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EU membership – Iceland clears first hurdle - 28/07/2009

Icelandic flag on a house © EC

Iceland’s bid to join the EU gets off to a fast start.

European foreign ministers have asked the commission to evaluate Iceland’s suitability for EU membership, the first step in the entry process.

The decision came swiftly – less than two weeks after Iceland submitted its application – reflecting the country’s strong credentials.

The commission will now prepare a detailed study on Iceland’s economic, legal and political systems. These studies often take more than a year to complete. But Iceland may not have to wait as long as some countries, as it already has an advanced market economy and stable, democratic institutions, two key conditions for membership.

Once they have received the report, the European council and parliament will decide whether to accept Iceland as an official candidate. Only then can formal negotiations begin on the terms of membership, a process that could take another year or two. If the EU accepts Iceland, the country will hold a referendum on the question.

Until recently, the North Atlantic island nation of 320,000 was reluctant to join the EU. But after its biggest banks collapsed in October, sending the krona currency tumbling, Iceland turned to EU membership and the euro currency as a means of stabilising the economy.

President Barroso has welcomed Iceland’s decision, calling it a “sign of the vitality of the European project and indicative of the hope that the European Union represents.”

Iceland already has many close ties to the EU. As a member of the European Economic Area trade block, it is integrated into the EU market, and adheres to most EU laws. It is also part of the passport-free Schengen area alongside most EU countries.

One thorny area of negotiation could be fishing rights. The issue isn’t covered under the European Economic Area, which gives Icelanders the right to live and work in the EU but allows them to set their own agricultural and monetary policies.

During their meeting on 27 July, foreign ministers also reiterated their support for the membership aspirations of Western Balkan countries. At present, three countries – Croatia, Turkey and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – are official candidates for EU membership. Five other western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo – are waiting in the wings.

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