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Iceland opens EU membership talks

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(BRUSSELS) - Iceland on Monday opened negotiations to join the European Union, with fishing disputes and anti-EU sentiment on the island the only hurdles for a nation already well integrated with the bloc.

"I feel that Iceland is making history today by formally starting the negotiation process," Icelandic Foreign Minister Oessur Skarphedinsson told a news conference.

The two sides launched talks on four of the 35 policy chapters that Iceland must negotiate in order to comply with EU laws and promptly wrapped up two of them, education and science.

Hoping to seize on the early momentum, Skarphedinsson said he planned to open half of the chapters this year, including what he called the two "heavyweight chapters," agriculture and fisheries, and the rest in 2012.

Iceland applied for EU membership in 2009 in the wake of a catastrophic banking and economic meltdown. It faces fewer obstacles than other EU candidates like Croatia, which is expected to join the bloc in 2013 after EU leaders said Friday it was finally ready following six years of negotiations.

The North Atlantic nation and the 27-country bloc are at odds over fishing rights, with a so-called "mackerel war" heating up late last year after Iceland unilaterally multiplied its catch quota. Brussels then blocked Icelandic fishing boats.

"Today of course it was a small step, an easy step," Skarphedinsson said, noting that EU membership would have to be approved in a referendum.

"Fisheries indeed will be very difficult because this is the first time that the European Union is negotiating with a country that comes to the table with fisheries as the big, vital, special need," the minister said.

Thanks to its membership of the European Economic Area, Iceland is already in compliance or partially linked with two-thirds of EU rules, said EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele.

"With that kind of alignment already achieved, one would indeed expect no shortcuts but indeed a fast process forward, building on the achievements already done," Fuele said.

"No doubt there's going to be challenging moments ahead of us, but we want to face them together," he said.

Another contentious issue for Iceland could be an ongoing tiff with Britain and the Netherlands over repayment for the 3.9 billion euros ($5.5 billion) they spent reimbursing 340,000 of their citizens hit by the collapse of the online Icelandic bank Icesave in late 2008.

Icelanders have rejected repayment deals in two referenda. The European Free Trade Association has threatened to drag Iceland to court, while Britain and the Netherlands have hinted they could trip up the country's EU bid.

The dispute has eased since Iceland said the recovered estates from the failed Landsbanki bank, Icesave's parent company, would basically allow it to repay Britain and the Netherlands, without tapping into taxpayer money.

Skarphedinsson said the Icesave row turned Icelanders against joining the EU, but it is the fisheries talks that voters are watching. The latest poll shows that 57.3 percent of Icelanders oppose EU membership.

"There is especially one thing that weighs on their mind, that is related to the psyche of the nation and to the soul of everyone in Iceland, and it is the fisheries," he said.

"They have to see the outcome of the fisheries before they are ready to commit themselves."

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