A European view from Iceland
An article published in the Hungarian newspaper, Magyar Hírlap 12 July 2010
Iceland expects to begin her negotiations on membership of the European Union in the first half of 2011. It is a happy coincidence that Hungary will then have assumed the presidency of the union. Our two nations have always enjoyed a warm relationship. In Iceland we remember with fondness the Hungarians which settled in Iceland after the tragic events of 1956. They enriched our society, not least with their musical talents. Hungary still sends us gifted musicians which have been instrumental in enriching the musical culture of our nation. We repaid in kind by strongly supporting Hungary´s membership of Nato. Lately, our relationship is being strengthened by an emerging cooperation on geothermal energy, where Hungary has a much greater potential than most of its citizens realize.
Membership based on merit
Iceland has no expectations on preferential treatment in her dealings with the EU. We only ask to be judged on merit. The fact that it took less than a year to reach the status of a candidate country last month, only reflects the fact that Iceland has for fifteen years been engaged in the integration of Europe through her membership of the European Economic Area and of Schengen. Iceland therefore already had adopted 70 percent of the EU regulations at the time she put in her application for membership. Olli Rehn, the EU-comissioner, has likened the accession process to a marathon. Iceland had thus covered more than two-thirds of the distance when she started the run.
An accident of size
It is not difficult to argue for Iceland´s seat at the European table. The settlers that set sail to Iceland in the 9th century, at the same time as the Hungarians were emerging as a nation, were Europeans of strong Celtic and Norwegian origins. They possessed the desire to write and create, and started the literary tradition that led to the most famous contribution of Iceland to the common European heritage, the Icelandic Sagas. The Sagas describe vital parts of the medieval history of the Nordic nations that otherwise would be lost. They document the early religious beliefs and poetic ideas of the Vikings on the creation of Man and Earth. When Europe changed and her languages developed or disappeared we, on behalf of Europe, became the keepers of the original tongue of the Viking. It still is the mother-tongue of every Icelander.
Interestingly, champions of classical prose as diverse as the two famous writers, Jorge Luis Borges and William Faulkner, trace the origins of the contemporary novel to the Icelandic Sagas. The Celtic art of poetry and the Nordic tradition of telling complex tales still run in our blood. It is only an accident of size that the modern day writers of Iceland are not regulars in the bookshelves of the Hungarian homes – but that is a problem easily solved with money for translations from the European funds!
Strong democratic values
Our democratic values are similarly steeped in the European tradition. Our parliament, founded in 930, is the oldest in Europe and is a descendant of the Viking parliaments that I maintain were the forerunners of modern parliamentary democracy. The rule of law, strong democratic institutions, respect for human rights and a welfare society that despite temporary financial difficulties ranks among the best in the world, are the characteristics of the modern day Iceland. And it is noteworthy, that we adopted the Christian faith as early as the year 1000, or about the same time as Hungary.
A sense of justice is not a question of size and Iceland has not been afraid to stand up in defense of the rights of other small nations to choose their future. A witness to that is the fact that Iceland was the first nation to recognize the sovereignty of the Baltic states in the beginning of the Nineties. It was a controversial decision, hailed by some but hated by others. History shows, however, that it was the right decision and that it made a difference.
Financially, we have put our house in order after the banking collapse in 2008 by strong fiscal measures. Only last week the International Monetary Fund declared that technically the economic recession in Iceland is over, and that in five years time Iceland could be among those nations in Europe with least debt.
The art of sustainability
In the world of today, where pollution and overexploitation of resources is endemic, Iceland has been very successful in creating a sustainable society. In two fields especially, renewable energy and sustainable fisheries, Iceland has experience and techniques that can be of great value to the European Union.
A brief look at the fishing stocks of the EU reveals a dark picture of overfishing that in far too many cases borders on decimation. Whilst the EU has failed to create a system of sustainable fishing, most stocks in Icelandic waters are either stable or growing in size. An example of that is our well known cod that is one of only two such stocks in the world that presently is on the increase. Europe could do worse than build the future of her fisheries on the Icelandic model. Every European country would gain from that – even the landlocked Hungary!
In renewable energy Iceland leads the world with more than 80 percent of her energy needs being met by renewables, either hydro or geothermal power. We have for years preached the geothermal gospel to the European Union, and repeatedly pointed out that the geothermal potential in Europe is considerably greater than realized by Brussels. It is the cheapest and the least polluting energy source still available, and could be very useful in reaching the ambitious energy goals of the the EU for 2020. Currently, Iceland is developing a breaking-edge technology based on deep-drilling that in cooperation with the EU could enhance the energy security of several European nations. Our geothermal experience is of special interest for countries with significant geothermal potential, such as Hungary, where indeed it is presently being put to use in places such as Miskolc and Szentlörinc.
It´s the fisheries, stupid
In Europe, Iceland seeks the security of a strong currency, an environment that is inducive to the development of hi-tech industries that already contribute 25 percent of Iceland´s export earnings, a democratic right to influence the decisions that affect our future, and the long-term security a small nation without a military may find in the shelter of a strong European family.
There will be hurdles along the way of Iceland to become a part of the EU. The Icelandic public is with ample reason highly sceptical of the Common Fisheries Policy and fears that membership might weaken our control of the fishing stocks. In Iceland, fishing has been our bread and butter since settlement and has a vital importance in the national psyche. In the negotiations that will begin under the Hungarian Presidency, it must be realized that an acceptable solution to the fisheries question is eventually what will make – or break – the deal.
Össur Skarphéðinsson the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Iceland, currently on an official visit to the Hungarian government. He has an english Ph.D. in fisheries biology.