Iceland

1. Euroscepticism and European Parliament elections

Bal­dur Thorhalls­son

Icelanders’ first glance of the European Parliament elections

For the first time, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions received notice­able atten­tion in Ice­land. This had to do with Iceland’s sta­tus as an appli­cant state (Ice­land applied for mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union in the sum­mer of 2009) and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a vic­to­ry for the right-wing extrem­ist par­ties in the lead up to the elec­tions. The media gave the elec­tions more cov­er­age than before – both in its news and edi­to­ri­als. The cov­er­age was some­what infor­ma­tive but lacked exten­sive and deep analy­sis in order to give the pop­u­la­tion a more thor­ough knowl­edge of the polit­i­cal par­ties and the role of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment in the deci­sion-mak­ing process­es of the EU.

The pos­si­ble vic­to­ry of the right-wing extrem­ist par­ties was the most dis­cussed top­ic, espe­cial­ly the con­ceiv­able suc­cess of the Unit­ed King­dom Inde­pen­dence Par­ty (UKIP). Also, the right-wing media in Ice­land por­trayed a pic­ture of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment as a pow­er­less insti­tu­tion and claimed that Ice­landic MEPs would have no influ­ence with­in it. Promi­nent fig­ures from the Yes- and No-move­ments took some part in the dis­cus­sions, main­ly by writ­ing blogs and arti­cles and used the oppor­tu­ni­ty to advo­cate their cause.

Accord­ing­ly, a part of the gen­er­al pub­lic – albeit tiny – par­tic­i­pat­ed for the first time in pub­lic dis­cus­sions about the elec­tions to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. The cam­paign between the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty and the Par­ty of the Euro­pean Social­ists – espe­cial­ly their bid to nom­i­nate a new Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion – received some atten­tion. How­ev­er, the cov­er­age was too lim­it­ed for the pub­lic to grasp the pol­i­cy plat­forms of the par­ties, their sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences, and their posi­tions towards the can­di­dates named to suc­ceed José Manuel Bar­roso.

The Icelandic nationalist rhetoric on European affairs

Due to Iceland’s sta­tus as a can­di­date coun­try, euroscep­ti­cism plays a big role in the polit­i­cal debate with­in the coun­try. Dis­cus­sions about pos­si­ble EU mem­ber­ship have been dom­i­nat­ed by nation­al­is­tic rhetoric, i.e. about the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of trans­fer­ring auton­o­my and sov­er­eign­ty from Reyk­javík to Brus­sels. Also, talks about what con­se­quences EU mem­ber­ship may have for the Ice­landic fish­ing indus­try and farm­ing are promi­nent in the debate. Mem­ber­ship of the Com­mon Fish­eries Pol­i­cy (CFP) and the Com­mon Agri­cul­tur­al Pol­i­cy (CAP) are seen by many to be high­ly dam­ag­ing for the pri­ma­ry indus­tries. Fur­ther­more, oppo­nents of EU mem­ber­ship fre­quent­ly men­tion that Ice­land is at an advan­tage as a free and inde­pen­dent coun­try able to make bilat­er­al ben­e­fi­cial deals with coun­tries around the globe – as can be seen in the new­ly signed free trade agree­ment with Chi­na – and has a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to make the most out of the open­ing of the Arc­tic.

The new coali­tion gov­ern­ment (which took office in 2013), con­sist­ing of the cen­tre-agrar­i­an Pro­gres­sive Par­ty and the con­ser­v­a­tive Inde­pen­dence Par­ty, firm­ly opposed the acces­sion process and mem­ber­ship of the EU based on the argu­ments pre­sent­ed above. The 2008 eco­nom­ic crash did not lead to a refor­mu­la­tion and adap­ta­tion of Iceland’s polit­i­cal par­ties long-term Euro­pean pol­i­cy goals. Their Euro­pean poli­cies remained remark­ably sta­ble despite an EU mem­ber­ship appli­ca­tion nine months after the crash. The Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Alliance (SDA) con­tin­ues to be the only tra­di­tion­al par­ty to sup­port EU mem­ber­ship unan­i­mous­ly just as it did before the cri­sis.

