Iceland Tries To Come In From the Cold

Last week, Iceland formally applied to join the European Union. Forty-eight hours later, the 27 EU member states welcomed Reykjavik’s overtures and instructed the European Commission in Brussels to begin a preliminary examination. Such prompt reaction — the Brussels equivalent of the speed of light — has caused dismay among other applicants who are engaged in lengthy talks for membership.

In the past, Icelanders have not been enthusiastic about joining the European Union, largely because it would mean opening its fishing areas to other fleets — and fishing is the island’s main industry. So this sudden application has seemed to observers an act of desperation: Icelanders have in effect been driven to seek EU help in finding a way out of their country’s disastrous economic situation.

Even so, the close vote in Iceland’s parliament in favor of an EU application — 33 to 28, with two abstentions — showed that quite a few lawmakers questioned the wisdom of turning to the European Union.

The initial enthusiasm in Brussels (there were some second thoughts later particularly in Paris) was seen by Balkan applicants as another instance of the clannish relationship of Western European members within the Union. Newer members from the east and the Baltics often complain that this creates a divide between the earlier 15 Western members and later arrivals, mainly from the former Soviet Union.

Some reports said Iceland could be “fast-tracked” into the European Union by 2011. Compare that to Macedonia, for example, which formally inquired about EU membership in March 2004 but had to wait 21 months to start negotiations, still ongoing. Croatia also had a long wait. And the case of Turkey’s admission into the European Union has dragged on since 1999.

But experts argue that Iceland is a better fit with the European Union. It was pointed out in Brussels that Iceland already conforms to every one of the so-called Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership: democratic government, rule of law, a good human rights record, a market economy, and acceptance of the obligations of EU membership. Iceland is also already a member of several European institutions, including the Schengen open borders agreement.

In contrast, aspiring members from the Balkans belong to an area of recent conflict, with ethnic atrocities to account for, and sharp regional differences. EU member Slovenia threatens to block Croatian membership over border disputes. Greece objects to its northern neighbor using the name Macedonia, which Athens says is the name of one of its regions. Turkey still has human rights issues and other problems to resolve with the European Union, including what many see as its continued control of the northern part of Cyprus.

Iceland’s application was also welcomed in Brussels because some think it could boost chances of success in Ireland’s Oct. 2 referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Union’s proposed constitution. The vote is a replay which Brussels hopes will reverse Ireland’s earlier rejection of the treaty. The Iceland message that EU members do not have to confront their economic problems alone is, they think, a powerful one.