Thousands protest in Iceland over EU membership bid exit

Thousands of protesters gather in front of teh Parliament in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik on Feb 24, 2014 to demand a referendum amid a government bid to pull out of EU accession talks without a popular vote. Thousands of protesters thronged the s
Thousands of protesters gather in front of teh Parliament in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik on Feb 24, 2014 to demand a referendum amid a government bid to pull out of EU accession talks without a popular vote. Thousands of protesters thronged the streets of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik on Monday to demand a referendum after the government said it was dropping its European Union (EU) membership bid without a popular vote. -- PHOTO: AFP

REYKJAVIK (AFP) - Thousands of protesters thronged the streets of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik on Monday to demand a referendum after the government said it was dropping its European Union (EU) membership bid without a popular vote.

Police said around 3,500 protestors gathered outside the parliament in the biggest street demonstrations since the 2009 financial crisis to demand the government honour a May election pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership.

Iceland's eurosceptic government suspended EU accession talks indefinitely last September, following a promise made during the 2013 election campaign.

On Friday, it announced a draft bill to "retract the application for membership of the European Union", which the island nation submitted in 2010.

However, opposition parties complained that no time had been allocated to debate the issue and the motion was postponed. It is expected to be introduced again in the coming days.

The government move was hotly contested by Icelanders from both the pro- and anti-EU side who argued that Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson had back-tracked on previous promises.

The protesters' shouts could be heard inside the parliament building. One told the online edition of newspaper Morgunbladid that Iceland had to join to EU to avoid being isolated.

"We should only pull out of accession talks when the majority of people want to do that," said Mr Natan Kolbeinsson.

Former foreign minister Ossur Skarphedinsson from the social democratic Samlingsfronten - who first launched Iceland's EU accession talks - said the attempt would succeed "over my dead body".

As tempers flared inside and outside the parliament, the opposition demanded an explanation for the referendum being scrapped, while Mr Sveinsson criticised the speaker for withdrawing his motion.

Iceland has been locked in conflict with the EU for several years over fishing quotas.

When the current government won the election in May - largely on a promise to reduce household debts - it promised to hold a referendum to pull out of EU membership talks.

The conflict worsened in September when the EU threatened trade sanctions if Iceland did not reduce its mackerel quota, and Iceland announced it was pulling out of accession talks indefinitely.

Although a majority of voters oppose EU membership, some argue that membership would stabilise the economy.

Recent polls indicate that a majority of Icelanders want the government to complete accession negotiations with the EU before putting membership to a referendum.

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