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Interview: Iceland, Croatia to compete for EU entry

There are no shortcuts to EU accession, but if Iceland decided to apply for EU membership, negotiations could be wrapped up swiftly, possibly alongside those with Croatia, the current frontrunner, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.  

In the case of Iceland, the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement, which he says “works very well”, could serve as a “shortcut” in accession negotiations. “I usually say to my friends in South Eastern Europe that there is no shortcut to EU membership, and it is true. But in the case of Iceland, this EEA agreement serves as a shortcut in the negotiations,” Rehn told EurActiv.

The Finnish commissioner says he does not see Iceland as an “impoverished country”, although its economy has been severely hit by the financial crisis. And he believes EU countries would certainly not raise objections to a bid from Iceland to join the Union. “I feel sympathetic for the Icelandic people, I feel solidarity with them and I would expect that after this problem, related to banking deposit guarantees, is settled, no member state will be opposed to Iceland moving toward the EU.”

Rehn also stresses the importance of resolving the EU’s institutional problems, saying the Lisbon Treaty is not only necessary for future enlargements, but also for making the EU work better. “Europe [...] needed the treaty yesterday, if not even the day before yesterday,” he said, adding that “even the slowest envisaged scenario for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is still faster than the best scenario for Croatia joining the EU”.

As to whether Iceland could join before Croatia, the commissioner did not rule out any options, saying that the Union would apply the principle of own merit. “The timeline of Croatia or eventually Iceland depends on the negotiations and the implementation of EU legislation.”

BULGARIA AND ROMANIA

The enlargement commissioner, who oversaw the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU in 2007, said those two countries were “very committed and constructive EU member states”. He adds that “both have experienced economic success over the last couple of years, which has brought very useful economic dynamism to the EU”.  However, he notes that there are still shortcomings in Bulgaria and Romania regarding the fight against corruption and organized crime and in implementing the judiciary reforms. In Bulgaria, he noted “certain problems with regard to the management of EU pre-accession funds and other funds”.

WESTERN BALKANS

On the Western Balkans, Rehn made the distinction between Croatia, where he says “accession negotiations are progressing well and many of the reforms are moving forward,” and the remaining countries of the region. In particular, he was critical of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which he described as “a setback and disappointment over the past half year”.

Concerning the fact that a number of Western Balkan countries are increasingly taking their disputes to the International Court of Justice, Rehn said “bilateral issues should be settled bilaterally” and not burden accession negotiations. He strongly advised Croatia and Slovenia to solve a border dispute bilaterally, as currently Slovenia is blocking chapters from the accession negotiations because of this stalemate.

In the same context, Rehn appealed on Turkey to contribute to a “favorable atmosphere” for the ongoing talks on the reunification of Cyprus, “not only as a passive bystander, but as a proactive stimulator in the negotiations toward a comprehensive settlement”.

TURKEY

On Turkey, Rehn moved to dispel certain stereotypes, like US pressure’s role in speeding up the country’s EU accession process, saying that “the EU member states decide for the EU” and “the position of the US doesn’t matter much”. Regarding French President Sarkozy’s guarded approach to Turkey, he stated that in fact there is a “better political climate than for a long time between these two countries, and the same goes for the EU-Turkey relations”.

Asked to comment upon positions by Italian President Silvio Berlusconi on Turkey, which are very favorable, Rehn admitted that he had a different perspective to him, but explained this from the point of view of the institutional prerogatives. “We have a little bit of a different view […], his being the prime minister of a large member state, and me being a factory manager as the enlargement commissioner,” Rehn said.

He does not subscribe to the view that decision-making in the EU has become more difficult following the enlargement. Moreover, he stressed that decisions taken by a much larger group of EU countries carry more weight. On his personal future, he says that in the spirit of “Scandinavian openness”, he would like to stay on a commissioner for a second five-year term after 2009, but declined to comment as to whether he preferred one portfolio over another.

Before entering politics as a Liberal and European movement activist, Olli Rehn studied economics, international relations and journalism both in the USA and his native Finland. (Euraktiv)