EU reform complicates EU accession

Pia Hansson and Baldur Thorhallsson
To this day there is limited discussion on EU internal affairs in Iceland, as opinions on EU policies are mainly centred on the issue of whether Iceland should join the Union or not. Among the professionals and experts in the field, the perception of the changes brought by the Lisbon Treaty, including the new role of the President of the European Council, are inconclusive. The new situation calls for a different approach for a country applying for membership, entailing lobbying not only the member state holding the rotating presidency, but also the new President of the European Council. The new President is seen as someone who is not working towards consensus, but waiting for it to occur before he acts. This has left the rotating presidency weaker and rendered the structure more complex. Consequently this is problematic for Iceland, now being forced to bide time prior to receiving a decision from the European Council and meanwhile left without the possibility of influencing the President’s agenda. Before the Lisbon Treaty, political efforts zeroed in on the rotating presidency, but now one more layer has been added to the structure.[1] The new permanent presidency brings a more state-like structure to the Union, comparable to a head of state or government. Despite this incertitude regarding the permanent presidency, the new set-up is believed to have some clear advantages to it. More continuity, for example, will aid in smooth handoffs between incoming and outgoing governments, compared to the previous brief six-month rotation. The new presidency therefore will provide certain fixity.[2]
The new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will likely simplify to a certain extent the work of the EU in the respective areas by having a set person in charge. This, however, can also be another example of how the EU is developing into a federation of states where the individual member states’ voice is reduced.[3] There is not much debate on the role of the new High Representative of the Union, although some opinion makers have expressed the view that Catherine Ashton lacks experience in the field and that her appointment was a poorly disguised compromise.[4]
At first glance, the added loophole of having the German parliament vote on Iceland’s application was initially negatively received, but in hindsight, it provided an excellent opportunity to strengthen ties with the most influential EU country. Visits by German officials in this capacity were well received locally, and the media welcomed the opportunity of interviewing German politicians on their fact-finding mission to Iceland.[5] A positive vote from a powerful member state was enthusiastically perceived among the Social Democrats in government and other Europeanists.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) is only just starting and therefore experience is lacking still. It seems as though the EU will start to run diplomatic service across the world where the member states of the Union speak with one voice and not as individual states. There can be conflicts there due to the nature of these affairs. Individual states wish to keep their interests and issues at heart at the forefront. The 27 member states of the EU are also very different from each other. Different approaches constantly come up in intergovernmental and interstate affairs. In big cases such as addressing Palestine and Israel, or relationships with Russia, inevitably there will be clashes due to different cultures and histories of the member states of the Union.[6] Iceland has a long standing history of cooperation with its Nordic neighbours in diplomatic representation and services. Being a small state, Iceland recognises the value of such cooperation and is therefore highly supportive of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Another perception is that it offers double protection for citizens of small or weak states, and is therefore a good concept.[7]

Being one of the oldest democracies in the world, Iceland is traditionally supportive of increased direct democracy. The European Citizens’ Initiative should provide direct democracy to EU citizens, bring them closer to the power structure and give them the opportunity to be heard. There has been no debate on this issue locally in Iceland, and it is difficult to imagine that such an initiative would not be met with anything but enthusiasm.[8]

[1] Interview with governmental officials in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 19 May 2010.

[2] Telephone Interview with a member of the Left-Green movement now in government.

[3] Telephone Interview with a member of the Left-Green movement now in government.

[4] Björn Bjarnason (a leading figure of the conservative Independence Party and a former minister): Andlit og rödd Evrópusambandsins, commentary, 24 November 2009, available at: (last access: 16 June 2010).

[5] Frettablaðið (a daily newspaper), 12 March 2010, available at: (last access: 16 June 2010).

[6] Telephone interview with a member of the Left-Green movement now in government.

[7] Interview with a government official at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs from the office of EEA-agreement and European Affairs.

[8] Interview with a government official at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs from the office of EEA-agreement and European Affairs.