Sat, Jul 18, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Icelanders remain skeptical about EU membership talks


As Iceland prepares to negotiate membership of the EU, Icelanders are torn between feeling it may be best for the country and fears they could lose their independence to faraway Brussels.

After a meltdown of the north Atlantic island’s economy, on Thursday its parliament narrowly backed the government’s plan to begin talks to join the bloc.

However, skepticism to the move is widespread among Icelanders, who jealously guard the traditional waters teaming with red fish, cod, haddock and halibut.

“I don’t think we will get a deal with the EU we can say yes to. The only thing that will get us back on track is honest hard work and fishing,” said Kristjan Gudmundsson, captain of a whale watching boat. “We have survived and thrived as a nation through fishery. This is our gold.”

Iceland — a volcanic island the size of England, but with a population of just 320,000 — stunned the world with the scale and speed of its financial meltdown which followed an unsustainable boom in the financial sector.

Now, Icelanders are trying to pick up the pieces.

Ragnar Stefansson, 27, gave up dentistry in January and went back to fishing because it had become more lucrative.

“After the kronor fell, this is much better money,” he said, as seagulls flew above the dock in the capital of Reykjavik, named “smoky bay” for its steamy landscape.

Steiner Thorsteinsson, a 19-year-old fisherman, says he would vote against the EU if given the chance.

“This is one of the main Icelandic resources — it would be terrible if we lost that,” Thorsteinsson said.

Icelanders fear EU membership could mean tighter controls over what they can catch and leave their waters open to trawlers from other countries.

In a nation isolated by geography, there are growing fears Iceland may get left behind in an increasingly globalized world.

Iceland’s recently elected government wants to gain full access to the world’s biggest single market, the security of the euro and have a voice in the club that now has 27 members.

Inga Jessen last October lost her job in the finance industry and started up a Web site last week that gives tips on free things to do in Reykjavik.

Jessen had taken out Japanese yen loans for two cars and an apartment at the height of the financial boom, similar to many Icelanders who borrowed heavily to pay for their Range Rovers and lifestyles that were envied even by people in the richest countries of the world.

“In principle, I am for entering the EU,” said Methusalem Thorisson, a 62-year-old coffee shop owner. “However, we need to solve our own problems first. We are coming in as beggars. It’s ‘let us in, we’ve made a mess.’ It has a feeling of desperation and I don’t like that. It just doesn’t feel right.”

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