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Iceland Turns Away from EU as Economy Recovers

  • Dominic Laurie

REYKJAVIK — When its banking system collapsed in 2008, Iceland applied quickly to join the European Union, thinking it could guarantee a safe future. But since then, the eurozone has gone into meltdown, and the Icelandic economy has recovered. Now opinions have changed.

Four years ago, Icelanders were angry. Banks' emblems were burned in the street. People worried they would lose their houses, their savings. The country felt isolated. After 90 years of independence, Iceland applied to join the European Union.

Four years later - the sun is shining on Iceland. It is the EU that seems a darker, less attractive place. Though it's still government policy to join, most citizens say they are no longer in favor.

"I don't want to give our currency away because it's kind of romantic," said one woman. "We are so small."

"We're a tiny country, I really want us to have the Icelandic krona, not the stupid euro," another woman said.

According to one man, "I think the euro would probably benefit us because the currency situation with our currency is not so good."

Iceland's economy is on a growth spurt.

One site that has tourists flocking in ever greater numbers is a geysir in the hills an hour away from Reykjavik. Iceland's currency is half the value of four years ago. Tourist attractions are now generally more affordable than they were.

Fishing is doing well too. Fish stocks are increasing, and boat owners benefit from selling their catch in Iceland's now much-cheaper currency. And while Iceland can currently keep the entire catch in its waters for its own boats, anti-EU campaigners like Hallur Hallson say this would change if Iceland joined the community.

"Fish dominates Icelandic society, it's the most important industry in this country," Hallson said. "In the European Union it's only one, two, three percent of gross national product. But in Iceland it overrides everything."

Back in 2008, Iceland let its banks default on debts they could not honor. It meant the state had more financial leeway to increase pensions, jobless benefits and home loan relief to a society in shock. London-based Icelandic entrepreneur Sveinn Valfells thinks other struggling European countries could learn from Iceland's treatment of its banks.

"The main lesson is let them fail and let them fail in a controlled way," Valfells said. "The government money should rather be spent on protecting basic services such as education and healthcare."

Many Icelanders now view the EU and the eurozone with horror. They see countries like Greece, which are stuck with high debts, high unemployment, and economies still in recession. They see pharmacies running out of stocks.

Pro-EU businessman Benedikt Johannesson admits all this is not helping his cause.

"But why compare us to Greece? Why don't we compare to Denmark, to Holland, to Sweden, to Finland, to Germany, to the countries closest to us," he asked.

Iceland is not the only country to be moving away from the EU. Turkey's application, already 25 years old, is slipping further away. Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro's applications all face obstacles, too.

Croatia will join the 27-country club next year. But if Iceland's government decides to follow its people's will, that could be it for a very long time.
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