- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 18, 2009

REYKJAVIK, Iceland | As Iceland prepares to negotiate membership in the European Union, 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, parliament Thursday narrowly backed the government’s plan to begin talks to join the bloc. On Friday, Iceland handed in its application to the Swedish EU presidency.

Skepticism over the move is widespread among Icelanders who jealously guard their waters teeming with redfish, 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, at the end of a long day.

“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 that 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, which had become more lucrative.

“After the kronor fell this is much better money,” he said.

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.”

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

The government will need time to win the hearts of a Viking nation that treasures its independence ahead of a popular vote that is seen by some in 2011 or 2012.

Icelanders are still sore over a British move to use anti-terrorism legislation to freeze Icelandic assets when the country’s banks collapsed, and European pressure for them to pay back debt owed for the enormous losses incurred by the banks.

But in a nation isolated by geography, there are growing fears the island 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.

Icelanders are realistic about the risks of going it alone.

“In principle, I am for entering the EU,” said Methusalem Thorisson, a 62-year-old coffee shop owner. “But 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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