Sommaire: 9 September 2009, Reykjavik - Speech by Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, on "The European Perspective of Iceland" at the University of Iceland
Foreign Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,
It is my great pleasure to be here in Reykjavik today. I want to thank the Institute of International Affairs at the University of Iceland for organising this event.
I look forward to an interesting and substantive discussion - something this University is famous for. I know this hall has heard many great debates over the years. I am also aware that this University is alma mater of your Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Össur Skarphéðinsson, who graduated from this University thirty years ago.
In July, your country took a historic step by submitting its membership application to the EU. By doing so, you applied to become a part of a success story which is unlike any other in the history of Europe.
Tomorrow (September 10th) marks the 20th anniversary of the day, when Hungary first opened its borders with Austria and allowed thousands of East Germans to embark their Trabants and leave to the West.
It took mere two months until the Berlin Wall came down. It marked the triumph of freedom and the human will over the shackles of totalitarian rule. That was the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and the start of a peaceful and democratic transformation of our continent.
Today, twenty years later, Eastern and Western Europe have been successfully reunified. The area of peace and prosperity, liberty and democracy - also known as the European Union - is extended to 27 member states and almost 500 million people.
At the moment, we continue our work for stability and progress in the Western Balkans and Turkey. And now also your country, Iceland, has expressed its will to join the EU family.
These kinds of changes in national perspectives tend to occur in times of upheaval. I remember this well from the country I know best.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Finland applied for EU-membership. For the Finns, it was the matter of committing to the European values, reinforcing national security and searching for economic stability and competitiveness. Legitimate concerns were raised on the future of Finnish countryside and her agriculture. During the negotiations ways and means to address these concerns were found.
In the past 12 months, Iceland has gone through dramatic developments. Bold measures are needed to lead the country to calmer waters. The IMF and the EU will help, and preparations in the EU for macro-financial assistance are well advanced.
Your decision in July to apply for EU membership was a major milestone. Your country's EU accession will not in itself solve all of the problems, but it is still a core part of the solution. You did not come to your decision light-heartedly, nor should you have done so.
We can compare the commitment to EU membership to a commitment to marriage. The wedding normally takes place only after a longer or shorter courtship, during which the pros and cons of the union are thoroughly assessed.
For Iceland, the courtship began in 1972 when your country signed a free trade agreement with the EEC. A more intense debate about the future direction of the relationship has been ongoing ever since.
Some things are clear, however. Iceland is a European country with long and deep democratic roots. The Althingi, which I visited earlier today, is said to be the oldest functioning parliament in the world, dating back to 930 A.D.
In addition to this democratic tradition, we appreciate Iceland's long-standing involvement in international cooperation and the wider European integration. For instance, you were among the founding members of NATO and OECD. Since its beginning in 1994, you have belonged to the European Economic Area, which has been the main vehicle of our cooperation.
From this point of view, an application for EU membership seems like a logical - and, some might say, even overdue - step for Iceland. However, up until now, as has been said, by choosing EEA membership, Iceland has opted to keep its European cooperation at the administrative level without participation in the political decision-making.
You enjoy the benefits of participating in the EU internal market and in many EU programmes, for instance in research and development, education, consumer protection and culture. Your citizens can move freely in the Schengen area.
But your representatives do not yet sit in the most important tables, where policy proposals affecting also your country are made and decisions are taken.
Although this might not have seemed so crucial 15 years ago when the EEA was established, it has become more important since then. The EU has become more mature and its legal order has grown substantially. As a result, it is a more influential and stronger global player, covering such areas as climate change, energy security and financial regulation.
I am convinced that Iceland's commitment to the EU can be made a win-win outcome for both sides. Politically, membership would give you a say in the EU institutions and when negotiating European positions to global policies. Economically, the prospect of EU membership usually has a stabilising effect on the financial markets, and tends to boost economic confidence by creating more certainty about the future.
This was the case for Finland and Sweden in the 1990s, for Central and Eastern Europe recently, and for the Western Balkans and Turkey today. And lately here in Iceland, achieving financial stability was one of the key reasons to consider adopting the Euro. But the question of the Euro is really a question of first achieving the membership of the EU.
In my view, the natural place of the Nordic democratic societies is in the EU. Icelandic membership would also be in the enlightened interest of the EU. We are already learning from Iceland's experience in sustainable management of fishing resources, the use of geothermal heat and measures to fight climate change. We have largely similar interests towards the Arctic region.
While we Nordics are eternal functionalists who tend to look at the pragmatic side of things, let me raise an issue which is in the minds of many Europeans as regards Iceland's will to join the EU family. That is the question of European vocation.
In other words, the European Union is not only a marriage of convenience. It is also a marriage of shared spirit and commitment to our common political endeavours, which aim at achieving peace through integration, and pooling our sovereignty for freedom and liberty, prosperity and solidarity, inside and outside Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me to shift from these political considerations to more procedural implications of Iceland's application for the EU.
Within 10 days of your application, on 27 July, the Council of the EU - the 27 EU Member States acting by consensus - asked the Commission to prepare its Opinion on your application.
In order to be able to carry out this task, and to produce an objective assessment of your country's preparedness to assume the obligations resulting from EU membership, we - the Commission - prepared a questionnaire to which the Icelandic authorities now need to answer.
The questionnaire covers all political and economic criteria of membership, as well as your capacity to adopt and implement the entire body of EU legislation, the so-called acquis communautaire. Yesterday, I handed over this document to Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir with whom we had a very constructive discussion about your country's course towards the Union.
Once we have received the responses, we will use them and a number of additional sources to prepare the Commission's Opinion on Iceland's membership application. The Opinion will be presented to the European Parliament and the Council - subsequently, the decision on the opening of accession negotiations lies in the hands of the EU Member States.
As Iceland is deeply integrated with the EU through the EEA and Schengen, it is already implementing major parts of the acquis communautaire. Thus, the remaining distance to be covered will be shorter than for other countries that do not have such strong ties with the EU. Yet, the remaining distance may not necessarily be any easier.
Be that as it may, there is no shortcut to EU membership. All candidates need to meet the same conditions. We respect the principle of own merits.
Thus, the speed of accession negotiations depends largely on the capacity and will to accept the rights and obligations arising from EU membership. In exceptional and well justified cases, the EU may agree for transitional measures allowing some EU rules to enter into force some time after accession. But any such measures would be limited in time and scope. We strive for solutions, not for derogations.
Of course, I am aware of the sensibilities that exist in your country with regard to EU accession. I have no intention to advise you on internal political matters. Iceland has shown that it can act with determination regarding the application for EU membership. It is important that the accession objectives will also gain the broad support of all involved.
And that is where communicating the accession process accurately and openly becomes imperative. In Iceland, the politicians and the media face the task of explaining in clear terms what EU membership means for Iceland. In the EU, we have to show our people that - even during a severe economic recession - enlargement is not a part of the problem, but can even be part of the solution.
For both Iceland and the EU, the basics of successful communication are the same. We need to tackle myths with facts. The clearer we are about the implications of Iceland's EU membership, the better the chances that the result of negotiations will be accepted by the public.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As Iceland is about to embark on a voyage across the sea of negotiation chapters and benchmarks, allow me to use this opportunity to conclude with some words of wisdom by Odin.
The 64th verse of the poem Hávamál, the Words of the High, is as timely today as in the Viking Age:
"Moderate at council should a man be,
Not brutal and overbearing:
Among the bold the bully will find
Others as bold as he"
This is an advice I can only recommend to anyone entering an EU accession process. Let me wish you the boldest moderation and thus best of success for Iceland on your European journey.