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Iceland 'could apply to EU soon'

Icelanders protest over the economic crisis
Icelanders have been roused to street protests by their plight

Iceland may apply to join the European Union as soon as next year, the EU's enlargement commissioner says.

Olli Rehn said the European Commission was "mentally preparing for the possibility of an application from Iceland... for early next year".

Iceland has always preferred to stay outside the EU, but after being badly hit by the economic crisis, some are now advocating its entry.

"Clearly there is movement in Iceland," Mr Rehn said.

His office said Iceland, should it formally apply, would probably meet accession criteria much more quickly than other countries, which can take years, or decades.

"The EU's door is open to any European country that respects the principles of liberty, democracy and human rights and can carry the obligations of EU membership," said Anna-Kaisa Itkonen, a spokeswoman for Mr Rehn's office.

"Considering Iceland's already far-going economic integration with the EU, I would expect that accession negotiations can progress clearly much faster than with other countries that do not have such strong ties with the EU."

Thousands of Icelanders have lost their jobs since the country's banking sector - the cornerstone of its economy - collapsed through over-exposure to the credit crunch.

The currency has also fallen through the floor, leading to growing support for the country joining the euro.

Iceland's Prime Minister Geir Haarde has said that his country could start talks on joining the EU, under the right circumstances.

He has set up a commission to consider the possibility of EU membership.

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