The No-move­ment (Heimssýn), man­aged to dom­i­nate the EU debate dur­ing the acces­sion process until 2013. On the oth­er side, the Yes-move­ment (Já Ísland) has gained momen­tum since the EU nego­ti­a­tions were put on hold (spring of 2013), espe­cial­ly after the gov­ern­ment back­tracked with its unex­pect­ed res­o­lu­tion for the nation­al par­lia­ment to quit the EU acces­sion process alto­geth­er in the spring of 2014. The most promi­nent lead­ers of the No-move­ment and the con­ser­v­a­tive and influ­en­tial news­pa­per, Morgun­blaðið, do not hes­i­tate to por­tray the EU as a club of large states – which is nev­er­the­less about to devel­op into a fed­er­al state – and that small states, such as Ice­land, will not be able to assert their influ­ence in the deci­sion-mak­ing process­es. Hence, Ice­land would lose it inde­pen­dence and sov­er­eign­ty by join­ing the EU. Morgun­blaðið is run­ning a fierce cam­paign against EU mem­ber­ship. For instance, it does not hes­i­tate to describe the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment as a total­ly pow­er­less body and hint that promi­nent pro-Euro­pean advo­cates in Ice­land are ‘trai­tors’.

Dis­putes between Ice­land and the Euro­pean Union have strength­ened euroscep­ti­cism in the coun­try since the No-move­ment has man­aged to por­tray the Union as a large bul­ly that does not respect the view of a small inde­pen­dent state. Hence, Ice­land would not stand a chance to have a say with­in the deci­sion-mak­ing process­es of the EU. This was the case with the domes­ti­cal­ly con­tro­ver­sial Ice­save deals with Britain and the Nether­lands (where the EU was blamed for stand­ing by its mem­bers) and in the dis­pute over mack­er­el quo­tas with the EU.

Radical protests without any policy shifts at the EU level

The out­come and turnout of the elec­tions received con­sid­er­able atten­tion in Ice­land. The turnout was eval­u­at­ed as a defen­sive vic­to­ry, though the euroscep­ti­cal media described the men­tion­ing of 0.1 per­cent high­er turnout as laugh­able. In gen­er­al, the out­come was por­trayed as a wor­ry­ing trend due to the vic­to­ry of right-wing extrem­ist par­i­ties. A part of the con­ser­v­a­tive block and media in the coun­try made a clear link between the suc­cess­es of these par­ties and the com­plete fail­ure of the Euro­pean Union, in all respects.

In gen­er­al, the out­come of the elec­tions was seen as the electorate’s response to the eco­nom­ic cri­sis and relat­ed aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures; oppo­si­tion to the ongo­ing Euro­pean inte­gra­tion process; lack of con­fi­dence in the rul­ing elites in the mem­ber states and at the EU lev­el; oppo­si­tion to immi­gra­tion and free move­ment of peo­ple with­in the EU (and asso­ci­at­ed wel­fare ben­e­fits); and protest votes against the rul­ing class in some of the mem­ber states.

Fur­ther­more, aca­d­e­mics con­clud­ed that the results might lead to a tighter immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy (for peo­ple out­side the EU itself); lim­it­ed chances of fur­ther deci­sive steps towards a clos­er Union in the next few years; a greater role of nation­al par­lia­ments in EU pol­i­cy mak­ing in the long run. On the oth­er hand, there seemed to be a con­sen­sus among com­men­ta­tors and active par­tic­i­pants in the dis­cus­sions about the results that the elec­tions would, in fact, not change much at the EU lev­el and not lead to any major pol­i­cy shifts in the next five years.

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2. The EU’s Neighbourhood

More and less: An ambivalent relationship with Russia

Tómas Joensen

Iceland’s rela­tions with Rus­sia were hot­ly debat­ed in the run-up to the Sochi Olympic Games. The debate con­cerned whether Ice­landic politi­cians should attend the Olympic Games or whether they should stay at home as a protest to the human-rights vio­la­tions tak­ing place in Rus­sia – a stance many lead­ers of West­ern coun­tries took. The politi­cians decid­ed to attend; and this was the first time the Pres­i­dent of Ice­land attend­ed the win­ter Olympic Games. The Min­is­ter of Edu­ca­tion (and sports) also attend­ed.

