Iceland clears way for EU bid

Author: By Mia Shanley and Omar Valdimarsson, Reuters

Icelandic membership of the 27-nation bloc is still years away, after what
promise to be long and tough negotiations, especially over the island’s
cherished fishing rights.

Members of parliament voted 33 to 28 in favour of an EU application after a
final round of marathon debates lasting almost a week. The government needed
32 votes to gain approval. Two MPs abstained.

Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, whose Social Democrats fought hard to
win support for the bill from their EU-sceptical coalition partner, has made
joining the bloc a priority, seeing it as key to Iceland’s economic recovery.

“This is probably the most historic vote in the history of our parliament,
since the founding of the republic. I have no doubt that this decision will
be beneficial to the people of Iceland,” she told Reuters.

“Now we must ensure that we bring home a treaty that we can put before the
people and recommend.”

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the revolving EU
presidency, said in a statement that he welcomed Iceland’s decision to apply
for membership.

The issue shot to the top of the political agenda after an economic meltdown
whose speed and scale shocked many, even in the context of the current
global recession.

The vote clears the way for the application to be sent to Brussels later in
July and for the government to put the question on actual membership to
voters in a referendum.

Icelanders – just 320,000 in number – have warmed to the European Union but
remain protective of their sovereignty and worry about losing control of
fish stocks.

A Gallup poll in May showed 61.2 percent in favour of EU talks and 29.6
percent against. But those polled were evenly split over the issue of actual
membership.

Joining the European Union was almost unimaginable before the volcanic country
was cast into the centre of the global financial storm when its top three
banks collapsed in a matter of days last year.

The government now has a mandate to start tough negotiations with Brussels on
everything from fisheries and agriculture to its eventual adoption of the
euro currency.

“The application has to go in the next few days. It has to reach the foreign
ministers’ meeting in Brussels on the 27th of this month,” Prime Minister
Sigurdardottir told Reuters.

“After that, it goes into the normal process to the heads of state in
December, after which the accession talks can begin. My guess is that these
talks will take 2.5 to 3.5 years.”

Arni Thor Sigurdsson, chairman of the parliamentary committee handling EU
issues, has said Iceland could join the European Union in 2013 at the
earliest.

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