The news that Iceland has submitted its application to join the EU has reopened the thorny debate over EU enlargement, whilst also demonstrating the EU’s considerable global appeal. Once a prosperous and proudly independent country, Iceland has been forced to seek sanctuary in the eurozone following the collapse of its banking system in the wake of the global economic crisis. That the eurozone equals economic stability is clear for all to see, and for the first time an accession bid reflects this notion above all else.
Of course, not everyone sees it this way. The UK continues to stand outside the eurozone but is not about to join for the simple reason that it prefers to regulate its own monetary policy from London – and not Frankfurt. But with a population of just over 60 million and a world class banking centre, it still carries significant clout. Iceland – population 320,000 – just does not have the necessary resources.
It is also widely accepted that Iceland’s accession will give few headaches to EU officials, at least in comparison with the current crop of candidates in the Balkans and the Black Sea region. No doubt lessons have been painfully learnt following the premature accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.
Moreover, the fact that Iceland has been a long-standing member of the European Economic Area (EEA) should facilitate its negotiations, and in reality it is at least 80% towards becoming a fully fledged EU member already.
There is a well-known “enlargement fatigue” in EU capitals – not surprising given the fact that the EU has more than doubled in size since 2004. But Iceland is small, inoffensive, and comes with little cultural baggage. Smaller than Luxembourg, it will still have its own Commissioner, and like many others of its size will probably punch above its weight in both the Parliament and the Council.
So Iceland has a lot to gain from accession and the EU will have its ego massaged, but the real test will concern the candidate countries to the south who pose a different range of problems altogether. Can Iceland become an EU Member State before the long-suffering Croats? We will have to wait and see.