Tony Barber Rocky road ahead for Iceland’s EU membership bid

After spending three days in Reykjavik and the northern town of Akureyri, just below the Arctic Circle, I am starting to get the feeling that Iceland’s entry into the European Union is anything but guaranteed.  I have met government ministers and officials who are eager to steer their country into the EU.  But I have met a fairly wide range of private sector businessmen, teachers, students and other Icelanders who are either flatly opposed or at best non-committed.

The most passionate opposition I’ve encountered has come from representatives of the powerful fisheries industry and the less powerful but politically influential agricultural lobby.  Here’s what the manager of the national dairy farmers’ association said: “If we entered the EU, our tariffs would have to go.  Our home market share would drop by 25 to 50 per cent.  The number of farmers would drop by 60 to 70 per cent.  EU membership would deal us a tremendous blow, there’s no doubt about it.”

Agriculture accounts for less than 3 per cent of national employment, but as in other European countries there are emotional issues at play here.  It wasn’t long ago that Iceland was a relatively under-developed, mainly rural nation.  Most people still feel a connection to their families’ rural origins.  They know the land is harsh and that farmers would have a difficult life if it were not for extensive government support.  Icelanders pay a price, of course, in terms of high food bills in shops – protection never comes cheap.  Perhaps that will mean less public sympathy for the farmers, if it ever comes to a national referendum on EU entry.

But it is a different story when it comes to the fisheries business.  This is an industry that is genuinely essential to Iceland’s economic well-being, accounting for about 40 per cent of export earnings.  The fish barons have close ties to the political right, and they have a powerful vehicle in the shape of the anti-EU membership newspaper Morgunbladid.  Even so, Icelanders have every right to ask if the EU’s common fisheries policy will safeguard their interests.  Personally, I think a sensible compromise between the EU and Iceland is possible.  But the point is that Icelanders, cautious, pragmatic and tough as nails, will not rush into supporting EU entry until they know the precise terms on which membership is being offered.  More than once, I have heard people say things like “We shouldn’t be on our knees begging to join …”

As this indicates, national pride and the desire to preserve independence are also part of the equation.  Iceland did not become an independent republic until 1944.  For sure, as a politics lecturer at Akureyri University said to me: “We as a nation have never really resolved what it means to be a sovereign nation.  We are such a young republic.  All these nationalistic sentiments swirl around.  And when you get down to it, you never get a definition of what that entails.”

He also pointed out that, because Iceland belongs to the European Economic Area but is outside the EU, it imports much EU legislation without being able to exert any influence on its preparation.  A very good point – but not one that is winning the argument right now in Iceland.  For the moment, the anti-EU movement has a spring in its step.