There are dif­fer­ing views with­in Ice­land on how exten­sive Iceland’s future rela­tions with Rus­sia should be and whether or not Rus­sia is a desir­able part­ner both polit­i­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly. The Pres­i­dent of Ice­land has spo­ken in favour of a for­eign pol­i­cy where the ties with Rus­sia would be strength­ened – also focus­ing on strength­en­ing rela­tions with Chi­na and India. The Pres­i­dent has in recent years advo­cat­ed a for­eign pol­i­cy empha­sis­ing rela­tions with these states, view­ing them as a coun­ter­weight to EU rela­tions. Rus­sia is in this con­text seen as an impor­tant strate­gic part­ner in the Arc­tic and an impor­tant polit­i­cal ally for the future. This view is some­what sup­port­ed by euroscep­tics in Ice­land and the right-wing media that main­tain that entry into the EU would hin­der polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic rela­tions with these states, and thus lim­it Iceland’s choic­es of pos­si­ble part­ners in the future. How­ev­er, a large part of both the polit­i­cal elite and the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion does not wish to strength­en Iceland’s ties with Rus­sia because of its poor­ly func­tion­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem and recent track-record of human-rights vio­la­tions. This opin­ion has been voiced on numer­ous occa­sions in the media and in pub­lic dis­course.

The pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment applied for mem­ber­ship to the EU and saw the EU as the most log­i­cal part­ner in for­eign pol­i­cy. The cur­rent gov­ern­ment, how­ev­er, is a sup­port­er of the President’s poli­cies and has also sought to ful­ly with­draw Iceland’s appli­ca­tion to the EU. In this light it will be inter­est­ing to see whether the gov­ern­ment will fol­low the President’s lead in strength­en­ing rela­tions with Rus­sia and rely on it as a strate­gic part­ner in eco­nom­ic and for­eign pol­i­cy in the future.

Criticizing the EU for its lack of action regarding events in Ukraine

Pia Hans­son

Although events in Ukraine have not been dis­cussed in the con­text of EU rela­tions with East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries in Ice­land to any degree, the For­eign Min­is­ter stat­ed in Par­lia­ment dur­ing the Crimea dis­pute that the EU was to blame for the atroc­i­ties tak­ing place in the coun­try. He was wide­ly crit­i­cized for his remarks and back­tracked some­what the fol­low­ing day but still main­tained, how­ev­er, that the EU should have made a greater effort to pro­tect Ukraine against Russia’s aggres­sion.
This report is part of the EU-28 Watch No. 10. For cita­tion please use the full report avail­able at: http://www.eu-28watch.org/.

Short­ly after, he vis­it­ed Ukraine and unequiv­o­cal­ly spoke in favour of the country’s cause. There is wide­spread pop­u­lar oppo­si­tion to Russia’s actions against Ukraine in Ice­land and Rus­sia is con­sid­ered to be an occu­py­ing force vio­lat­ing the sov­er­eign­ty of its neigh­bour­ing coun­try. How­ev­er, the impact of these events on EU rela­tions with oth­er East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries have not entered the debate yet and are not expect­ed to do so in the future as the EU-debate in Ice­land rarely moves beyond issues con­cern­ing fish­eries and sov­er­eign­ty.

