In its first annual report on Iceland since the launch of that country's EU membership negotiations last year, the Foreign Affairs Committee welcomes the prospect of bringing on board one of Europe's oldest democracies with its well-functioning market economy. However, some sensitive issues remain, such as the Icesave dispute, whale hunting (which is banned in the EU) and Iceland's desire to protect its fisheries and agriculture markets.
Iceland began talks on joining the EU in July 2010 from a favorable position, as it was already a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), which covers 10 out of 33 chapters that candidate countries must meet to join the EU, while partially covering another 18. However, progress is needed in some areas, mainly fisheries, agriculture and rural development, says the committee's draft report, prepared by Cristian Dan Preda (EPP, RO) and adopted by 48 votes to 2, with 1 abstention.
Fisheries: mackerel and whale hunting
The committee urges Iceland and the EU to find a way forward in talks on mackerel quotas, an issue which became especially sensitive after both parties failed to reach agreement during the seventh round of EU negotiations with Iceland and Norway on the management of mackerel resources on 11 March
MEPs also stress the need for Iceland to bring its fisheries laws into line with EU internal market rules as regards the right of establishment, freedom to provide services and free movement of capital in the fisheries production and processing sectors. Iceland, whose economy is heavily dependent on fisheries, has already stated in its general position on accession that it wishes to maintain some control of fisheries management in its exclusive economic zone.
"Serious divergences" remain on whale hunting, adds the committee, emphasising that the ban on whaling is part of the EU acquis (the existing body of laws and regulations that all new Member States must take on). It calls for broader discussions on the abolition of both whale hunting and the trade in whale products.
MEPs were also glad that a new agreement on Icesave had been reached between Iceland, the UK and the Netherlands. They welcomed the approval by a three-quarters majority of the agreement by the Icelandic Parliament (17 February 2011) and hoped that the new public referendum on the agreement, scheduled for 9 April, would have a positive result.
Opinion polls suggest the Icelanders could endorse the agreement this time, even though 93% voted against the proposal in a similar referendum held a year ago.
Public opinion in Iceland
Mr Preda was pleased to note that recent opinion polls had shown an increase in public support in Iceland for the continuation of negotiations and that a majority of Icelanders trust the European Parliament. Nevertheless, the Foreign Affairs committee believe that substantial efforts are still needed to inform Iceland's citizens what EU membership entails. They urge the government to broaden the public debate, to be based on clear, factual information on the consequences of EU membership, so that the public "can make an informed choice in the future referendum on accession".
On the chair: Fiorello Provera (EFD, IT)