EU discussion sidelined because of the Ice-save dispute – a country preparing itself for an intensive EU debate

In Feb­ru­ary, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion rec­om­mend­ed that nego­ti­a­tions for acces­sion to the EU should be opened with Ice­land – only sev­en months after Ice­land sub­mit­ted its appli­ca­tion. The Ice­landic gov­ern­ment wel­comed the opinion’s con­clu­sion that Ice­land is well pre­pared to assume the oblig­a­tions of mem­ber­ship in most areas, in par­tic­u­lar the pol­i­cy fields con­versed by the Euro­pean Eco­nom­ic Area (EEA).11Web­site of the Ice­landic Min­istry for For­eign Affairs, avail­able at: http://www.utanrikisraduneyti.is/frettir/nr/5718 (last access: 12 July 2010). The rul­ing Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Alliance (SDA) also appre­ci­at­ed the opin­ion rec­om­men­da­tions that Ice­land needs to make seri­ous efforts to align its leg­is­la­tion with the acquis and/or to imple­ment and enforce it effec­tive­ly in order to ful­fil the acces­sion cri­te­ria in the fol­low­ing fields: fish­eries; agri­cul­ture and rur­al devel­op­ment; the envi­ron­ment; free move­ment of cap­i­tal; finan­cial ser­vices; the cus­toms union; tax­a­tion; sta­tis­tics; food safe­ty, vet­eri­nary and phy­tosan­i­tary pol­i­cy; region­al pol­i­cy and coor­di­na­tion of struc­tur­al instru­ments; and finan­cial con­trol.22Euro­pean Com­mis­sion: Com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the Com­mis­sion to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment and the Coun­cil. Com­mis­sion Opin­ion on Iceland’s appli­ca­tion for mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union, COM (2010) 62, avail­able at: http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2010/is_opinion_en.pdf (last access: 16 June 2010). On the oth­er hand, this advice was not well received by the Left Green Move­ment, the SDP’s coali­tion part­ner in gov­ern­ment, as well as the oppo­si­tion par­ties and the fish­eries’ and farm­ers’ lob­by. All of them claimed that through EU mem­ber­ship Ice­land would lose con­trol of its most valu­able resource, fish­eries, and leave Iceland’s agri­cul­ture in ruins.33Web medi­um Eyjan, 11 July 2009, avail­able at: http://eyjan.is/2009/07/11/raett-um-adildarumsokn-islands-ad-esb-a-althingi-i-allan-dag-meirihluti-thingheims-stydjur-umsoknina/ (last access: 12 July 2010).

The gov­ern­ment is split on the EU mem­ber­ship ques­tion, which has dam­aged the SDA’s effort with­in the EU to press for a speedy open­ing of acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions. Some min­is­ters and Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment (MPs) of the Left Green Move­ment still ques­tion the EU appli­ca­tion and are pub­licly fight­ing against mem­ber­ship – one of their MPs was recent­ly appoint­ed chair­man of the anti-EU move­ment Heimssýn. That said, the gov­ern­ment stands by the appli­ca­tion and the upcom­ing nego­ti­a­tions for acces­sion. All its min­is­ters, except for the one respon­si­ble for agri­cul­ture and fish­eries, are coop­er­at­ing in an effort to smoothen the acces­sion process.44Morgun­blaðið, 9 April 2010, avail­able at: http://mbl.is/mm/frettir/innlent/2010/04/09/furdar_sig_a_fundargerd/ (last access: 12 July 2010); Web medi­um Smu­gan, 28 July 2009, avail­able at: http://www.smugan.is/pistlar/adsendar-greinar/nr/2224 (last access: 12 July 2010).

The oppo­si­tion par­ties are also split on the ques­tion of EU mem­ber­ship, though anti-EU forces dom­i­nate them, at present. The lead­er­ship of the con­ser­v­a­tive Inde­pen­dence Par­ty and the agrar­i­an Pro­gres­sive Par­ty fight against mem­ber­ship, though the for­mal pol­i­cy of the Pro­gres­sives is to nego­ti­ate with the EU and make a deci­sion on mem­ber­ship based on an acces­sion treaty – both par­ties have a con­sid­er­able num­ber of Euro­peanists mem­bers, includ­ing Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment.55Web medi­um Pres­san, 25 June 2010, avail­able at: http://www.pressan.is/pressupennar/LesaOlafArnarson/sjaelfstaedisflokkurinn-er-klofinn-getur-bjarni-sameinad-a-ny (last access: 12 July 2010); the offi­cial web­site of the Pro­gres­sive Par­ty, avail­able at: http://www.framsokn.is/Forsida/Malefni (last access: 12 July 2010).

The polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion in Ice­land has been dom­i­nat­ed by the so-called Ice­save66The dis­pute is cen­tred on the pay­ment con­di­tions of Ice­land on the mon­ey Britain and the Nether­lands pro­vid­ed account hold­ers in the Ice­landic bank, Lands­ban­ki, which offered online sav­ings accounts under the Ice-save brand in those states. Lands­bank­inn was placed into receiver­ship by the Ice­landic gov­ern­ment ear­ly in Octo­ber 2008. dis­pute between Ice­land on the one hand and the Nether­lands and the Unit­ed King­dom on the oth­er. Hence, an inten­sive EU debate has not kicked off in the coun­try. In Jan­u­ary 2010, the Unit­ed King­dom, the Nether­lands and the Nordic states yet again blocked Iceland’s Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF) assis­tance after the Pres­i­dent of Ice­land referred the Ice-save deal, which the gov­ern­ment had nego­ti­at­ed with Britain and the Nether­lands and the Ice­landic par­lia­ment (the Alþin­gi) had nar­row­ly approved, to ref­er­en­dum. The deal was reject­ed by 93 per­cent of vot­ers.77Results of the ref­er­en­dum from the Nation­al Elec­toral Com­mis­sion of Ice­land, avail­able at: http://www.landskjor.is/landkjorstjorn/frettir-tilkynningar/nr/61 (last access: 16 June 2010). Hence, the dis­pute has dragged on – though the IMF assis­tance was approved by its gov­ern­ing board in April 2010 – and has raised nation­al­is­tic feel­ings and side­lined dis­cus­sions on the EU appli­ca­tion. In the pub­lic debate, the EU and its mem­ber states have been blamed for the IMF block­age and for stand­ing in the way of Iceland’s eco­nom­ic recov­ery – despite the fact that the EU has on sev­er­al occa­sions stat­ed that the dis­pute is a bilat­er­al mat­ter of the states con­cerned.88Let­ter from IMF Man­ag­ing Direc­tor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn on the Ice­save dis­pute, avail­able at: http://www.imf.org/external/np/vc/2009/111209.htm (last access: 12 July 2010); EU Observ­er, avail­able at: http://euobserver.com/9/29548 (last access: 12 July 2010). Ice­land has adopt­ed the EU reg­u­la­tions on finances through its mem­ber­ship in the EEA, on which the British and Dutch claims are based, and has request­ed that the EU step in to set­tle the dis­pute with­out any suc­cess. Hence, the EU is seen as not being able to pro­vide Ice­land with eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal shel­ter and, by many politi­cians and vot­ers, as a bul­ly stand­ing by as larg­er states oppress a small, defence­less neigh­bour. Accord­ing­ly, the pro-Euro­pean forces have had a dif­fi­cult time mak­ing their case in an atmos­phere of nation­al­ism, where Ice­landers gen­er­al­ly feel that all of their clos­est neigh­bour­ing states, except for the Faroe Islands, have desert­ed them in a time of great need. One could argue that Ice­landers have lost, in gen­er­al, faith in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions and in close coop­er­a­tion with their neigh­bour­ing states.

