Is Iceland’s potential membership application getting special treatment by the European Union? Staff Writer Emily Sieg examines.

Emily Sieg, Staff Writer
Ideology: Liberal | Writing From: Dusseldorf, Germany

Few places are suffering from the current economic crisis as severely as Iceland. The state is on the verge of bankruptcy, the Krona (Icelandic currency) has plummeted in value, and the banking sector has essentially collapsed. Attempts to revive the economy through tourism and local resources in addition to loans taken from the IMF have not succeeded. In what might be considered the ‘last alternative,’ the Icelandic government officially ratified their application to join the European Union on Thursday, the 17th of July.
This parliamentary approval should not be taken lightly. The majority vote was not overwhelming and many Icelanders oppose joining the European Union. Opponents to admission cite the importance of their independence, voice skepticism regarding the ‘advantages’ of European membership and warn of a sudden swarm of Europeans, who will demand access to natural resources and ‘assist’ the Icelanders by taking ownership of failing local firms. Even leftist convoys from EU-shunning Norway have joined the fray, attempting to dissuade Icelandic representatives from ratifying the application. May it also be mentioned that the current Icelandic government has expressed a desire to join the EU by 2012, before the issue can be put up in a referendum.

Alternatively, proponents of EU-admission need only focus on a single advantage: the Euro. With the collapse in value of the Krona, the seemingly strong and stable Euro seems to be the quick and easy solution to an array of problems from inflation, to banking, to debt. On the flipside of the issue and perhaps a bit disparaging to Iceland, pro-admission EU officials emphasize that through the fiscal and monetary policies which accompany any admission, an economically reformed Iceland could avoid another future financial disaster like the current one. Thus, pro-Icelanders cite an EU solution that may be humbling to national pride, but efficient and quick, while the EU can claim to be the savior of a friend in need.

In a recent press release, the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso lent his support, saying that, ‘the decision of the Icelandic Parliament is a sign of the vitality of the European project and indicative of the hope that the European Union represents. Iceland is a European country with long and deep democratic roots.’ Although uplifting, the comment is rather more complementary to the EU than to Iceland and fails to recognize numerous issues regarding further EU expansion.

The best option for Iceland may be their acceptance to the European Union, but their admission would have great implications on how the EU claims to work and what the Union really is. Looking back in the not too distant past, Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France claimed that a 28th EU member state could not be admitted until the 2001 Treaty of Nice was renegotiated. [The Treaty reformed the structure of the EU and includes a method for the distribution of votes.] Furthermore, the EU already has to concern itself with the welfare of member states such as Latvia and Hungary, who necessitated billions of Euros from the IMF in March. Fortunately for Iceland and current EU members, Chancellor Merkel and other prominent EU leaders seem to have let the Euro-Stability Pact, which set limitations on the accumulation of debt, go by the wayside. Yet, there still exists the reality that the European Union is an interdependent entity, and that if one state goes under, it becomes the problem of every other state.

Conservative European officials have voiced their opposition to Iceland’s admission for a variety of reasons. Considering the global impact of the financial crisis, the EU already has its hands full. As German CSU Representative Markus Ferber said in Brussels, ‘The EU cannot play the part of the hero in the Icelandic economic crisis.’ Similar minded Conservatives have stressed that the EU has been going in the wrong direction. Instead of constantly expanding, the EU should consolidate itself. Above all, the question of expansion should be put to a referendum in not only each EU member state, but in the applicant state as well. With the EU track record of referendums, such a process could, to the delight of Conservatives, last indefinitely. The underlying reason to oppose Iceland’s admission, and perhaps the most important to conservatives, is not Iceland itself, but the message that yet another EU admission would mean. If Iceland could be admitted, and in what could be a record time, then there would be fewer ‘diplomatically’ valid reasons why states like Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey could not be admitted. The standard criteria regarding economic stability and diversity would be invalidated. Without these safeguards, Conservatives would have to think of other ways to say, ‘We just don’t want you.’

Thus the question stands, why should a state like Iceland, which is bankrupt and previously showed little interest in joining the EU, become the 28th EU member state before the renegotiation of the Nice Treaty and before other states like Turkey, Ukraine and Croatia are admitted?
Well, in short, Iceland is a special case. The country in in a crisis now, but with help, could be nursed back to health with greater ease than some other current member states. The sheer size of the country, with a population of 320,000, is not a heavy burden when compared to Croatia’s 4.5 million, Ukraine’s 45.7 million or Turkey’s astounding 76.8 million inhabitants. There are also no major controversies in regards to the state of Iceland. When speaking with Ukraine, the EU must keep a careful watch not to step on the toes of Russia. Regarding Croatia, there are concerns over economic diversity and a few infamous persons whom the EU would like to see in court. Turkey, a watershed of issues, is synonymous with the word ‘controversy’ when mentioned in the same breath as the European Union.

After all is said and done, Iceland is a docile state in an extreme situation. Also, Iceland is not just a charity case; the fears that Icelandic EU-opponents mention may have merit: there are gains to be found in Iceland for the Europeans. From fishing to commercial expansion, EU member states could find ways to justify Icelandic admission. Ultimately, the European Union could offer the life-jacket that their North-western neighbor needs, with gains and losses on both sides.