Iceland slows EU membership talks ahead of election
(REYKJAVIK) - Iceland said on Monday it was putting the brakes on its European Union membership talks so the issue would not interfere with its legislative elections scheduled for April 27.
Iceland has opened 27 chapters with the EU since negotiations began in July 2010, and has wrapped up 11 of them. Reykjavik already fulfils many EU policies thanks to its membership in the European Economic Area.
But the thorny chapters of agriculture and fishing, a major source of revenue for the North Atlantic island, have yet to start and are going to be the most difficult to negotiate.
"There have been delays in opening negotiations on important chapters such as fisheries ... (and) agriculture," the government said in a statement.
"In this light it is in Iceland's best interests that the issue be managed prudently in the period up to the elections," it added.
It said work on the fisheries and agriculture chapters, and two others linked to the fisheries chapter, would be halted.
Iceland and the EU are at odds over fishing rights, with a so-called "mackerel war" heating up in late 2010 after Iceland unilaterally multiplied its catch quota. The two sides also disagree on Iceland's whaling tradition.
Talks with the EU on the 16 chapters that are open will continue by Iceland's negotiation committee and experts, but no decisions will be taken by Iceland's government or parliament.
Iceland's Foreign Minister Skarphedinsson told Icelandic broadcaster RUV that the decision was expected.
"It was known that when we had finished the great bulk (of negotiations) we finished in December, when we opened six difficult chapters, that we would slow down the accession talks to give the election campaign the room it needs," he said.
Iceland applied for EU membership in 2009 in the wake of a banking and economic meltdown a year earlier.
At the time, Icelanders were largely in favour of joining the EU and the eurozone as they saw the value of their currency halved and many perceived the euro as a safe haven in stormy times.
But support has since plummeted, because of a dispute with Britain and the Netherlands over the failed bank Icesave, as Iceland's own economy has broadly recovered and as the eurozone crisis rages on.
Iceland's main opposition party, the conservative Independence Party, is opposed to EU membership.
"We are giving politics room in the election campaign, without having the EU issue necessarily in the limelight ... This should enable the opposition to put forward the issues it wants to discuss, that is, the works of the government and the economic situation," Skarphedinsson said.