Iceland is set to launch detailed European Union accession talks at the end of June, EU diplomats said on Wednesday, setting off a process that could take several years and hit snags over fishing rules and debt.
The early phase of talks should proceed smoothly, because unlike other EU hopefuls in the western Balkans, Iceland comes to the negotiating table well prepared in many areas thanks to its membership in Europe's economic and travel cooperation zones, diplomats say.
On June 27, the island state will start talks in four out of more than 30 policy areas that will be covered in the process designed to bring national laws in line with EU rules.
It will close two - covering science issues and education and culture - while discussions on public procurement rules and media laws will continue in the coming months.
"This is quite a sensational start, since we not only open but also close chapters the same day," said Gergely Polner, a spokesman for the Hungarian government, which holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency until the end of June.
But the nation of 320,000 people faces difficult issues later in the process, when it will likely have to address EU opposition to its whaling traditions and share control over its lucrative fishing industry. Disputes over fishing quotas between the EU and Iceland have escalated in recent months, with Brussels deciding in January to block Icelandic fishing vessels carrying mackerel from landing in its ports.
Iceland is a major power in the Atlantic fisheries and has resisted joining the EU for decades. It applied only in 2009, seeking the stability of membership when global financial woes collapsed its banking system.
But popular enthusiasm has faded since then because of a row with Britain and the Netherlands over debts linked to banking problems.
The Netherlands has threatened to block Iceland's EU bid unless the dispute over $1.3-billion in unpaid debts is resolved.