The pub­lic opin­ion on EU mem­ber­ship has clear­ly been affect­ed by the Ice­save dis­pute. Since ear­ly 2009, the major­i­ty of vot­ers have stat­ed their oppo­si­tion to mem­ber­ship in opin­ion polls – after a twelve-year peri­od where near­ly all polls indi­cat­ed a major­i­ty in favour of mem­ber­ship.99Bal­dur Thorhalls­son: The Scep­ti­cal Polit­i­cal Elite ver­sus the Pro-Euro­pean Pub­lic: The Case of Ice­land, in Scan­di­na­vian Stud­ies, 2002, 74 (3), p. 349–378; Opin­ion polls con­duct­ed by Capacent Gallup for The Fed­er­a­tion of Ice­landic Indus­tries, avail­able at: http://www.si.is/malaflokkar/althjodlegt-samstarf/evropumal/skodanakannanir/ (last access: 16 June 2010). The lat­est Capacent Ice­land opin­ion poll, con­duct­ed in July 2010, indi­cat­ed that 60 per­cent of vot­ers were against EU mem­ber­ship, 26 per­cent were for it and 15 per­cent did not state an opin­ion.1010Capacent Ice­land. Þjóðarpúls Gallup, July 2010. These are exact­ly the same find­ings as in Feb­ru­ary 2010. That said, in Feb­ru­ary, Capacent also asked vot­ers whether they were in favour of acces­sion nego­ti­a­tion with the EU. 64 per­cent of vot­ers were in favour of acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions, 28 per­cent against it and 7 per­cent did not state an opin­ion. Accord­ing­ly, a major­i­ty of vot­ers are still in favour of acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions with the EU.1111The Fed­er­a­tion of Ice­landic Indus­tries, opin­ion polls: devel­op­ment of atti­tudes, con­duct­ed in March 2010 by Capacent Gallup Ice­land, avail­able at: http://www.si.is/media/althjodlegt-samstarf/almenningur_2010-02.pdf (last access: 12 July 2010).

The Ice­landic anti-EU move­ment has gained momen­tum, set up camps in rur­al and coastal areas and dom­i­nat­ed the debate in the media and on the Inter­net. The cam­paign is strong­ly sup­port­ed by the fish­eries’ and farm­ers’ asso­ci­a­tions, which have tak­en a rigid stand against EU mem­ber­ship and been vocal in the media. The anti-EU cam­paign is at present cen­tred on three themes con­cern­ing EU mem­ber­ship. First, Ice­land would lose its inde­pen­dence and sov­er­eign­ty; sec­ond, Ice­land would lose con­trol over its most valu­able nation­al resource, fish­eries; and third, Iceland’s agri­cul­ture would be left dev­as­tat­ed.1212Web­site of the anti-EU move­ment, Heimssýn, avail­able at: http://heimssyn.is/ (last access: 16 June 2010).

The pro-Euro­pean move­ment has reor­gan­ised itself and set up an asso­ci­a­tion named Stronger Ice­land – A Nation among Nations (Sterkara Ísland – þjóð meðal þjóða). It draws on promi­nent fig­ures, main­ly from the greater Reyk­javik (cap­i­tal) area, the main employ­ers’ and employ­ees’ asso­ci­a­tions, and polit­i­cal par­ties – most­ly Con­ser­v­a­tives, Social Democ­rats and Pro­gres­sives.1313Web­site of the pro-EU move­ment, Sterkara Ísland, avail­able at: http://www.sterkaraisland.is/ (last access: 16 June 2010). It is also note­wor­thy that a pro-Euro­pean group, Inde­pen­dent Euro­peanists (Sjálf­stæðir Evró­pusin­nar), has been cre­at­ed with­in the Inde­pen­dence Par­ty, which draws on sup­port from its vice-chair­man and oth­er par­ty mem­bers. The Ice­landic Euro­pean Move­ment, estab­lished in 1995, is still in place and has pro­vid­ed back­up for the cre­ation of Stronger Ice­land.1414Web­site of the Ice­landic Euro­pean Move­ment, avail­able at: http://www.evropa.is/ (last access: 16 June 2010).

The pro- and anti-EU move­ments have two notice­able fea­tures in com­mon, i.e., they are run by men – women being notice­ably absent – and are spon­sored by eco­nom­ic sec­tors, which have been promi­nent in the EU debate in the past. The “Yes”-movement has been occu­pied by its reor­gan­i­sa­tion and not been active in the pub­lic debate, which was a delib­er­ate deci­sion, due to the dom­i­nance of the Ice­save issue and the cur­rent strong nation­al­is­tic sen­ti­ment in the coun­try. On the oth­er hand, the “No”-movement has been work­ing full force on its agen­da.1515For exam­ple see: http://heimssyn.is (last access: 12 July 2010), http://evropuvaktin.is (last access: 12 July 2010).

