Yesterday was a black day in Iceland when the Icelandic parliament narrowly voted in favour of a proposal allowing the government to apply for membership of the European Union. The vote was very close and the issue had been debated heavily for a number of days in the parliament. 33 MPs said yes, 28 said no, and two did not vote. A proposal from the opposition that the decision to apply would be a subject to a special referendum was rejected narrowly with 32 votes against 30. The government (backed by most of its MPs) opposed that proposal strongly which suggests it simply does not believe that the people are in favour of this step.
Five government MPs rejected the proposal, all from the junior coalition partner The Left Green Movement (Vinstrihreyfingin - grænt framboð) which is according to its policy strongly opposed to EU membership. Eight of the party's MPs voted in favour and one did not vote. Seven of these eight are nevertheless opposed to membership but voted in favour in order to secure a continued coalition government with the pro-EU Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin). A number of them gave a short speech in the parliament before voting where they claimed their strong oppostion to EU membership while drawing up a very negative picture of the union.
The voting in the parliament:
The Social Democratic Alliance (social democrats): Yes 20, No 0, Abstain 0.
The Independence Party (conservatives/liberals): Yes 1, No 14, Abstain 1.
The Left Green Movement (socialists/greens): Yes 8, No 5, Abstain 1.
The Progressive Party (centrists/agrarians): Yes 3, No 6, Abstain 0.
The Civilian Movement: Yes 1, No 3, Abstain 0.
Total: Yes 33, No 28, Abstain 2.
Much of the debate prior to the vote, both in the parliament and among the people, were about the fact that the Left Greent Movement was according to its policy strongly opposed to EU membership which meant that it did not have any permission from its voters to take part in applying for EU membership. Last general elections in Iceland took place on April 25 this year. Many associations within the party from various parts of the country prior to the vote protested the party leadership's support along with many of the party's ordinary members and voters. Political speculators in Iceland have been suggesting this could lead to some serious internal problems within the party.
The government had to count on the support from few MPs in the oppostion to get its proposal through. One of the government minister even said no, the minister for agriculture and fisheries, who comes from the Left Green Movement. In addition the leader of the Left Green Movement said yesterday to the Icelandic media that his party assumed every right to stop the accession talks at any time if it believes the EU is not meeting its demands. According to the government's proposal the Left Green Movement has also assumed the right to oppose a possible final accession treaty. Whether or not the party will actually do either this is yet another token of how half-heartedly it is on the issue to say the very least. This all simply means the government is very broken on this issue.
The government has already as of this morning formally announced the application to both the Swedish EU Presidency and the European Commission. The formal application is expected to be put forward at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on July 27. Accession talks are expected to begin in February 2010 given the application will be accepted and a possible date of accession according to the government is January 1, 2013 which means a referendum could take place in 2012. However, this whole process could take place sooner depending on the speed and progress of the accession talks.
The last opinion poll in Iceland by Gallup showed a 50/50 situation regarding the question whether people wanted to join the EU or not.
Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson