The Commission has today delivered its opinion on the application of Iceland to join the 27-Member Bloc – advising that accession negotiations should begin.
"[We] identify challenges ahead on the road to accession. Following today's recommendation by the Commission, it is now for the Council of the European Union to decide on the opening of accession negotiations with Iceland
” it reads.Stefan Füle
, the new Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, said this “is an important step in the accession process and provides guidance to Iceland in its efforts to become an EU member. I am confident that Iceland will show determination in addressing the challenges highlighted in the opinion.
It should be noted that the "opinion
" from the Commission still requires the approval of EU governments before talks can start
, but Iceland submitted its application for EU membership to the Council on 17 July 2009 who then 10 days later asked the Commission to provide an opinion on the application.
As the basis of its opinion, the Commission sent a 350 page questionnaire on all EU-relevant policy areas to the Icelandic authorities. Based on full and detailed answers from Iceland and additional information from EU Member States, international organisations and local and international non-governmental organisations, the Commission has drawn up a thorough analysis of Iceland's current situation and medium-term prospects.
The small island, located in the North Atlantic, became independent from Denmark in 1944 and is currently home to some 320,000 people.
Last July, Iceland's parliament voted to apply to join the EU after ruling that the benefits of joining outweighed the disadvantages in particular to its fishing industry.
According to Commission figures, in 2008, more than 54% of Iceland's imports came from the EU and 76% of its exports went to the EU.
To become a member of the EU, an applicant country must meet the political and economic criteria laid down by the European Council in Copenhagen in 1993 and adopt the entire body of EU law, which is collectively known as the "acquis communautaire
Through its participation in the European Economic Area
(EEA), Iceland has participated in the single market for more than 15 years and has already taken on a considerable part of the acquis.
However, the Icelandic authorities will need to make serious efforts to achieve full alignment with EU law, in particular in the areas of fisheries, agriculture and rural development, environment, free movement of capital and financial services.
An agreement will also have to be sought in the Icesave dispute
where Iceland needs to repay the Netherlands and Britain to the tune of some €4 billion following the collapse in 2008 of the country’s largest bank, Landsbanki. In addition, the country’s currency, the Icelandic krona
, lost about half its value in the financial crisis, and public opinion is divided as to how (and if) Iceland should repay the two EU members. A referendum on this question has been scheduled for March 6th
and failure to find an agreement may lead to these countries vetoing the application.
Icelandic Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson
, left, has reportedly welcomed the EU recommendation, saying "I appreciate the confidence in Iceland expressed by the EU Commission in this balanced, constructive and broadly speaking very positive report".
Seven other countries are in the queue to join the EU, but only three have opened formal negotiations - Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey. As reported earlier, Croatia is farthest advanced in the process and could join as early as 2012
. EU officials have already ruled out Iceland gaining a "fast-track" membership and joining at the same time.
It could be argued that the greatest opposition to EU membership lies in Iceland itself, which has jealously guarded its independence for decades. But the financial crisis has wrought havoc, almost destroying the national currency, and public opinion has swayed towards the EU as a route back to prosperity.