.
Geopolitics at stake
Even though Iceland is a small country with approximately 300.000 inhabitants, there are still great advantages in sight for the EU if it joins. Naturally, it will be positive for the EU fisheries to include Icelandic territorial waters, but there are other issues at stake as well.
“China is interested in Iceland and its resources, and by having Iceland in the Union, it will have better possibility for geopolitical influence in that area,” said Mads Christian Dagnis Jensen.
Stefan Haukur Johannesson also believes that Iceland will contribute to the Union with knowhow and expertise.
“Fisheries is important for Iceland, and Iceland would be an important member state in regards to fisheries,” said Johannesson.