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4th Mar 2024

Ex-Icelandic PM slams UK use of terror laws ahead of Icesave vote

  • A demonstrator protests ahead of Iceland's first referendum on the Icesave repayment package (Photo: Ane Cecilie Blichfeldt /norden.org)

On the eve of a key vote in Iceland, the country's former prime minister has criticised Europe's "lack of respect" for Arctic traditions, but predicted Iceland will join the EU in several years time.

Attending an event in Brussels on Friday (8 April), Hallador Asgrimsson also opposed London's use of national terrorism laws in 2008 to recoup savings lost by British citizens when the online Icesave bank collapsed.

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The issue is seen as a stumbling block to the Arctic state's potential membership of the European Union, with Icelandic citizens set to vote on a newly-negotiated agreement to hand back roughly €4 billion to the UK and the Netherlands on Saturday.

The lower interest rates are an improvement, but the package is far from perfect, said Asgrimsson. "As an Icelander I would like to have seen a better deal," he told this website on the sidelines of a Nordic Council of Ministers conference.

"I would like to have seen the UK and the Netherlands take greater responsibility," continued the Liberal politician who governed the small island state of 320,000 people between 2004 and 2006.

"In particular, the UK has to take into account that they used the law on terror on Iceland with serious consequences. That is something a Nato state never does against another Nato state. The UK would never have done it against the US."

In October 2008, the Labour government of former UK prime minister Gordon Brown used special laws brought in after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US to freeze assets held by Landsbanki in the UK, the parent company of Icesave.

Icelanders are still divided on the repayment issue, with Saturday's referendum predicted to be close. Polls suggest however that a majority of citizens have turned against EU membership, after the country's dramatic banking sector collapse in 2008 caused a temporary spurt of enthusiasm for the idea.

In 2009 Reykjavík lodged a formal application to join the EU, with negotiations set to start this June. "I think it will take some years, but Iceland will eventually join," predicted Asgrimsson, who is a supporter of membership.

EU-Artic malaise

Other speakers at Friday's event underlined the EU's still fledgling policy towards the Arctic region as a whole, although the prospect of trans-Arctic shipping lanes as a result of global warming has perked international interest in recent years.

The region's valuable resources including deepwater oil and gas deposits and rare earth reserves have also not gone unnoticed, with the Kremlin famously dispatching a submarine in 2007 to plant a rust-proof titanium Russian flag on the Arctic seabed.

But the moves have raised alarm among some Arctic groups who fears their cultures are set to be bulldozed, with the EU already a key contributor to pollution in the area.

"There is definitely a window of opportunity at the moment for the EU to increase its role in the Arctic," said Adele Airoldi, author of the book 'The European Union and the Arctic'. "But it's very important that it doesn't become a window of opportunism."

Airoldi said one of the rare examples of European policy makers taking an interest in Arctic affairs in recent years was their 2009 decision to ban seal product imports, provoking widespread condemnation amongst members of the Arctic community.

Canada and Norway have since challenged the decision at the World Trade Organisation.

Director general of the European Commission's fisheries department, Bernhard Friess, said his institution had every intention to respect the rights of indigenous groups living in the Arctic, stressing that the commission's role in the coming years would primarily focus on research development.

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