Europe

EU Iceland accession: Tough talks ahead on fisheries

Icelandic Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson (L) shakes hands with EU representative Janos Martonyi in Brussels, 27 June
Image caption Iceland already fulfils some EU criteria but years of talks may lie ahead

Iceland has formally opened what is expected to be a long negotiating process with the EU over accession, as a dispute over fishing rights persists.

Speaking in Brussels, Iceland's Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson said his people were still not committed to joining because of the issue.

He did not expect Iceland to join the EU for at least two years, he added.

A strong fisheries lobby is opposed to surrendering exclusive access to fishing grounds to other states.

When Iceland recently increased its mackerel catch to exploit a glut in its waters, the EU threatened to block Icelandic boats from using its ports.

Another outstanding issue is the country's settlement of a row with the UK and the Netherlands over debts linked to the collapse of its banking industry in 2008.

However, the tiny nation of 323,000 is otherwise well-positioned to join the other 27 members of the EU.

It has a stable, centuries-old democratic tradition and is already part of the European Economic Area and the Schengen visa-free travel zone.

'Highly integrated'

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, who headed the EU side at Monday's talks, said a "historic moment" had been reached in relations with Iceland.

"Iceland is a country which is already highly integrated into the European system," he said.

To join the EU, Iceland must successfully conclude negotiations on 35 policy areas ("chapters"), bringing its laws into compliance with EU norms.

With Brussels effectively waiving negotiations on two chapters - science/research and education/culture - its Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fuele, said he looked forward to talks on agriculture and the fisheries at the earliest opportunity.

Mr Skarphedinsson said he expected talks on fisheries to begin in the second half of this year.

He told Reuters news agency: "It all hinges on fisheries.

"If they [EU officials] listen to our arguments carefully and accept our arguments... it will be swift.

"My logic tells me we will come to a deal... but based on my experience, those negotiations will be difficult, drawn out and might postpone the final outcome...

"I assume fisheries will be the last chapter to be finished."

If the talks are successful, Iceland's bid still faces a referendum.

Earlier this month, another candidate, Croatia, was given the go-ahead to join the EU and that is likely to happen in 2013.

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