REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - Iceland’s parliament moved into the final stretch of marathon debates Wednesday over starting accession talks with the European Union with the prime minister predicting the vote would be very tight.
Johanna Sigurdardottir, Iceland’s recently elected Prime Minister, said the vote would likely take place at noon on Thursday following a final round of tough debates that have run to midnight over five intense days.
“I think the vote will be a very close one, but I am optimistic,” she told state television.
“It is natural we take the time to debate the issue. It’s probably the biggest issue ever dealt with for the Althing since the foundation of the Republic.”
Debates in parliament have been held up by fierce discontent by some MPs over a government deal to pay Britain and the Netherlands back for billions lost in Icelandic savings accounts following the collapse of the country’s banks last year.
Wednesday’s debate was also slowed by accusations from the opposition that an important document on the impact of the EU on Iceland’s agricultural industry had been kept out of parliament.
That document was later available on the foreign ministry’s website.
“I think the trust between the opposition and the majority is completely gone,” Hoskuldur Thorhallsson, an MP for the Progressive Party, told Reuters.
Traditionally skeptical of the EU, Icelanders have warmed to the idea of membership of the bloc following an economic meltdown on the rocky island of just 320,000 inhabitants which stood out even by world standards for its speed and scale.
But many Icelanders remain protective of their sovereignty and concerned about losing control of vital fish stocks.
Dozens of anti-EU protestors gathered outside parliament with European Union flags with big red slashes through them and Icelandic signs reading “EU, NO THANKS.”
“We have everything to lose, and nothing to win,” said 30-year-old David Robertsson, who drove into Reykjavik to follow the vote from his home town one hour away. “This is about fisheries, and our farmers. Our water is our gold.”
The government motion, which needs 32 votes out of 63 to pass, would pave the way for an application to be sent to Brussels later in July, giving the coalition of the pro-EU Social Democrats and more EU-skeptical Left-Greens the go-ahead to negotiate an accession deal.
“This is the best thing we can do to give the nation a future vision,” Social Democrat MP Skuli Helgason told parliament.
The Icelandic government wants to put the question of actual membership before voters in a referendum once a deal with the 27-nation bloc was concluded.
The opposition wants two referendums — one on whether to apply at all, and another vote after any Icelandic application is approved by EU member states.
“We demand a double referendum so the people of the nation have the first and the last word on membership,” said Axel Thor Kolbeinsson, holding an Icelandic flag.
A Gallup poll in May showed 61.2 percent in favor of EU talks and 29.6 percent against. But those polled were evenly split over the issue of actual membership.
Joining the European Union was scarcely on the agenda before the volcanic island nation was cast into the center of the global financial storm as its top three banks collapsed in a matter of days last year.
Editing by Matthew Jones