Iceland plan to join EU hinges on fisheries -minister

Mon Jun 27, 2011 12:17pm EDT

* Fishing rows to dominate Iceland's EU talks

* No target EU entry date yet for Iceland

By Justyna Pawlak

BRUSSELS, June 27 (Reuters) - Iceland could grow cool on European Union membership if Brussels presses too hard for concessions in negotiations on fisheries policies, Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson said on Monday.

Preparations to join could drag on if talks on fishing are not successful, though the North Atlantic island nation is unlikely to withdraw its application, Skarphedinsson said after meeting EU officials to launch Iceland's entry talks.

"At this point in time, the Icelandic people are not ready to commit to the EU because they want to see the outcome of negotiations ... related to fisheries," he told a news conference.

In starting its EU talks on Monday, the nation of 320,000 began a process that could take years and faces possible difficulties over its debts as well as fishing quotas and access for foreign investors to Iceland's lucrative markets.

It opened talks on four of the more than 30 policy areas covered in the accession process, which is designed to bring national laws into line with EU rules.

It was also able to complete preparations in two areas, science and education and culture, while discussions on public procurement and rules and media laws will continue in coming months.

RELUCTANCE IN TALKS

Iceland comes to the talks well prepared, because it already belongs to European zones that allow for free trade and unrestricted travel, setting it apart from EU hopefuls in the western Balkans, which need to make more fundamental and far-reaching reforms to qualify.

For decades, Iceland rejected the possibility of joining the EU and only applied in 2009, seeking the stability of membership when the global financial crisis crushed its banking system.

But popular enthusiasm for the move was hit by a row with Britain and the Netherlands over debts linked to the banking collapse.

Disputes over fishing issues have also escalated in recent months, with Iceland angering Brussels by raising its mackerel catch to cash in on an increase in stocks in its waters. The EU has threatened to block Icelandic boats from using EU ports, in retaliation.

Skarphedinsson side-stepped questions about a target date for Iceland to join, saying the pace of talks would be determined by fisheries policy.

"It all hinges on fisheries. If they (EU officials) listen to our arguments carefully and accept our arguments ... it will be swift," he told Reuters.

"My logic tells me we will come to a deal ... But based on my experience, those negotiations will be difficult, drawn out and might postpone the final outcome ... I assume fisheries will be the last chapter to be finished."

Skarphedinsson was confident the mackerel row would be resolved, but said Iceland was right to increase its catch, because the rise in mackerel stocks endangered other species in the region.

(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Rex Merrifield and Michael Roddy)

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