Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Enter the ‘True Icelanders,’ exit the Icelandic EU membership?

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Earlier this summer, Ossur Skarphedinsson minister of foreign affairs visited Brussels to formally mark the beginning of the Icelandic accession talks. As it is now, Skarphedinsson is more or less the only leading Icelandic politician who speaks convincingly for an Icelandic membership of the European Union. If the political landscape in Iceland evolves with the little political enthusiasm there is and polls showing a falling interest in an EU membership, it seems unavoidable that Iceland will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Norway, firmly outside of the EU.

For the last many years, opinion polls have shown hesitating doubt towards membership, with the pro and con side swinging around the 50% line. With the Social democrats, firmly for membership and leading the government it might indicate a strong pro side. That doesn’t seem to be the case. The social democrats are in a difficult position with a coalition partner, the Left Greens, strongly against membership and by the struggle to pull Iceland out of the crisis.

The heavy-weight block in the political arena in Iceland has always been the Independent Party (C). Over the decades, the party has in many ways shaped the Icelandic foreign policy, when there has been any. After being back and forth on Europe, in the later years mostly indicating a mildly pro-EU stance, the party leadership has now firmly placed itself on the other side. It took great political courage to lead Iceland into NATO in 1949, something that seems lacking in the party now.

The first indication of a strong pull towards the ‘no’ side followed the results of the Icesave referendum in March. The IP leadership stood behind the ‘yes’ side, having participated in the negotiations and come to the conclusion that the new agreement was positive for Iceland. Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson tread lightly, didn’t state his case forcefully but did talk for the agreement.

The old IP leadership, led by David Oddsson, now editor of Morgunbladid, was vehemently against Icesave and Morgunbladid couldn’t find strong enough words to ridicule and belittle Benediktsson. Though unclear how powerful the Oddsson wing of the conservatives is, the ‘no’ victory seemed to strengthen it. There were rumours that Oddsson would try to use the ‘victory’ to oust Benediktsson though there was no obvious candidate to replace him. And a persistent rumour flew around that Oddsson himself might want to step in as a leader. This second coming, if ever a possibility, never materialised.

In an interview earlier this summer Benediktsson indicated that he was now doubtful as to the merits of an Icelandic EU membership. He has since spoken in unequivocal terms. He is against membership and in addition, he thinks Iceland should walk away from the membership talks and withdraw its application for membership. This would no doubt be an ideal solution for a party so long split by its position on EU.

The feeling is that Benediktsson’s change of mind isn’t entirely convincing. In 2008, Benediktsson came out as a strong supporter of Icelandic EU membership since it would add a much needed strength and stability to the depreciating Icelandic krona. Compared to his reasoning then, his EU stance now is seen as bowing to the Oddson wing, in order to secure his own position as a leader for the coming party conference in autumn. As one source said to me, Benediktsson and the men closest to him are all of one mind: Iceland should join the EU.

Though there seems to be a majority among Icelandic conservatives against EU membership there is a strong and vocal part of party members, among professionals, civil servants and other middle class voters for membership. Next election will be no later than spring 2013. At the time, EU membership could well be a hotly debated issue and could possibly drive some pro EU conservatives away, though they might have a hard time voting for the social democrats, already now weary from being in government since May 2007. But perhaps a referendum will already be over at that time.

With the IP turning its back on the EU it might again be inclined to turn to its old coalition partner, the Progressive Party, traditionally a centre party in the Scandinavian sense, born among farmers who now are few and far between. Under their new leader Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson the progressives have progressively reinvented themselves as a more nationalistic party, finding idols in new parties like the ‘True Finns’ who now more modestly call themselves ‘The Finns.’

It remains to be seen if the progressives will try to taka monopoly on nationalistic tendencies and turn them into political ideas, since these tendencies are to be found in all parties, as indeed among the whole Icelandic population. If these two parties will form a government it will most likely have its back staunchly to the EU, dreaming of a rapprochement with Canada and the BRIC, dividing and conquering through bilateral agreements. This works for Russia but might be difficult for Iceland.

There are plenty of Icelandic politicians who speak vehemently against Icelandic EU membership. Those familiar with the ‘no’ wings in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, at the time of their referenda, will recognise the tone and the arguments. This rhetoric was tried and tested up to the Icesave referendum with national pride in all hues against reason. Politicians who speak with passion for Icelandic membership do not seem to exist for the time being. There will be associations and organisations to speak for membership but the question is if there will be any convincing and passionate politicians among them.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 26th, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Iceland

4 Responses to 'Enter the ‘True Icelanders,’ exit the Icelandic EU membership?'

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  1. Well done Iceland. I look forward to day the UK leaves the EU. We are still fighting for an EU in/out referendum.

    Regards from UK.

    Phoenix One UK

    26 Aug 11 at 2:05 pm

  2. Given Iceland’s recent brush with neoliberalism, why would it want to join the EU?


    26 Aug 11 at 9:19 pm

  3. Viewed from afar…. join the EU possibly…. but until the EU currency system is reformed don’t go near the Euro


    27 Aug 11 at 3:09 am

  4. A lack of Icelandic political leadership ….. Shock.. Horror. The merits of membership would have been to mini use the effect of local political incompetence in political and economic terms. The EEC does not currently present an effective alternative based on competence… So anti EEC process is notmunreasonable?


    27 Aug 11 at 11:59 pm

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