21st Nov 2017


Does Iceland want to join the EU?

  • The signposts do not suggest Iceland will join the EU any time soon (Photo: Silje Bergum Kinsten/ norden.org)

There were no celebrations in the streets of Reykjavík or elsewhere in Iceland when the European Commission announced on 24 February that it would recommend membership negotiations with the country. This really shouldn't come as a surprise in the light of the fact that Icelanders don't want to join the EU and probably never have.

According to the most recent public opinion poll in Iceland by Capacent, 56 percent are opposed to EU membership, up six percent since last September, while just 33 percent are in favour. Furthermore, the September poll showed a majority displeased with the government's EU application delivered last summer.

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The EU application was merely the result of a horse trading between the two parties forming the current government one of which, the Left Green Movement, is itself thoroughly eurosceptic. The senior coalition partner, the Social Democratic Alliance, is the only political party in Iceland that favours EU membership. In the polls, the Social Democrats have been losing a great deal of support and according to the latest survey it is now the third most popular party in Iceland compared with being the most popular in the general elections in April last year. At the same time, the conservative Independence Party, which rejects EU membership, has regained its former position as the top party.

In Iceland, the EU application has been nicknamed "bjölluat", the Icelandic name for the children's game where a door bell is rung with no one there when the door is answered.

Even the Icelandic business community has now turned strongly against EU membership, according to a recent poll with 60 percent saying Iceland's economy is better placed outside the EU and only a third of the opposite opinion.

Those who favour EU membership in Iceland have pointed to the alledged support of Icelandic businesses in recent months when faced with growing public opposition, but now they do not even have that straw to grasp.

A former newspaper editor in Iceland and a supporter of EU membership, Jónas Kristjánsson, recently explained this situation quite well on his website: "No Icelandic journalist was at the meeting when the European Union accepted negotiations on Iceland's membership. This says much about Icelander's interest in joining."

"For the first time, there is no celebration when membership negotiations with a country are accepted. Our interest in joining has been little for a long time and has decreased rapidly during the Icesave dispute. The membership application was just a formality in order to form a government. Since then, the journey has only been on behalf of the Social Democratic Alliance and the foreign ministry [run by the social democrats]. The general public is not participating in this strange fake-journey and will reject membership."

Mr Kristjánsson is far from being the only prominent supporter of EU membership in Iceland who has publicly criticised the government for putting forward the application under all the wrong circumstances and predicted that membership will be rejected. There has been an obvious and growing pessimism and worries among those who favour joining the EU and the Social Democratic Alliance is becoming increasingly isolated on the issue.

Another devoted EU enthusiaist in Iceland, academic Eiríkur Bergmann Einarsson, expressed his concerns over the lack of support for EU membership recently in an interview with an Icelandic newspaper, warning there was absolutely no sense for Brussels to start expensive negotiations with a country which had no serious intentions to actually join the EU. On a previous occasion last autumn Einarsson said at a conference in Reykjavík that in his opinion, Iceland would not become a member of the EU in the forseeable future.

The Icelandic government, or the part of it that favours EU membership, has naturally tried to put on a brave face and convince Brussels that eventually the public opinion will turn around. Especially when the so-called Icesave dispute with the British and Dutch governments has been solved, if it is solved. But the reality is, as Mr Kristjánsson explains, that Icelanders have in fact never been interested in joining the EU. There has always been heavy opposition to membership and additional debate on the issue has tended only to increase this opposition.

The Icesave dispute was not the main cause of increased opposition to EU membership, but it certainly has not made things any easier for EU boosters.

Hjortur J. Gudmundsson is director of Civis, an Icelandic free-market think-tank.

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