Any application by Iceland to join EU could be fast-tracked, says Rehn

 

THE EUROPEAN Commission has suggested Iceland could be fast-tracked for EU membership, opening up the possibility that it could join the union in 2011.

EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said yesterday the country, which suffered a financial collapse last year, shared many of the values of the union and could potentially be allowed to join with Croatia, which expects to become the 28th member state in 2011.

“The EU prefers two countries joining at the same time rather than individually. If Iceland applies shortly and the negotiations are rapid, Croatia and Iceland could join the EU in parallel,” Mr Rehn told the Guardian.

“On Iceland, I hope I will be busier. It is one of the oldest democracies in the world and its strategic and economic positions would be an asset to the EU,” said Mr Rehn, the Finnish nominee to the EU executive and a strong supporter of Iceland joining.

Iceland’s government collapsed this week amid continuing public protests sparked by the collapse of the country’s banking sector, which has forced the Nordic state to take a $10 billion IMF-led rescue package. Prime minister Geir Haarde of the Independence Party stepped down on Monday, the first political casualty as a direct result of the global credit crunch. Public support for EU membership has risen as a result of the economic collapse, with some politicians calling for entry to the euro zone.

Johanna Sigurdardottir, leader of the Social Democratic party, is in talks with the Left-Green Party about forming a new administration. The Social Democrats support an application for EU membership, but the Left-Greens are sceptical. However, both parties believe there should be a referendum on whether to open EU accession talks. The biggest hurdle to membership is having to sign up to the common fisheries policy.

Iceland is already a member of the European Economic Area, which means that it already adheres to roughly two-thirds of EU legislation. EU officials say this could speed up its accession talks to join the union and enable the country to catch up with the most advanced candidate Croatia.

But commission president José Manuel Barroso sounded a note of caution yesterday, saying that so far the EU had not received an application from Iceland.

But he also stressed the common bonds between Iceland and the union.

“Iceland is a very friendly country – a member of the European economic space,” said Mr Barroso, who noted more and more countries were considering the benefits of EU membership because of the crisis.

The prospects for any application by Iceland could be helped by the Czech Republic – the current president of the EU – and Sweden, which takes over the presidency in July.

Both countries are firm supporters of further EU enlargement.

However, Croatia and Iceland’s bid to join the union could also depend on whether Ireland ratifies the Lisbon Treaty in a second referendum. France and Germany both say there can be no more enlargement until the EU’s institutional structure is worked out.