Will Iceland really join the European Union? I have come to Reykjavik in search of answers. In one sense, it’s the right time to be here: the skies are white for almost 24 hours a day at this time of year, appearing to throw light on everything. But in another sense this promises to be a frustrating trip - Iceland itself doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be in the EU or not.
The opinion polls are not good. After a long period in which a solid majority of about 60 per cent of Icelanders supported EU membership, things have turned upside down in recent months. Support for EU entry was estimated to be as low as 28 per cent in one recent survey, whilst opposition now runs at about 60 per cent. If Iceland is serious about joining the EU, it will have to hold a referendum, so these numbers matter. Right now, however, we are a long way from a referendum – at least two years, and perhaps longer. Much can change.
Enthusiasm for the EU was high when Iceland’s banking system and currency collapsed in 2008, prompting the introduction of a drastic austerity programme conducted under the beady eye of the International Monetary Fund. But Iceland’s dispute with the UK and the Netherlands over how to repay British and Dutch savers who lost their money in Icesave, the failed online Icelandic bank, has changed public opinion.
One little-noticed side effect of the Greek debt crisis is that it is playing into the hands of those who oppose faster progress on enlarging the European Union. Western Balkan countries such as Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are queuing up at the EU’s door, but only Croatia has any chance of membership in the next three years.
Among the reasons is that Greece, the first Balkan state to enter the EU (in 1981), has been exposed as a country that not only ran ruinous and reckless fiscal policies for many years, but deceived its partners with false data in order to join the eurozone at the start of this decade. Rightly or wrongly, some policymakers in EU national capitals argue that this unhappy experience demonstrates that, when it comes to public probity, Balkan states are just not to be trusted.
The European Union’s rotating presidency will pass on July 1 from Spain to Belgium, and then six months later from Belgium to Hungary. The direction of EU affairs will therefore soon be in the hands of a centre-right Hungarian government that has wasted little time, since its massive election victory in April, in asserting its patriotic – some would say ‘nationalist’ – credentials.
Policymakers in Brussels are anxiously watching this development. They recall the unhappy experience of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency in the first half of 2009. The last thing they want is another turbulent presidency run by one of the 10 central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004-2007. It would give critics of EU enlargement even more ammunition to fight with.
Two weeks ago European leaders decided to postpone an upcoming summit of something called the Union for the Mediterranean. It is safe to say that very few people in the Mediterranean noticed or cared.
The story of the UfM is a classic tale of what passes for foreign policy in today’s European Union. The organisation was the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who wanted to strengthen relations between the EU’s southern member-states – such as France, Italy and Spain – and their North African and Arab neighbours across the sea. It was not a bad idea in principle. But it aroused the suspicions of Germany and other northern EU countries, which insisted in the name of European unity that all EU member-states should belong to the UfM.
Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union. The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory. The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.
Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament. Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc. Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe.
A potentially decisive moment is approaching in the Cyprus settlement talks that started in September 2008. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, is to visit the divided island on Sunday and stay there until Tuesday. He does not, of course, have the authority to impose a settlement or even seriously to bang heads together. But what he can do is impress on the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders that the world is watching them and that a great deal hangs on the outcome of their negotiations.
A sense of urgency hangs over the talks because presidential elections will be held in Turkish Cypriot-controlled northern Cyprus on April 18. Mehmet Ali Talat, the leftist president who helped revive the effort at reaching a comprehensive settlement more than 16 months ago, looks vulnerable to the challenge of Dervis Eroglu, the nationalist prime minister.
The European Union should be pleased with the outcome of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election. Not because the politician who received the most votes was former premier Viktor Yanukovich, the most pro-Russian of the main candidates. Rather, because the election for the most part met the very high standards of democracy, legality and fairness that the EU had demanded of Ukraine to sustain the process of bringing the country closer to the 27-nation bloc.
It was a genuine contest among a variety of distinctive candidates, and the second, knock-out round on February 7 between Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, the incumbent prime minister, will be a genuine contest, too. Compare this with the tainted presidential election of November 2004, which precipitated the Orange Revolution that propelled Viktor Yushchenko to power. In terms of democracy and the political maturity of society, Ukraine has progressed a long way over the past five years.
Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia. As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.
Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government. Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners. Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime. A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state.
What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union? With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.
What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously. Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries.
Seen from continental Europe, one of the biggest questions of 2010 concerns David Cameron, leader of the UK’s opposition Conservative party. The Tories are widely expected to win the forthcoming British election, but few European Union politicians can claim with confidence to know where he truly stands on the all-important matter of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
The lack of clarity isn’t helped by the Tories’ distant relationship with their fellow EU centre-right parties. I am in Bonn at a congress of the European People’s Party, the leading centre-right party group. Everyone who matters is here: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Herman Van Rompuy (the newly appointed full-time EU president)… Countries from Malta to Latvia and Georgia to Croatia are represented. But there are no Conservative party politicians at all here – not Cameron, not William Hague, his shadow foreign secretary, not Kenneth Clarke, the only authentically pro-EU voice in the shadow cabinet.