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Iceland seeks ‘closure’ over stalled EU membership talks

REYKJAVIK (AFP) – 

A possible victory for Iceland’s leftwing and centrist opposition in Saturday’s snap election has brought the issue of stalled European Union membership talks back to life.

Although most Icelanders are sceptical about their country’s future within the EU, they seek a closure on the matter by supporting a referendum.

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has not inspired 332,000 Icelanders to change the status quo in their country, which overcame the 2008 financial crisis and whose GDP is expected to rise by more than 4 percent in 2016.

“There is no indication that Brexit is having any influence whatsoever… those who are hardliners on the ‘no’ side, they are of course kind of joyful,” Olafur Hardarson, professor of political science at the University of Iceland, told AFP.

“But for the ordinary voter, I don?t think it makes a difference,” he added.

“I don’t want to go in the (European) Union… when the British are going out,” said Nanna, a 60-year-old customs officer who did not give her family name.

“I don’t know what the union stands for now that the British are out.”

After the financial crisis, Iceland, which is heavily reliant on its fishing industry, launched EU membership negotiations in 2009 amid a perceived need for political and monetary security.

But a “mackerel war” between Reykjavik and Brussels saw Iceland unilaterally increase its catch quota at the end of 2010, prompting rising pressure from the European Commission, which accused the island nation of overfishing.

– Ask the people –

In 2015, the eurosceptic rightwing Progress Party and Independence Party officially ended Iceland’s accession talks in a letter to the European Commission.

The island nation has been almost entirely governed by conservative and nationalist parties since its independence from Denmark in 1994 and has attracted anglers from continental Europe to its rich waters for countless centuries.

A poll released in September by Icelandic research company MMR showed 64 percent of respondents were against its future membership in the EU while 36 percent supported it.

However, more than two thirds of Icelanders — 68 percent — want to hold a EU referendum, according to a survey by RUV public television which interviewed 33,400 people — about a tenth of the Nordic nation’s population.

“They feel it’s a democratic process that should be completed, it was undemocratic to stop the process,” said Eirikur Bergmann, political science professor at the Iceland University of Bifrost.

“I don’t really have a strong opinion that we should be in or out of the European Union but I think it’s good to ask, rather than the previous government just decided that we shouldn’t which was, I think, against the will of people,” 32-year-old parking officer Mikhael Oskarsson told AFP.

“It’s fair to have a referendum,” he said.

– ‘Very sceptical’ –

Talks with Brussels made good progress between 2011 and 2013, though the sensitive fisheries portfolio was never broached before the membership bid was suspended.

Birgir Armannsson, a lawmaker with the Independence Party defended the decision to abandon Iceland?s future in the EU.

“We didn’t (think)… that it was fair for a government that was strongly anti-EU, with a strong majority in parliament that was anti-EU… to continue, even if a referendum would show some support for continuing the accession talks,” Armannsson told AFP.

But for every party in opposition, including the anti-establishment Pirate Party, which is leading in the latest polls ahead of Saturday’s vote, and the Left-Green Movement, the question needs to be put to the people.

“We have been talking about the EU ever since we became members of the EEA (European Economic Area) agreement in the 90s, we think that we should have a referendum on it and seek the guidance of the Icelandic people,” Katrin Jakobsdottir, president of the Left-Green Movement, which traditionally opposes EU membership.

Even if the referendum resulted in an unlikely “yes” vote, the EU would still need to agree to resume the accession process, Olafur Hardarson said.

Asked about the possible revival of Iceland’s membership talks, a European Commission spokesperson in Brussels refused to comment on the matter, saying it was “a matter for Icelanders”.

“Icelanders have always been sceptical about the EU, especially because of the fishing industry,” Heidrun Lind Marteinsdottir, CEO of Fisheries Iceland told AFP.

“Looking at the complications that are now within the EU with the UK exiting,” Marteinsdottir said.

“I’m not afraid of a referendum and I think Icelanders are still very sceptical.”

© 2016 AFP