Iceland and the EU

invitation only · Auditorium of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 30.11.2009 16:00 - 17:30

invitation only

Will Iceland’s accession process be as smooth as the 1995 Nordic enlargement? It has been described as an open-and-shut affair, but several questions remain. Why did not Iceland apply previously? What are the major hurdles on its way to membership? Is public opinion in the country, now opposed to membership, likely to shift in time for a referendum on accession? Iceland’s membership would also have an impact on the EU’s position in the Arctic region. Would it make the European Union a significant member of the Arctic Council?


Prof. Alyson Bailes, Visiting Professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik

Professor Bailes has had a distinguished career in the British diplomatic service, as well as having served as the Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2002-2007. Professor Bailes will address the key questions of Iceland’s application and accession process.


Markku Aro, Director of the Unit for Fisheries Industries at the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry

Director Aro will comment on the fisheries policy, one of the central challenges in Iceland’s accession process. Mr. Aro has previously worked as a national expert in the European Commission (DG FISH) and as a special adviser at the Permanent Representation of Finland to the EU 

Dr. Lassi Heininen, Adjunct Professor (Docent), University of Lapland

Dr. Heininen will further comment on the strategic implications of Iceland’s EU membership on the new Arctic agenda. Dr. Heininen is Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Northern Research Forum.


Dr. Hanna Ojanen, Programme Director, European Union research programme, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the Seminar

Dr. Hanna Ojanen opened the seminar by welcoming the audience to listen to Professor Alyson Bailes’ analysis on Iceland and the EU and Mr. Markku Aro’s and Dr. Lassi Heininen’s comments on the topic.

Professor Alyson Bailes started the session by naming the key questions in relation to Iceland and its possible EU accession: Why not before? Why now? What next? What meaning does it have for Europe? In regard to the first question, Bailes singled out four main reasons. First, having achieved independence relatively late, in 1944, Iceland has a strong attachment to independence. As such, joining a union that would inevitably take away some of its national sovereignty has not had a major appeal among Icelanders. Second, being geographically flanked by Europe and North America has meant that in addition to being close with Europe – especially the Nordic countries – Iceland has had a strong strategic reliance on the United States. As a peripheral state Iceland has adopted a Realist security approach which means that in Iceland security has been understood primarily in military terms. The EU has not been seen as a security actor which explains why joining the EU has not been of high relevance. The Nordic syndrome – a struggle between national identity and international integration – has also played a part in Iceland not having applied to join the EU previously. Third, Iceland’s economic profile – attachment to natural resources, globalization experienced mainly through tourism and (latterly) finance, minimally industry – has meant that it has been difficult for Iceland to feel natural interdependence with the rest of Europe. Iceland is neither as industry-focused as Germany nor as agriculture-focused as France. In Iceland it is mainly about fish and therefore a win-win situation has been difficult to construct. Fourth, because of Iceland’s long right-wing dominance and little strategic capacity membership in the EU has been seen as irrelevant. Furthermore, as Iceland is already a member of several other intergovernmental and international institutions such as NATO, the EEA and Schengen, the EU’s relevance for Iceland has not been pressing.

On why Iceland should join the EU now, Bailes offered three points. First, from a security point of view, the US pull-out in 2006 was a shock to Iceland as until then it had completely relied on the United States as the only source of real protection. There has been a tendency towards polarization in Icelandic public debate since then between those who address only hard power issues and those who would like to bring in also soft power issues. Second, and most obviously, the impact of the Kreppa (the financial crisis) has affected both public opinion and official views. The EU could provide the needed financial shelter and political renewal. Iceland’s centre-left has also argued that the EU could help to protect Iceland from its own mistakes, to offer a structured framework for Iceland’s own good. Third, the impact of the historical Social Democrat majority in the parliament has brought a possible EU membership higher on Iceland’s political agenda. However, the Icelandic right-wing – normally the natural centre of the government – is recovering and regaining its popularity which means that things might be changing soon.

Next Bailes moved on to discuss the actions so far and the question of what next. The official application has been handed in but, as Bailes pointed out, the quality of the EU accession questionnaire that Iceland returned to the EU in record time is questionable. The key issues for Iceland are fish and agriculture, for the EU the financial cleanup, economic renewal/stability and government capacity. There will be a referendum on the accession, but as the public opinion in Iceland is currently falling with 30% for the membership and only 15% open in their view, there is good reason for the pro-EU camp to feel anxious of the results. Finally, placing the topic in a larger context, Bailes pointed out that for the EU South-Eastern enlargement is strategically more important and necessary as there is a pressing need to stabilise the region. She further argued that in Norway it is largely the elites that are pro-EU and the main opposition to the EU membership comes from the grassroots. In Greenland the EU is currently not even an option. Iceland and Denmark, Bailes argued, could form a closer bilateral block and the Arctic might soon become an interesting aspect within the EU. To conclude, Bailes argued that Iceland is a country like no other. It is at the same time Nordic and non-Nordic and unlike any other small state so it is advisable to expect the unexpected.

