Toward the EU? The island is divided ” “

Adhesion negotiations have stalled. Political forces on opposite fronts

Iceland fluctuates from fear to the desire of EU. The island in northern Europe had begun accession negotiations in June 2010: 27 chapters had been opened and 11 temporarily closed as they already complied with EU directives. The thorniest chapter relates to fisheries, which represents 50% of the Icelandic economy. During the election campaign the new right-wing government elected in May 2013, expressly against EU accession, had promised that the matter would be the object of a referendum, but it decided to put negotiations on stand-by without consulting citizens. On 20 February Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, leader of the Progressive Party (eurosceptic), said he would submit the question to parliament vote, contradicting the pre-election promise and thereby causing street protests involving thousands of citizens, with 55 thousand signatures for a petition asking the government to call a referendum on the continuation of the talks before making a decision. Iceland is already a member of the European Economic Area, the Schengen area, the European Free Trade Association, NATO, and since May it is the first non-EU country – with Norway – to join Horizon2020, the EU Research & Innovation program. According to a survey conducted in May, 37.3% of those entitled to vote want Iceland to join the EU (in April the figure was 33.5%), against 49.5%. Sarah Numico, for Sir Europe, interviewed Birgir Guðmundsson, professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Akureyri. Professor, does Iceland intend to join the EU? “The case involving the European Union and Iceland can be divided into two parts. First of all we would like to complete the accession process started at the time, to see what kind of ‘entry agreement’ would be offered to Iceland. The general public is in favour of this and especially keen to understand the implications for fisheries and its policies. On the other hand, however, the general attitude of the public opinion towards the idea of Iceland as an EU member country seems to be quite critical. In some respects it is a contradiction, since the majority of citizens want to see what the EU has to offer, without being willing to join the Union. I do not think it signals a growth of pro-Europeanism, perhaps there is an underlying criticism of the current government and its European policy”. Then what are the reasons for the pro-EU riots in February and March and the announcement of a new pro-European party, Viðreisn (“reconstruction”)? “The government parties, especially the Independence Party (allied with the Progressive Party – ed.’s note), had promised during the election campaign that they would give the opportunity for citizens to cast their vote in a referendum that would establish whether or not to continue the accession process, although the party itself had declared it was strongly anti-EU. The intention of the majority parties to lodge a motion in parliament to conclude the process with the Union without a referendum was poorly received. It was seen as an act of arrogance, a betrayal of promises. Demonstrations have concerned more the manner in which the affair was politically conducted and the conclusion of the negotiations with the EU, than the question on whether or not enter the ‘common home’. This new party, which has not yet been created, seems to be a center-right pro-European movement. Polls show that it would take votes from both the Independence Party, but also by the Social Democrats and the Liberals of the party Bright Future, the strongest pro-EU supporters”. One of Iceland’s concerns regarding EU integration was linked to negative consequences for the fisheries sector. Moreover, it seemed that the EU was not willing to question its common fisheries policy. Has something changed? “In the negotiations between Iceland and the EU the chapters on fishery and agriculture have never been opened, thus it is unknown which concessions the Union would have been ready to make in this area what would have been its policies. This contributed to generating irritation in the public opinion toward the government’s decision to conclude the negotiations, before knowing anything about this. Now, however, it was decided that the motion would be addressed in parliament after the summer. The discussion was thus frozen”. What do pro-Europeans expect of Europe? “Pro-Europeans see the EU as an instrument to give monetary stability to Iceland. If it entered the EU, Iceland would rapidly become a member of the monetary union”.

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