How serious is Iceland about joining the EU?

Speculations whether the Icelandic government’s application for membership of the European Union is really serious are quite understandable. The government is totally split on the issue, the Icelandic parliament only voted narrowly in favour of the application this summer and the people are utterly opposing it. The step is completely premature with all the wrong circumstances at hand.

Even in the light of the economic difficulties Iceland is facing at the moment, and which have been used to the outmost by the pro-EU side to try to get Icelanders to change their minds about the EU, the opposition to membership has on the contrary been growing fast according to the polls. The Icelandic people are simply not being convinced that the EU is a solution to their problems and besides the price for joining is simply seen as way too great.

The political situation
Nothing has really changed in Iceland in the political attitute towards the EU. There is still as before only one political party which can be defined as pro-EU, the ruling Social Democratic Alliance. There is also far from being a sufficient support for EU membership in the polls. According to the latest one the vast majority of Icelanders oppose joining the EU by 54 percent against 29. And the majority is also unhappy with the membership application.

The sole reason why the social democrats managed to get an EU application through is that the leadership of their junior coalition partner, the Left Green Movement which is opposed to EU membership according to its platform, decided to support the step only to be able to form a government with them. Otherwise there would simply not have been any EU application. This was merely a horse bargaining between the government parties.

Split government
The result of all this is a government torn apart over this issue – and others. One of its ministers voted against the EU application in the parliament in July, Jón Bjarnason the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, along with four other Left Green MPs (out of total 14 Left Green MPs). The leadership of the Left Green Movement has furthermore publicly assumed every right to oppose a final membership agreement with the EU and even to withdraw the application at any time.

The leader of the Left Greens, Finance Minister Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, summed up the situation quite well at the recent Nordic Council’s 61st Session in Stockholm when he said that even though his government had applied for EU membership the Icelandic people nevertheless didn’t want to join. In other words there is a huge gap – or more precise a huge canyon – between the Icelandic government and its people on the EU issue.

Those Icelanders who favour joining the EU have been waiting for years for the right environment for an EU application without success. So when Iceland was hit by the economic crisis a year ago they thought this opportunity had finally arrived, not the least since the polls became very favourable for them at first. But at the beginning of this year the polls again became unfavourable for their cause and have been increasingly since.

The latest token of the growing pro-EU desperation in Iceland is a ridiculous and at the same time laughable attempt to draw up a picture of Icelanders as xenophobes, and especially their opponents in the No camp, and claiming it the reason for the opposition to joining the EU. Despite for example the fact that opposition to membership has always had a tendency to grow when there has been a significantly increased debate in Iceland on the issue.

Growing pessimism
This all has led to growing pessimism among leading people in the pro-EU camp. Recently a former Foreign Minister of Iceland, Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, said that he thought the Icelandic people would reject joining the EU in a referendum. Hannibalsson, who was a Foreign Minister when Iceland joined the European Economic Area in 1994, has for many years been one of the most outspoken supporters of Icelandic EU membership.

Another prominent figure on the pro-EU side, scholar Eiríkur Bergmann Einarsson, said addressing a public meeting at the end of September that he thought Iceland wouldn’t join the EU in the forseeable future. If the Icelandic people would say yes to membership it would be due to temporary insanity, at any ordinary day they would say no. Einarsson’s assumption is probably quite correct.

Norway all over again
Iceland’s neighbour to the east, Norway, has twice applied for EU membership and on both occasions rejected it in a referendum. According to various news reports there are growing worries in Brussels that the Icelandic application will meet the same fate. Which must be seen as quite understandable. After all Icelanders clearly don’t want to join the EU and probably never have.

So the question the leaders of the EU obviously must ask themselves is whether or not they are eager to repeat their Norwegian experience?