Reuters - Iceland took a potentially important step towards joining the European Union when the prime minister promised on Wednesday to table a parliamentary bill authorising the start of membership talks.
“There will be a government resolution tabled,” Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir said on state television.
Sigurdardottir did not give a timeframe for the tabling of the bill. But one politician, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters the government would introduce it next week when parliament convened.
Sigurdardottir’s Social Democrats have been in favour of EU talks but their coalition partners, the Left-Greens, have been much more cautious about joining the bloc.
In the wake of the island’s economic meltdown last October, many of its 320,000 people have warmed to the idea of joining the EU and ultimately adopting the euro currency.
Commentators and some politicians say the Social Democrats should be able to cobble together enough support to pass the bill, although haggling in parliament could mean it might take weeks before the bill actually came to a vote.
A Gallup poll for state television on Wednesday showed 61.2 percent in favour of EU talks and 29.6 percent against. Those polled were evenly split over the issue of actual membership.
Nevertheless, the euro’s appeal is strong—and for good reason. The Icelandic crown virtually ceased trading due to the crisis, forcing strict capital controls so Iceland could ensure it was able to import vital goods such as food and medicine.
The idea of even entertaining EU membership became possible only after a wave of unrest as once-affluent citizens grew angry over the old government’s handling of affairs.
After months of increasingly violent protests, a coalition led by the traditionally dominant Independence Party collapsed early this year.
Fearing the hand of Brussels, the Independents had been fiercely opposed to EU membership because they argued it could be particularly damaging to Iceland’s important fishing sector.
The Social Democrats, junior partners in that old coalition, formed a new government and later emerged as the biggest party from an election held last month.
The pro-EU Social Democrats now have 20 seats in the 63-seat parliament and the Left-Greens have 14. The Independents have 16 seats.
Iceland late last year received a $10 billion financial rescue package led by the International Monetary Fund. Although activity has fallen sharply and unemployment is surging, there have been tentative signs of a more stable economy.