Opinion on Iceland’s EU bid in February
The European Commission is to present its formal opinion on Iceland’s application for membership in the European Union on 24 February, less than two weeks before Icelanders vote in a crucial referendum that could delay the start of accession talks.
There is little doubt that the recommendation, which European commissioners will formally adopt on 24 February, will advise EU member states to approve the start of accession talks, as Iceland has already implemented a large share of EU rules.
It is obliged to accept many of the EU’s market rules as a member of the European Economic Area, which in essence extends the EU’s internal market to include three non-members: Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
The Commission’s announcement of its recommendation, or ‘avis’, will come little more than seven months after Iceland applied for membership, in July 2009.
In other cases, the Commission has taken around one year to prepare its avis, which focuses on the extent to which an applicant country is able to meet the so-called Copenhagen criteria for membership in the Union (see right).
Whether and when membership negotiations will be opened will depend on a political decision by member states’ foreign ministers.
The Copenhagen criteria
A country wishing to start membership talks with the European Union has to meet a range of conditions – known as the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ – agreed by EU leaders in 1993. A country needs to have:
- stable institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
- a functioning market economy, as well as the ability to cope with the pressure of competition and the market forces at work inside the Union;
- the ability to assume the obligations of membership, in particular adherence to the objectives of political, economic and monetary union.
That decision would require unanimous approval, which could prove difficult for Iceland, as the collapse of Iceland’s banking system in October 2008, commonly seen as the principal reason for Iceland’s bid for membership at this point, has damaged the country’s relationship with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Both countries have suggested that they might block membership talks unless Iceland’s government adheres to a bilateral agreement to cover the costs of compensating British and Dutch account-holders who lost deposits during the collapse of Icesave, the internet division of Iceland’s Landsbanki.
Under the agreement, Iceland’s government is to repay the UK and Dutch governments a total of around €3.9 billion for the compensation they provided to depositors.
Earlier this month, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Iceland’s president, triggered a referendum on the Icesave agreement when he refused to sign a draft bill implementing the deal.
The referendum is to be held on 6 March. Voting by registered voters who live abroad has started today (28 January).