Iceland coalition talks hit snag
REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - Efforts to form a new Icelandic government hit a last-minute hitch on Friday, but a party involved in the talks said a new cabinet to steer the country out of financial crisis would be unveiled on Saturday.
"The announcement of the new government has been delayed until tomorrow," a spokesman for Left-Green leader Steingrimmur Sigfusson said. "The reason for the delay is that the Progressive Party wanted more time to look at the agreement."
It was not immediately clear what specific issues the party was considering.
Separately, a European Union official said the crisis-hit country could move swiftly towards membership of the bloc if it decided to apply.
Iceland has long been cautious about entering the EU, but support for the idea has grown since its economy collapsed last year under the weight of billions of dollars of foreign debts, racked up by its now bankrupt banks.
The crisis forced Iceland to take a $10 billion (6.92 billion pound) IMF-led rescue package and angry protests against the last government drove it to quit. Prime Minister Geir Haarde of the Independence Party stepped down on Monday, the first government leader to fall as a direct result of the global credit crunch.
The Social Democrats and the Left-Greens are negotiating on a new minority government, which would need the support of the smaller Progressive Party, to lead the nation to new elections expected between April and June.
Prospective prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir of the Social Democrats had said earlier this week she expected a deal to be presented on Friday.
Sigurdardottir, 66, social affairs minister in the outgoing administration, said she expected the government formally to take office on Saturday.
The Social Democrats favour EU entry. The Left-Greens are cautious, but have said they could back a referendum on starting talks.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told The Guardian that Iceland could win early EU membership.
"If Iceland applies shortly and the negotiations are rapid, Croatia and Iceland could join the EU in parallel," he said. Croatia hopes to conclude accession talks with the bloc later this year and to join in 2011.
Rehn's spokeswoman said Iceland's entry would be helped by its membership of the European Economic Area, the zone that includes the EU's 27 states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
A tough issue would be access to Iceland's rich fishing waters, crucial to the island's economy. The country has traditionally been reluctant to share them.
CENTRAL BANK LEADERSHIP
The Social Democrats and the Left-Greens have agreed a key task would be to replace the leadership of the central bank, widely criticised for failing to prevent the crisis.
One name mentioned in local media as a possible new bank chief is Mar Gudmundsson, now deputy head of the monetary and economic department of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel.
He told newspaper Frettabladid he had not yet been offered the job. "It would depend on a lot of things, among others whether the timing would suit me and how secure the surrounding factors are," he said.
The new minister for commerce is to be Gylfi Magnusson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland. He told broadcaster RUV he had been offered the job and accepted.
The Social Democrats were the junior party in the old coalition, while the opposition Left-Greens now lead opinion polls. Sigfusson has backed a renegotiation of the IMF loan.
(Additional reporting by Omar R. Valdimarsson and Kristin Arna Bragadottir; editing by Andrew Roche)
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