Iceland made a "significant step forward" in its bid for European Union membership at a conference in Brussels today, a year after talks began. Three new negotiating chapters were opened on policy areas including transport, financial control, and social policy and employment. The meeting was attended by the European Commission, the Danish presidency of the Council of the EU, and Iceland's foreign minister Össur Skarphéšinsson.
It means that since formal discussions began in 2010, 18 chapters have been opened, of which 10 have been provisionally closed. In total there are 35 areas of EU policy and law with which candidate countries have to align themselves. The EU's enlargement commissioner Stefan Füle said it was a "very good achievement" and "proof of the firm commitment by the Icelandic government and the EU to the accession process".
He added: "I am very satisfied that Iceland has progressed so far at a good speed on the way to EU membership. It is clear that accession is a demanding process and its pace depends on how well Iceland will be able to demonstrate that it can make itself ready for EU membership in all areas." A statement published by the council of the EU said the conference "was the fruit of extensive work over several months" and "marked a significant step forward in the process of Iceland's accession".
Iceland is a member of the Schengen passport free travel area, and the European Economic Area – meaning it participates in the EU's internal market without being a full member state. As a result it already complies with many of the EU's entrance requirements. However, Füle said the negotiations were now moving into "more challenging territory". In March the European Parliament adopted a resolution highlighting disagreements over mackerel fishing quotas and whale hunting as the most contentious areas yet to be resolved, along with the long-running dispute over the collapsed bank Icesave.Writing for PublicServiceEurope.com in March
, Marina Yannakoudakis MEP said the Icesave issue "may yet stand in the way of the country's path to EU membership". She wrote: "Iceland has refused to live up to its international obligations to pay off the debts, and compensation has not been provided to British and Netherlands-based savers." The case is going through proceedings at the European Free Trade Association Surveillance Authority.
Füle said it was "important to sustain and nurture the public debate on membership in Iceland and enable the people to make an informed choice," adding that it was "up to the Icelanders to decide upon accession". Once the accession talks are complete, a treaty would have to be ratified by all EU countries and put to a referendum in Iceland before it could become a member state. Next year Croatia will become the EU's 28th member, while Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey are all candidate countries along with Iceland.