The Con­fed­er­a­tion of Ice­landic Employ­ers, a dri­ving force for EU mem­ber­ship in oth­er Nordic states, is not active in the EU debate – fol­low­ing a brief peri­od of activ­i­ty con­cern­ing an EU appli­ca­tion and adop­tion of the Euro in 2007 and 2008. This is because of an out­right split with­in it, where the pow­er­ful Fed­er­a­tion of Ice­landic Fish­ing Ves­sel Own­ers, the only major oppo­nent of EU mem­ber­ship in the Con­fed­er­a­tion, is grant­ed a block­ing pow­er on the EU ques­tion. The pro-Euro­pean mem­bers such as the Fed­er­a­tion of Ice­landic Indus­tries and the Fed­er­a­tion of Trade and Ser­vices have remained rel­a­tive­ly silent on the issue after a cam­paign for the EU appli­ca­tion. They are bound to come back into the debate with full force clos­er to the ref­er­en­dum on mem­ber­ship. The labour move­ment has also been rather silent about EU affairs, though it is now, large­ly, unit­ed behind the pro-Euro­pean cause after the anti-EU chair­man and MPs of the Left Green Move­ment of the Fed­er­a­tion of State and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees stepped down.1616For exam­ple see: http://www.asi.is/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-63/102_read-614/ (last access: 12 July 2010), http://www.bsrb.is/malefni/island-og-esb/ (last access: 12 July 2010).

A notice­able fea­ture of the Ice­landic EU nego­ti­a­tion com­mit­tee, includ­ing sev­er­al indi­vid­ual nego­ti­a­tion teams, which are prepar­ing the Ice­landic nego­ti­a­tions’ posi­tions, is the pres­ence of mem­bers of inter­est groups such as farm­ers’ and fish­eries’ asso­ci­a­tions, labour move­ments and the oppo­si­tion par­ties, and women and aca­d­e­mics from dif­fer­ent uni­ver­si­ties spread across the coun­try. The appoint­ment of the com­mit­tee was well received in the coun­try at large, it being lead by the exper­tise of the cen­tral admin­is­tra­tion.1717List of mem­bers of the Ice­landic Nego­ti­a­tion Com­mit­tee, web­site of the Min­istry for For­eign Affairs, avail­able at: http://europe.mfa.is/sidemenu/negotiation-committee/ (last access: 5 July 2010).

There is con­sid­er­able cov­er­age on EU affairs in the two dai­ly news­pa­pers, despite the dom­i­nance of the Ice­save issue. The most wide­ly read paper, Frét­tablaðið, is pro-Euro­pean, its edi­tor being a for­mer chair­man of the Euro­pean Move­ment. The oth­er news­pa­per, the con­ser­v­a­tive Morgun­blaðið, is run­ning a fierce cam­paign against EU mem­ber­ship under the edi­to­r­i­al lead­er­ship of Davíð Odd­s­son (the for­mer Prime Min­is­ter for 13 years, chair­man of the Inde­pen­dence Par­ty and direc­tor of the Cen­tral Bank), the most influ­en­tial polit­i­cal fig­ure in the coun­try over the past twen­ty years.1818For exam­ple: Langt til seilst, 21 June, Leiðari Morgun­blaðsins, 8 July 2010; Rét­tar­far í hnot­skurn, 29 June 2010, Báðir geti unað við sjá­varútveg­gssamn­ing, Frét­tablaðið, 8 July 2010, avail­able at: http://www.visir.is/article/2010515725231 (last access: 12 July 2010); Gjaldeyr­ishöftin: CCP óskar eftir stöðu­glei­ka, avail­able at: http://www.visir.is/article/2010814416482 (last access 12 July 2010).

