European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Address to the EU-Iceland Joint Parliamentary Committee
Fifth meeting of EU-Iceland Joint Parliamentary Committee
Strasbourg, 21 November 2012
Dear Co-chairpersons, dear Chief Negotiator, honourable members of this Committee:
I am very pleased to be able to address today's fifth meeting of the European Union - Iceland Joint Parliamentary Committee.
I very much welcome the work of the joint committee. It adds an important additional dimension to the cooperation between the European Union and Iceland, which has been intensified in the pre-accession process. This forum is an excellent opportunity to discuss the steps along Iceland’s path towards European Union membership. The good contacts between representatives of the Althingi and members of the European Parliament contribute to a deeper understanding, on both sides, of the accession process and the opportunities and challenges which it represents.
Let me also express appreciation for the fact that you will be discussing later today developments in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and tomorrow the developments in Iceland and the EU related to the economic and financial crisis. This shows once again that Iceland and the EU have many common interests.
For today, I would like to focus my remarks on the current state of the accession negotiations, draw some conclusions from the recently published Commission progress report as well as focus on other topical issues in European Union and Iceland relations.
Let me first underscore the mutual benefits of Iceland's accession: The European Union’s and Iceland's sphere of common interest is growing in increasingly important areas such as renewable energy, climate change and Arctic policy. I would like to take the opportunity to thank members of this committee for their longstanding interest in these issues, as borne-out by the discussions in your previous meetings.
Secondly, I would like to commend Iceland on its strong economic recovery, based on a solid and balanced macro-economic policy framework. While there are still some downside risks, these are clearly recognised in Iceland. From the discussions that have taken place in Iceland, I am encouraged to note the beginning of a shift from crisis management to a growth agenda.
I fully concur with the assessment by the Presidency as regards the pace and challenges ahead.
Indeed, we can be proud of the good progress achieved so far. We are now moving into more challenging and demanding areas, such as agriculture and rural development, food safety, free capital movement and fisheries.
I remain confident that we can find solutions and that we will be able to come to a package which takes Iceland's specificities and expectations into account while safeguarding the Union's principles and its acquis. This will allow the Icelandic people to make a fully informed decision in due course.
Let me briefly focus on the main findings of this year’s progress report. This was the third report on Iceland and provides a snapshot of the progress Iceland has made towards European Union standards over the last year.
Iceland has an overall good level of alignment with the European Union acquis, due to its membership of the European Economic Area as well as its full participation in the Schengen agreement.
Iceland fully meets the political Copenhagen criteria for European Union membership with its well-functioning democracy, strong institutions and deeply rooted representative democracy. The judicial system is of a high standard and Iceland has ensured the continuous strengthening of its already high level of protection on fundamental rights.
Regarding economic standards, following a deep recession, economic recovery has taken hold with good growth in 2011 and 2012 and a relatively strong outlook for the coming two years. But as with other European countries, some significant economic challenges remain for Iceland: inflation remains above target, public and private debt levels remain high and unemployment, while falling, is still relatively high in the Icelandic context (6%).
Let me briefly mention the temporary restrictions on the free movement of capital adopted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. While capital control is a prominent feature of economic stabilisation, it also constrains economic development. Its removal requires a carefully crafted and workable plan. It will also have to be addressed in the context of accession. I am therefore happy to note that the Group on Capital Controls, including experts from Iceland, the European Commission as well as the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, had its first meeting in September in Reykjavik, and that here will be a follow-up meeting at the end of January.
Before concluding, let me stress once more that the negotiations and the accession process do not only involve authorities from Reykjavik and Brussels but all citizens. In this respect I also welcome the active role and involvement of Icelandic NGOs and interest groups in the accession process.
On the issue of awareness of the European Union, we all know that EU accession is the subject of lively debate in Iceland. And so it should be. It indicates two essential things: civic democratic tradition and the importance of the subject of accession. On the first point, Iceland has a long tradition of public participative debate, and this tradition will certainly be upheld when deciding on the question of European Union accession. And secondly, the decision to become a member of the European Union should not be taken lightly since it has a number of important implications for Iceland.
In this context, it is of paramount importance that Iceland's citizens are well informed of the pros and cons of European Union membership. The European Union’s Information Centre in Reykjavik plays a role in this regard, providing information for Icelandic citizens on this issue. I also appreciate that the Althingi is allocating funding to civil society organisations to ensure capacities for an active and on-going debate.
To conclude, let me thank you again for your indispensable contribution to our common work, enhancing the mutual benefits of the European project and promoting our common interest in an ever more globalised world with its opportunities and challenges.
Let me also encourage all actors in Iceland to take an active part in the accession debate. You, Honourable Members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee, will play a key role in contributing to the debate. I look forward to continuing the work with you.