Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

Iceland: further from EU membership than ever

  • Iceland's 'candidate' status to join the EU lapsed in 2015 - it is not likely to be revived under new Left-Green prime minister Katrin Jakobsdottir (Photo: Seppo Samuli/norden.org)

We have a new coalition government in Iceland.

Unlike the previous one it contains no political parties calling for membership of the European Union.

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The coalition is historic, as it joins together the conservative Independence Party and the socialist Left Green Movement along with the centrist Progressive Party. A coalition between the Independence Party and the party furthest to the left in Iceland's parliament has not been formed since 1944.

It is also historic as this is the first time the prime minister comes from the parliament's most leftist party.

The general elections on 28 October saw a record number of eight parties entering the parliament. Only two of them, the Social Democratic Alliance and the Restoration Party, support EU membership while one, the Pirates, favours a referendum on whether to apply to join the bloc or not, but does not have an official policy for or against doing so.

Only 11 pro-EU MPs

Together the pro-EU parties now have 11 MPs out of the total of 63 - but had 14 before the elections. Even if those parties are joined with the Pirates their combined number of MPs is now 17, compared to the previous 25.

Meanwhile at least two-thirds of the MPs oppose EU membership. Unsurprisingly after the elections, when the parties elected were attempting to form a new coalition, the leaders of both the Social Democratic Alliance and the Restoration Party declared their parties would not make steps towards EU membership a condition for entering a new coalition.

The results of the general election and the reaction of the two pro-EU party leaders do not come as a surprise either, considering that for more than eight years every single opinion poll published in Iceland has had a solid majority against joining the EU.

The most recent one, produced in October by Gallup for the pro-EU camp, had 59.8 percent against EU membership. The poll also saw a rejection of fresh accession talks with the EU - which pro-EU politicians often claim can be launched without any commitments only to see what Brussels has to offer.

The leadership of Iceland's pro-EU camp has never actually dared to promote the EU as it is.

Instead they have for many years claimed that nobody can really form an opinion on whether to join the EU or not in the absence of an accession treaty.

Which naturally has made regular opinion polls produced for the pro-EU camp on that precise question rather peculiar. Of course they are aware of the fact that by 'joining the EU' countries 'get the EU', but they also know that admitting that would probably result in even more opposition to EU membership.

Post-austerity path away from EU

The then leftist government of Iceland applied for EU membership in 2009 after the international financial crisis hit the country.

Icelandic politicians calling for EU membership saw the crisis and the consequent despair of many of the voters as an opportunity to get Iceland into the EU.

This was, however, doomed from the start as both people favouring and opposing EU membership warned right from the beginning. The application stalled before the leftist government was eventually voted out, and in 2015 Iceland ceased to be an EU candidate country.

The policy of the new government when it comes to the EU is that the interests of Iceland are best served by remaining outside the bloc. Evidently this government will most certainly not take any steps towards joining the EU.

While the government maintains the policy of its predecessors, that the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement is the foundation of Iceland's relations with the EU, there is a growing debate in the country - as in Norway - whether membership of the agreement, which puts increasing pressure on Iceland's sovereignty, serves the interests of the Icelandic people.

We have probably never been further away from joining the EU than today.

Not just because of the new government but as there has arguably never been less public and political support for taking that step.

Meanwhile the EU is set to develop in even more repellent directions to most Icelanders in the coming years, towards more integration, centralisation and erosion of national sovereignty and democracy, and taking on more characteristics of a single state.

The results of our last elections is an embodiment of our determination to hold onto our sovereignty.

Hjortur J. Gudmundsson is a historian in Reykjavík, Iceland

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