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Iceland in new stride towards EU membership

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Iceland in new stride towards EU membership

Skarphedinsson - Kozakou-Marcoullis - Photo EU Council

(BRUSSELS) - Iceland made "substantial progress" in its quest to join the European Union, though the contentious issue of fishing rights has yet to be tackled, the EU said Tuesday.

The 27-nation EU and Iceland opened six more negotiation "chapters" touching on economic issues such as tax, monetary policy and free movement of goods, as well as foreign policy and environment.

Nations applying for EU membership must negotiate 35 policy chapters with the 27-nation bloc, a process that can take many years to finish.

But Iceland has now opened 27 chapters with the EU, wrapping up 11 of those already in negotiations that began in July 2010. Reykjavik already fulfils many EU policies thanks to its membership in the European Economic Area.

But more difficult negotiations are expected when the two sides open talks on fishing, a major source of revenue for the North Atlantic island.

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.

Tuesday's talks were headed by Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson and Cyprus Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency until the end of the month. The EU's enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele also attended.

"The progress we have made today is a substantial achievement and at the same time a strong encouragement for the challenging issues still to be negotiated," 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, following a dispute with Britain and the Netherlands over the failed bank Icesave and as Iceland's own economy has broadly recovered.

On Tuesday, a majority in Iceland's parliamentary foreign affairs committee said they would present a resolution on Thursday calling for a halt to the EU membership talks, saying the negotiations should only proceed if a referendum decides so.

It is not yet known if there is a majority in parliament to put a hold on the talks.

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