Iceland clears way for EU bid

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Iceland's parliament voted today to authorise the government to begin accession talks with the European Union, an all but unthinkable prospect until the global financial crisis wrecked the island's economy.

Icelandic membership of the 27-nation bloc is still years away, after what promise to be long and tough negotiations, especially over the island's cherished fishing rights.

Members of parliament voted 33 to 28 in favour of an EU application after a final round of marathon debates lasting almost a week. The government needed 32 votes to gain approval. Two MPs abstained.

Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, whose Social Democrats fought hard to win support for the bill from their EU-sceptical coalition partner, has made joining the bloc a priority, seeing it as key to Iceland's economic recovery.

"This is probably the most historic vote in the history of our parliament, since the founding of the republic. I have no doubt that this decision will be beneficial to the people of Iceland," she told Reuters.

"Now we must ensure that we bring home a treaty that we can put before the people and recommend."

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the revolving EU presidency, said in a statement that he welcomed Iceland's decision to apply for membership.

The issue shot to the top of the political agenda after an economic meltdown whose speed and scale shocked many, even in the context of the current global recession.

The vote clears the way for the application to be sent to Brussels later in July and for the government to put the question on actual membership to voters in a referendum.

Icelanders - just 320,000 in number - have warmed to the European Union but remain protective of their sovereignty and worry about losing control of fish stocks.

A Gallup poll in May showed 61.2 percent in favour of EU talks and 29.6 percent against. But those polled were evenly split over the issue of actual membership.

Joining the European Union was almost unimaginable before the volcanic country was cast into the centre of the global financial storm when its top three banks collapsed in a matter of days last year.

The government now has a mandate to start tough negotiations with Brussels on everything from fisheries and agriculture to its eventual adoption of the euro currency.

"The application has to go in the next few days. It has to reach the foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on the 27th of this month," Prime Minister Sigurdardottir told Reuters.

"After that, it goes into the normal process to the heads of state in December, after which the accession talks can begin. My guess is that these talks will take 2.5 to 3.5 years."

Arni Thor Sigurdsson, chairman of the parliamentary committee handling EU issues, has said Iceland could join the European Union in 2013 at the earliest.