Turkey’s possible membership would further diminish potential small state influence

Tómas Joensen

It is safe to say that the EU mem­ber­ship of Turkey has nev­er entered the Euro­pean debate in Ice­land to any degree and that its poten­tial mem­ber­ship is not some­thing Ice­landers have any real con­cerns about. The focus of the EU debate in Ice­land is pri­mar­i­ly on what domes­tic effects mem­ber­ship would have in Ice­land – future prospects of the EU and poten­tial future mem­bers are rarely dis­cussed. In this respect the main focus of the debate is on the loss of sov­er­eign­ty through entry into the EU and the dif­fi­cul­ty Ice­land would have in pro­tect­ing its inter­ests in an EU of over 500 mil­lion peo­ple. Turkey is of course seen as a large coun­try and its entry into the EU would, accord­ing to this view, fur­ther dimin­ish any poten­tial influ­ence Ice­land could have on EU leg­is­la­tion. How­ev­er, whether Turkey is a Euro­pean coun­try – geo­graph­i­cal­ly, cul­tur­al­ly or reli­gious­ly – and thus whether it belongs in a union of Euro­pean coun­tries has nev­er been dis­cussed to any degree.

Whether such a debate will ever take place is impos­si­ble to fore­see. It is how­ev­er inter­est­ing that in the munic­i­pal elec­tions this May a polit­i­cal par­ty, the cen­tre-agrar­i­an Pro­gres­sive Par­ty, for the first time ran a cam­paign focus­ing on Islam­o­pho­bia by ques­tion­ing the right of the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty to build a mosque in Reyk­javík. This strat­e­gy gave the par­ty a huge boost in the elec­tions giv­ing them 2 out of 15 seats in the City Coun­cil, con­trary to no seats at all as polls tak­en a week pri­or to the elec­tions sug­gest­ed. Con­sid­er­ing the high focus on sov­er­eign­ty and Ice­landic nation­al iden­ti­ty in the EU debate in Ice­land, there appears to be a fer­tile soil for a right-wing pop­ulist par­ty in Ice­land with a focus on immi­grant issues and Islam­o­pho­bia. Whether or not such a par­ty has now emerged in Ice­land remains to be seen. The strat­e­gy nev­er­the­less worked well for the Pro­gres­sive Par­ty in the region­al elec­tions and it could well con­tin­ue this polit­i­cal rhetoric in the next par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2017.

The EU debate in Ice­land is high­ly focused on the loss of sov­er­eign­ty and Iceland’s “spe­cial sta­tus” as a small island on the periph­ery of Europe. In light of the recent change in polit­i­cal rhetoric towards Mus­lims in Ice­land it will be inter­est­ing to see whether Turkey’s future mem­ber­ship of the EU – and its place in Europe – will enter that debate, as a part of the con­tin­u­ing EU debate in Ice­land. How­ev­er, for now Turkey remains out­side this debate in Ice­land.

3. Power relations in the EU

The small versus large debate – how Icelanders perceive power in the EU

Pia Hans­son

In gen­er­al, Ice­landers have a very pos­i­tive view of Ger­many and see Ger­many as a leader with­in the EU. But the view­point of the No-move­ment and the con­ser­v­a­tive and influ­en­tial news­pa­per Morgun­blaðið is clear: What applies to oth­ers does not nec­es­sar­i­ly apply to us. Iceland’s sit­u­a­tion is con­sid­ered unique and dif­fer­ent with the country’s high reliance on fish­eries and the per­ceived need to uphold Iceland’s “hard gained” inde­pen­dence. Hence, the rhetoric on the No-side is one of dis­trust towards for­eign influ­ence and involve­ment in what is con­sid­ered Ice­landic affairs.

Ger­many by any def­i­n­i­tion is a very large state com­pared to Ice­land and its influ­ence with­in the EU is uncon­test­ed which proves that the small can­not have a say with­in the EU, accord­ing to the No-move­ment. Fur­ther­more, the small mem­ber states have no seat at the table of “real” deci­sion-mak­ing. A more enlight­ened debate on how deci­sion-mak­ing actu­al­ly occurs with­in the EU rarely sees the light of day in Ice­land. The pic­ture por­trayed is that of a slow mov­ing train with the larg­er states dom­i­nat­ing the speed and the direc­tion and all oth­er mem­bers hav­ing to fol­low.

