Ossur Skarphedinsson, Iceland’s foreign minister and a longtime member of Parliament, ticks off a list of reasons he thinks the country should join the E.U. Among them: long-term currency stability, an opportunity to expand the number of industries in Iceland and the potential to attract more foreign investment.
“I am absolutely convinced that they will do whatever it takes to save the euro,” he said of his counterparts in Europe wrestling with the debt crisis. “I am looking further ahead. In the end, Iceland would lose its competitiveness compared to Europe [if it doesn’t join]. We would slowly start to lose the best of every generation. That is my worry.”
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But even he acknowledged that, while many Icelanders agree with the need to adopt another currency and have shown enthusiasm for the euro in the past, a vote held today to join the E.U. would fail miserably, possibly by a ratio of 2 to 1.
Of course, any such choice remains well in the future.
Iceland has long had economic agreements that allow it to trade with European partners and allow its citizens to travel, work and study on the continent. The country began its formal application to join the E.U. in 2009, and officials here are negotiating the particulars of a deal with European authorities, a process expected to take at least until next year. New E.U. member states are required to adopt the euro once they meet economic criteria.
Eventually, the question is likely to be put to a vote in a national referendum. The politicians will pontificate. The fishermen and financial firms and unions will lobby. But ultimately, the decision will come down to strong-willed citizens like Margret Sveinbergsdottir and Thora Brynjulfsdottir.
“People are afraid,” said Sveinbergsdottir, 65, sipping coffee recently at the Roma Cafe inside a popular mall just outside the city center. But “our currency would be more stable. We need some more certainty.”
“We want to have our independence,” said Brynjulfsdottir, 50, selling hats at a stand nearby. “We are a small country, and if we go into the European Union, we are going to be lost.”
The women sat in the same corner of the same shopping center on the same rainy afternoon, separated only by a few feet. But like so many citizens here, they remained miles apart.