Report: Iceland and the European Union

by Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson

Iceland has never applied for membership of the European Union. The debate has so far never gone further than just debating the issue. Iceland’s relations with the EU are mainly based on the EEA Agreement between the EU and the EFTA (which Iceland is a member of along with Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The last country is, however, not a members of the EEA ) which grants Iceland full access to the EU’s Single Market and at the same time obliges the country to adopt EU laws concerning it. Iceland is also a member of the Schengen borderless zone.

It is a widely used explanation that the fisheries are more or less the sole reason why Icelanders have choosen to stay out of the EU. The fisheries are surely extremely important to Iceland and the biggest pillar of its economy. However, the main reason is without doubt the independence and sovereignty. Which includes naturally the sovereignty over Iceland’s natural resources. The history of Iceland is regarded as a textbook example of how national independence and progress are entwined. How important it is for nations to be able to control their own destiny and be able to secure their own interests themselves.

The history
The public attitute towards EU membership has through the years been divided in two with almost as much support for either side according to opinion polls. At times the yes side has been few percents ahead and at others the no side has had an advance. On few limited occasions, however, either side has gained significantly more support. EU membership has never become an election issue in Iceland and as a rule increased debate on the issue has lead to increased opposition in opinion polls. In recent years only one political party represented in the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, has favoured membership negotiations with the EU.

For the past years there have been five political parties represended in the Althing:
  • The Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) – conservative/liberal/libertarian
  • The Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin) – social democrat
  • The Left Green Movement (Vinstrihreyfingin – grænt framboð) – socialist/green
  • The Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) – centrist/liberal
  • The Liberal Party (Frjálslyndi flokkurinn) – social liberal
The Independence Party was founded in 1929 through the merger of two center-right parties and has always been opposed to membership of the EU and its forerunners. The party was along with the Social Democratic Party (today a part of the Social Democratic Alliance) mainly responsible for Iceland’s membership of the EEA Agreement. The Independence Party has traditionally been Iceland’s biggest party gaining from 35-40 percent of the votes. In the last general elections in 2007 it got 37 percent. However, the party has been widely blamed for the banking collapse due to the fact until January it had been in government constantly since 1991. As a result according to the last poll by Gallup on April 2 the party has 25 percent.

The Social Democratic Alliance was founded in 2000 through the merger of four older left of center political parties. It has since 2002 been in favour of EU membership negotiations after a postal vote was conducted among party members. The party has received around 30 percent in general elections. In the elections in 2007 it got 27 percent. According to the last poll it has 29 percent.

The Left Green Movement was founded in 1999 and has from the beginning been opposed to EU membership. The party was founded by people who for ideological reasons opposed the idea of merging the whole Icelandic center-left into one single party which later became the Social Democratic Alliance. The Left Green Movement has received around 10 percent in general elections. In the elections in 2007, however, it got 14 percent. According to the last poll it has 28 percent.

The Progressive Party was founded in 1916 and is thus Iceland’s oldest political party still in existence. It was originally founded as a agrarian party but as increasing number of people moved from the countryside to towns and villages during the 20th century the party redefined itself as a centrist party while still holding strong ties with the countryside. The party was opposed to EU membership but in later years its policy has become one of observing the issue mainly as an attempt to reconcile different opinions among its members. The Progressive Party has traditionally had around 15-20 percent of the votes in general elections. In the elections in 2007 the party got 12 percent. According to the latest poll it has 11 percent.

The Liberal Party was founded in 1998 mainly to oppose the Icelandic fishing system which the party sees as unjustful. The party has always rejected EU membership mainly on the grounds of opposition to the Common Fisheries Policy. The Liberal Party has been the smallest of the five parties represented in the parliament in recent years. It has received around 5-10 percent in general elections. In the elections in 2007 the party got 7 percent. According to the latest poll it has about 1.5 percent.

Recent events
In the wake of the collapse of almost all the Icelandic banking sector in October 2008 a public panic emerged which among other things revealed itself in increased support for EU membership according to polls. There was a certain demand for a safe harbour and the yes side systematically portraited the EU as being one. There was also a certain panic among the politicians with some of them, who previously had opposed EU membership, starting to say that perhaps a referendum should be held on the issue. The leadership of the Independence Party decided in November to advance its national congress and hold it at the end of January 2009 among other things to review its position on EU membership.

This decision by the Independence Party’s leadership was widely seen as an attempt to pacify the then coalition partner in government the Social Democratic Alliance which had after the banks collapsed put an increased emphasis on EU membership and even threatened to break up the government if the Independence Party did not change its policy on the EU. The Independence Party’s leadership also formed a special committee within the party with the task of researching what EU membership would mean for Iceland and to provide a platform for the party’s members to voice their opinions. The committe held many meetings which showed clearly that vast majority of party members opposed EU membership.

However, before the Independence Party’s national congress could be held the Social Democratic Alliance left the government and formed a minority government with the Left Green Movement and with the support of the Progressive Party which will be in power until the election on April 25. As a result of this the leadership of the Independence Party decided to move the national congress to the end of March. In the beginning of the year 2009 the public attitute towards EU membership changed completely according to repeated polls with a majority opposed to EU membership.

Results of national congresses
The Independence Party eventually held its national congress on March 26-29. The party reaffirmed its previous policy that EU membership was not in the interests of the Icelandic people. The congress stated that a review of its postion towards EU membership had not led to a changed policy. The congress also stated that the issue should be put to a referendum if it would be addressed at some point in the future.

The Social Democratic Alliance held its national congres March 27-29. The party reaffirmed its previous policy that Iceland should apply for EU membership and start membership negotiations. The party leadership said it would put special emphasis on EU membership, both during the elections campaign and if the party will participate in forming a new government after the elections.

The Left Green Movement held its national congress March 20-22 where its previous opposition to EU membership was confirmed. The party also stated that if the issue would be addressed at any time in the future it should be put to a referendum.

The Progressive Party held its national congress in mid January accepting a changed policy towards EU membership. The party is now in favour of starting membership negotiations with the EU. However, the congress also agreed on certain strict conditions to be fulfilled for the party to support membership. Among them full authority over Icelandic natural resources including the fishing resource. A new chairman was also elected at the congress who has said that negotiations with the EU are not relevant until after the Icelandic economy has recovered. Addressing the issue while the economy is in tough times is simply not sensible.

The Liberal Party held its national congress on March 13-14 where its previous policy opposed to EU membership was confirmed. The party had conducted a mail vote among party members in December 2008 asking if Iceland should seek EU membership or not resulting in 52 percent against and 35 percent in favour.

The campaign before the general elections on April 25 will for obvious reasons be very short. At this point nothing indicates EU membership will be an issue now more than in previous general elections in Iceland. The short campaigning will probably constribute additionally to this since others issues are likely, as before, to be seen as much more important to address. However, the Social Democratic Alliance has as mentioned before claimed it will put special emphasis on EU membership, both during the elections campaign and if the party will participate in forming a new government after the elections. The problem the social democrats are facing is therefore with whom they are going to apply for EU membership?