‘Lean austerity measures’ to start with and the Left-Right divide

Bal­dur Thorhalls­son

The “aus­ter­i­ty ver­sus growth” debate in Ice­land has been fair­ly live­ly since the 2008 eco­nom­ic crash. Inter­est­ing­ly, gov­ern­ments in Ice­land did not impose ‘harsh aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures’ until in the sec­ond year of the eco­nom­ic down­turn. The IMF approved this pol­i­cy in its res­cue pack­age for the coun­try. The idea was to soft­en the blow despite a dra­mat­ic fall in the state’s rev­enue and bud­get deficit. The drop in the state’s rev­enue was financed by increased tax­a­tion, espe­cial­ly on the export indus­try (which had enor­mous­ly ben­e­fit­ted from the fall of the Ice­landic kró­na). This was main­ly the work of the first ever left of cen­tre gov­ern­ment in the coun­try which took office a few months after the crash in Feb­ru­ary 2009.

That being said, the grand coali­tion, con­sist­ing of the con­ser­v­a­tive Inde­pen­dence Par­ty and the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Alliance (SDA), which col­lapsed in ear­ly 2009, had adopt­ed sim­i­lar ‘lean aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures’. How­ev­er, in the spring of 2013, the new coali­tion gov­ern­ment, under the lead­er­ship of the cen­tre agrar­i­an Pro­gres­sive Par­ty in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Inde­pen­dence Par­ty, cut tax­es, espe­cial­ly on the export indus­try (fish­eries) and tourism, in order to stim­u­late growth. More­over, the gov­ern­ment assist­ed mort­gage hold­ers of the peri­od lead­ing to the crash and after it with huge mon­ey trans­fers from the state’s bud­get. The mea­sures were severe­ly crit­i­cised by the IMF. At the same time, the gov­ern­ment some­what hard­ened the aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures of the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment for the 2014 bud­get, espe­cial­ly for edu­ca­tion and research.

In gen­er­al, the three Ice­landic gov­ern­ments in office since the 2008 crash have tried to pro­tect the wel­fare state and the edu­ca­tion sec­tor despite severe cuts in these fields. On the oth­er hand, the Left and Right dis­agree on whether or not to raise tax­es and pri­or­i­tize dif­fer­ent­ly when it comes to aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures. Iceland’s pre­ferred options at the Euro­pean lev­el dif­fer accord­ing to this Right-Left divide and the Pro and Anti EU divide. Hence, the pro-Euro­peans are for EU inter­ven­tion and greater pow­er for supra­na­tion­al author­i­ties while those who oppose Iceland’s mem­ber­ship oppose such moves.

The possibility of a UK exit makes it harder for the pro-Europeans to advocate their cause

Bal­dur Thorhalls­son

The media close­ly fol­lows the EU debate in the UK. Dis­cus­sions about the pos­si­ble UK exit from the Union make it more dif­fi­cult for the pro-Euro­pean forces in Ice­land to advo­cate their cause. The Ice­landic No-move­ment is active in invit­ing speak­ers from the UK, who oppose EU mem­ber­ship, and advise Ice­landers not to join the Union. They often receive con­sid­er­able atten­tion in the media part­ly due to their strong views towards the ques­tion of EU mem­ber­ship. The No-move­ment por­trays the neg­a­tive dis­cus­sions about the EU and pos­si­ble with­draw­al of the UK from the Union as a tri­umph for their cause.

On the oth­er hand, there is con­sid­er­able mis­un­der­stand­ing among min­is­ters, par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, jour­nal­ists and the gen­er­al pub­lic about the EU debate in the UK. For instance, many believe that the British Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty is against mem­ber­ship of the EU and that its lead­ers are try­ing to find a way to leave the Union. Hence, the debate is not very infor­ma­tive. In fact, this is the case with the EU debate in Ice­land, in gen­er­al. Oppo­nents of Iceland’s sta­tus as a can­di­date coun­try would wel­come the UK’s exit from the EU. Hence, they would wel­come the re-entry of Britain into EFTA and its pos­si­ble EEA mem­ber­ship. They regard Britain, as a non-mem­ber of the EU, as a poten­tial Ice­landic ally. If the UK were to leave the EU it would be even hard­er for the pro-Euro­peans to con­vince vot­ers that it would be in the inter­est of Ice­land to join the Union.

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This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained there­in.