First to deliver his comments was Mr. Markku Aro. He started his commentary by stating that many EU Member States are interested in sharing in with Iceland’s fisheries industry. He then proceeded to discuss Iceland as an applicant to the EU. Negotiations will cover all fisheries aspects, in particular legislation on the Common Fisheries Policy. It is assumed that negotiations will be intensive to examine fisheries legislation. This means that over 600 Council regulations and decisions and several secondary legislations have to be examined and Iceland has to make its reservations and proposals for derogations. Once all the issues are solved the end product, the Accession Treaty, must be ratified by all Member States of the EU. Aro then moved on to explain that as a Member State of the EU most fisheries issues would be decided in Brussels amongst the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. Iceland’s bilateral agreements in the fisheries field would be moved to the Commission’s competence. Iceland would also have to, Aro pointed out, resign from Regional Fisheries Organisations and prepare her proposals for a Fisheries Action Plan. Furthermore, annual fishing possibilities for Iceland would be decided in the Council. As a conclusion Aro stated that challenges are huge as Iceland knows its resources and will defend them.

Second to deliver his comments was Dr. Lassi Heininen. Heininen started by pointing out that Iceland is a small island state but with a very important geopolitical position between Europe and North America. That means that it is influenced by both of these continents. Heininen singled out two national peculiarities of Iceland. First, Iceland has a strong civil society and second, there is a strong feeling for independence. Iceland played, Heininen argued, a strategic role in the making of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as in legislation concerning nuclear safety. Heininen continued by pointing out that Iceland has recently redefined its geopolitical strategy by, for the first time, defining herself as an Arctic state. Climate change does not play an important role in Iceland while security remains an important aspect.

While the EU takes a strong stance towards whaling and seal hunting the Arctic Council is not moving towards lifting them higher on its agenda. In these aspects the EU and Iceland have, Heininen argued, very different points of view. Finally, Heininen listed reasons why it would not make sense for Iceland to join the EU. First, Iceland is already in NATO which means that its security strategy is already secured without the EU. Second, in terms of economy and the financial crisis one could argue that joining the EU might be too little too late. Third, when it comes to international cooperation Iceland is already well represented in several forums and thus one could ask whether it makes sense to join yet another one. Iceland, Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands form an important block already – would that not be enough?

After the presentations a Q&A session followed. Several issues were discussed in the session. To a question regarding the EEA Bailes answered that if Iceland joined the EU and the EEA would go down to only two states it would be problematic and it is generally assumed that negotiations on the EEA would need to take place. Iceland’s internal politics were also discussed. It was pointed out that there might a return to a left-right coalition which could mean that problems were sought rather than solved. How much tolerance Brussels would in that case have is up to questioning. Also, if the economy in Iceland recovered things could change. Fishing makes up 25% of Iceland’s foreign earnings so the importance of fisheries is still very high. Next up was a question regarding Iceland’s territorial waters. Aro explained that Iceland has 12 nautical miles of territorial waters and another 200 nautical miles of economic zone. If Iceland joined the EU it would be able to remain only in the territorial waters and the rest would go to the EU. This is, according to Aro, what the current EU Member States are keenly waiting for.

The next question was regarding Iceland’s financial trade-off between its current 25% fishery earnings and the possible EU earnings. Bailes answered that exact calculations have not been made but Iceland would not lose the whole 25% of its current fishery earnings to the EU. Apart from that Iceland has limited export possibilities and cannot raise its tourism profits much. Iceland must, in other words, find new ways to make profit to substitute for the lost profits in the financial sector. However, Bailes also pointed out that the profitability of an EU membership cannot be calculated in financial terms only. Finally, as an answer to the session’s last question Heininen stated that Iceland is a supporter of soft law mechanisms such as the Arctic Council; it is not in the interest of Iceland to militarise the Arctic; and that Nordic cooperation is beginning to focus more on the Arctic.

To conclude the seminar Dr. Hanna Ojanen thanked all the speakers for their excellent presentations and comments and the seminar participants for their close attention.


301109_alysonbailespresentation Alyson Bailes' presentation
301109_aropresentation Markku Aro's presentation
301109_heininenpresentation Lassi Heininen's presentation