When, as expected, the leaders of the 27 member states also agree, on foot of the Commission recommendation, negotiations should be complete in 14 months’ time.
Then it will be up to the Icelanders to vote to become the 28th member of the EU, something that is not a foregone conclusion, as support for membership has dropped off somewhat in recent months.
Iceland made its application after the collapse of its economy when its three largest banks went bankrupt in 2008 with debts six times the country’s GDP.
However, the British and Dutch governments, which compensated their citizens by about €4 billion following the collapse of the online Icesave bank, want their money back before they say they will agree to their membership.
Since the country, with a population of about 320,000, is part of the EU’s internal market and free movement Schengen area and has adopted many of the union’s laws, negotiations will go faster than for other candidates.
But the remaining 13 of the 35 accession chapters to be negotiated could prove difficult too, pointed out Fianna Fáil MEP Pat the Cope Gallagher, as they include fisheries and agriculture and budgetary matters.
“These accession negotiations should take place in a spirit of friendship and cooperation but, like all accession procedures, these negotiations will undoubtedly be tough,” he said
The EU is anxious to have Iceland as a member because of its strategic location close to the Arctic area. “There has been a lot of discussion recently of the strategic importance of the Arctic area. This is where Iceland could be very useful,” said EU Commissioner for enlargement Stefan Fuele.
As global warming removes much of the ice from around the Arctic, the shipping lanes and mineral deposits in the region open up. Iceland would give the EU a greater say in the region, in which countries including Russia, Canada and the US are also interested.
Iceland Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphendinsson welcomed the Commission’s report and said he hoped the EU leaders would agree to open accession negotiations soon.