    Footnotes

  • 1Web­site of the Ice­landic Min­istry for For­eign Affairs, avail­able at: http://www.utanrikisraduneyti.is/frettir/nr/5718 (last access: 12 July 2010).
  • 2Euro­pean Com­mis­sion: Com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the Com­mis­sion to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment and the Coun­cil. Com­mis­sion Opin­ion on Iceland’s appli­ca­tion for mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union, COM (2010) 62, avail­able at: http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2010/is_opinion_en.pdf (last access: 16 June 2010).
  • 3Web medi­um Eyjan, 11 July 2009, avail­able at: http://eyjan.is/2009/07/11/raett-um-adildarumsokn-islands-ad-esb-a-althingi-i-allan-dag-meirihluti-thingheims-stydjur-umsoknina/ (last access: 12 July 2010).
  • 4Morgun­blaðið, 9 April 2010, avail­able at: http://mbl.is/mm/frettir/innlent/2010/04/09/furdar_sig_a_fundargerd/ (last access: 12 July 2010); Web medi­um Smu­gan, 28 July 2009, avail­able at: http://www.smugan.is/pistlar/adsendar-greinar/nr/2224 (last access: 12 July 2010).
  • 5Web medi­um Pres­san, 25 June 2010, avail­able at: http://www.pressan.is/pressupennar/LesaOlafArnarson/sjaelfstaedisflokkurinn-er-klofinn-getur-bjarni-sameinad-a-ny (last access: 12 July 2010); the offi­cial web­site of the Pro­gres­sive Par­ty, avail­able at: http://www.framsokn.is/Forsida/Malefni (last access: 12 July 2010).
  • 6The dis­pute is cen­tred on the pay­ment con­di­tions of Ice­land on the mon­ey Britain and the Nether­lands pro­vid­ed account hold­ers in the Ice­landic bank, Lands­ban­ki, which offered online sav­ings accounts under the Ice-save brand in those states. Lands­bank­inn was placed into receiver­ship by the Ice­landic gov­ern­ment ear­ly in Octo­ber 2008.
  • 7Results of the ref­er­en­dum from the Nation­al Elec­toral Com­mis­sion of Ice­land, avail­able at: http://www.landskjor.is/landkjorstjorn/frettir-tilkynningar/nr/61 (last access: 16 June 2010).
  • 8Let­ter from IMF Man­ag­ing Direc­tor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn on the Ice­save dis­pute, avail­able at: http://www.imf.org/external/np/vc/2009/111209.htm (last access: 12 July 2010); EU Observ­er, avail­able at: http://euobserver.com/9/29548 (last access: 12 July 2010).
  • 9Bal­dur Thorhalls­son: The Scep­ti­cal Polit­i­cal Elite ver­sus the Pro-Euro­pean Pub­lic: The Case of Ice­land, in Scan­di­na­vian Stud­ies, 2002, 74 (3), p. 349–378; Opin­ion polls con­duct­ed by Capacent Gallup for The Fed­er­a­tion of Ice­landic Indus­tries, avail­able at: http://www.si.is/malaflokkar/althjodlegt-samstarf/evropumal/skodanakannanir/ (last access: 16 June 2010).
  • 10Capacent Ice­land. Þjóðarpúls Gallup, July 2010.
  • 11The Fed­er­a­tion of Ice­landic Indus­tries, opin­ion polls: devel­op­ment of atti­tudes, con­duct­ed in March 2010 by Capacent Gallup Ice­land, avail­able at: http://www.si.is/media/althjodlegt-samstarf/almenningur_2010-02.pdf (last access: 12 July 2010).
  • 12Web­site of the anti-EU move­ment, Heimssýn, avail­able at: http://heimssyn.is/ (last access: 16 June 2010).
  • 13Web­site of the pro-EU move­ment, Sterkara Ísland, avail­able at: http://www.sterkaraisland.is/ (last access: 16 June 2010).
  • 14Web­site of the Ice­landic Euro­pean Move­ment, avail­able at: http://www.evropa.is/ (last access: 16 June 2010).
  • 15For exam­ple see: http://heimssyn.is (last access: 12 July 2010), http://evropuvaktin.is (last access: 12 July 2010).
  • 16For exam­ple see: http://www.asi.is/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-63/102_read-614/ (last access: 12 July 2010), http://www.bsrb.is/malefni/island-og-esb/ (last access: 12 July 2010).
  • 17List of mem­bers of the Ice­landic Nego­ti­a­tion Com­mit­tee, web­site of the Min­istry for For­eign Affairs, avail­able at: http://europe.mfa.is/sidemenu/negotiation-committee/ (last access: 5 July 2010).
  • 18For exam­ple: Langt til seilst, 21 June, Leiðari Morgun­blaðsins, 8 July 2010; Rét­tar­far í hnot­skurn, 29 June 2010, Báðir geti unað við sjá­varútveg­gssamn­ing, Frét­tablaðið, 8 July 2010, avail­able at: http://www.visir.is/article/2010515725231 (last access: 12 July 2010); Gjaldeyr­ishöftin: CCP óskar eftir stöðu­glei­ka, avail­able at: http://www.visir.is/article/2010814416482 (last access 12 July 2010).

The reports focus on a report­ing peri­od from Decem­ber 2009 until May 2010. This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March and April 2010. Most of the 31 reports were deliv­ered in May 2010.

The EU-27 Watch No. 9 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.