Today, the EU leaders didn’t only agree on a new pan-European bank levy. The Council of Ministers also agreed that the membership negotiations with Iceland could now begin. No Icelandic minister was present in Brussels today. June 17 is the Icelandic national day, the tradition is that the prime minister addresses the people on that day. That’s what PM Johanna Sigurdardottir did today instead of going to Brussels like the Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg who media-wise made the most out of his visit. But the national day doesn’t explain why the Icelandic minister of foreign affairs couldn’t be in Brussels today.
The Council also expressed hope that the Icesave dispute would be resolved. It’s clear that without an agreement on Icesave a EU membership is impossible. It’s still over a year until an agreement will be crucial but it’s a timely reminder that at one point or another the matter has to be resolved. In an interview with the daily Morgunbladid president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said that his stopping the Icesave bill in Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, had been the wise thing to do and had strengthened the Icelandic position in Icesave. Others will beg to differ – as long as there’s no agreement in place it’s unclear if Iceland really has gained from the delay.
Now that the EU membership negotiations can start the lack of political leadership on the issue is striking. The opinion polls show a dwindling support for an Icelandic EU membership – according to the latest polls 58% are against membership – reflecting that there isn’t any political enthusiasm at all for membership. Last summer, Althingi agreed to formally apply for a membership indicating there was an interest – but that interest has since evaporated.
Having followed the debate on EU membership in Norway, Sweden and Finland in 1994 when Norway, for the second time, turned down membership and Finland and Sweden joined, I can only say that there was, at the time, a huge momentum around EU in these countries. In Iceland there is nothing, simply nothing. And when voices are heard they are usually negative. Those who preach that Iceland will lose its national characteristics can be heard loud and clearly. Those who think Iceland belongs in Europe because it’s already part of the European Economic Area and should be a fully paid up member of the union either don’t speak up or wait and see.
Now, just as so long as I can remember, there are those who claim that Iceland is so special that it can only follow its own rules. These are usually those who think it’s fine that Iceland profits from international fora but shouldn’t be tied or obliged or committed in any way. Iceland tried to run its bank in a particularly Icelandic free-style. It didn’t end well. The emphasis on Icelandic superiority rings both false and hollow to my ears but it’s an underlying current in much of the political debate in Iceland – a very strong and prominent current found in some corners of all the political parties.
The Social democrats, now leading the government, are in principle pro-EU and have driven the EU agenda but without much conviction. The Independence Party is split on the issue – and since that party was in power during the 90s and well into this decade this party is largely responsible for preventing the European co-operation ever to become an issue for the best part of the last twenty years. As the other Nordic countries voted on the issue the IP decided that the EEA was good enough for Iceland. The Progressive Party has been split on the issue and consequently fairly silent on Europe. The Left-Green, in coalition with the social democrats, are against but have bowed to going through the process of applying, ultimately resigned to a referendum on the issue.
In 1997 I interviewed the historian and diplomat Sergio Romano. He said that nothing would change in Italy until there were enough Italians in power who had been abroad and learned that there are other ways of doing things than just the Italian way. There are plenty of Icelanders who have lived abroad but it seems that as soon as they move back they are more than happy to do things the Icelandic way.
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