Iceland, Croatia in race to become EU's 28th member

18th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

The parliament on the North Atlantic island, badly battered by the economic crisis, voted Thursday in favour of membership in the EU, leaving the government to make a formal application with Brussels.

Brussels -- Iceland could join the European Union in record time but there is no guarantee it will enter before fellow EU hopeful Croatia, officials and analysts said Friday.

The parliament on the North Atlantic island, badly battered by the economic crisis, voted Thursday in favour of membership of the 27-nation EU, leaving the government to make a formal application with Brussels.

Croatia, meanwhile, has seen its candidacy stall over a border dispute with neighbour and EU member Slovenia, endangering its hopes of becoming the bloc's 28th member by 2011.

Iceland is already a member of the European Economic Area and as such has applied many of the EU "acquis" or legislation, which should guarantee speedy entry. The government hopes to join within three years.

"I think it would be the speediest in the history of the EU," said European Policy Centre expert Amanda Akcakoca.

"Iceland could join very quick because it is so much aligned with the EU in so many areas, but it will depend on how long it takes to resolve this conflict between Croatia and Slovenia," she said.

EU officials agree Iceland could move fast, but they remain cautious.

"We don't know how long the negotiations with Iceland will take," said an official with experience of the EU enlargement process, which has seen the bloc almost double in size since 2004.

First of all, the government must apply to the EU presidency, at the moment held by Sweden. The presidency would consult member states and if they agree to press on, mandate the European Commission to make a recommendation.

Having that report "by the end of the year is an ultra-optimistic scenario," the official said.

The process would also have to be endorsed by the people of Iceland in a referendum.

A legal expert said issues like whaling and seal hunting, over which the EU recently went into battle with Canada, banning products, could prove more detrimental to Iceland's hopes.

These are "issues that could become important, because the debate is very emotionally charged on both sides. They don't want to stop whaling," he said. "It is also about seals."

"Economically it is irrelevant, but (these are) very emotional issues."

Croatia, which joined NATO this year, has long coveted the 28th place at the EU table, but its row over a small strip of land bordering Slovenia has stalled its accession talks, and contributed to the resignation of its premier.

But far from rankling in Zagreb, Iceland's candidacy could yet be welcomed.

"We should arrive at the finish line at virtually the same time, give or take a few months," a Croat diplomat said.

This, he said, could mean the EU inviting both countries to enter at the same time, as has been past practice, rather than separately a matter of months apart.

"That would be a very strong symbol, because Iceland was the first internationally-recognised country to have recognised the independence of Croatia in 1991, a month before even the Europeans did," the diplomat said.

In that case, Croatia would indeed become the 28th EU member state, as its name comes first of the two in alphabetical order.

Amelie Bottollier-Depois/AFP/Expatica

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