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If the debate about Iceland’s EU membership has indicated anything, then that is that the country’s foreign policy stands at a crossroad, but according to Árni Finnsson, the head of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, this crossroad is more complicated and decisive than it would appear.
More than just a matter of foreign policy, he says the issue has implications for the environment. Should Iceland pull away from Europe, he fears it will mean a step towards the less environmentally conscious Russia and China.
“What we are showing is that we don’t feel that we need the EU when it comes to environmental issues, but European co-operation is needed and especially for Iceland,” he explained. “Thirty years ago what mattered most for Iceland was Nordic co-operation, now it is co-operation with the EU.”
VIDEO: Taiwanese report about Icelandic geothermal energy (at end of article)
According to Finnsson, just being involved in negotiations to join the EU has had a positive impact on the environmental issues in Iceland. “I think it must be clear to everyone that has been following the issue that the process has strengthened the debate on the environment within parliament and the government.”
While the negotiations have brought renewed focus on the issue, there are also practical implications to canceling the process.
“The country has been receiving grants from the EU as part of the membership process to map out the country’s ecosystems in accordance with the Natura 2000 ecological network,” he said. “This is a scientific part of nature conservation the EU has assisted with. Therefore, we can see that this regards the law, research and focus within the government, so there is a lot that the process has impacted.”
But the most important implication of pulling out of the negotiations, Finnsson said, is that if the government does so and turns towards China, the country might find itself depending on Russia in matters dealing with the Arctic Council.
“It seems that the policy of searching for off-shore oil and the involvement of big Chinese oil companies is a form of foreign policy. By going down this route Iceland will be strengthening oil interests in the Arctic.”
Finnsson accuses the current Icelandic government of paying little heed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN organisation.
“The focus is on profits,” he said. “We have heard the prime minister say that we should just have faith in oil. The actions being taken will increase GDP growth, even if no oil us found, but the consequences of this is that we are joining companies such as Gazprom and Shell in the search for oil in the Arctic.”
He also pointed out that if a major oil spill were to happen in Icelandic waters, it could have catastrophic consequences for not only the ecosystem but also the fish stocks the country is so dependent on.
A spill the size of the one created by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, he pointed out, would be far more damaging for Iceland, since cold water takes longer to recover from pollution than warm water.
“But the main issue for me is that if we are to combat climate change, we can’t keep drilling for more oil, and this goes for Iceland, Norway and Russia.”