Discussions in the Icelandic parliament about the EU issue

Geir H. Haarde, the Icelandic Foreign Minister, gave his report to the Icelandic parliament on October 17. There was a long discussion about foreign affairs in the wake of that. Among other issues discussed was Iceland's relationship with the European Union. A couple of pro-EU MPs said that Iceland should join the EU, or actually only one of them did. The other one just said that this should be looked into but wouldn't say whether she actually favoured EU membership or not. This was, however, met with a broad coalition of MP's from four parties - the Independence Party, the Left-Green Movement, the Progressive Party and the Liberal Party (there are only five parties represented in the parliament) all speaking against EU membership. This is the same way things happen everytime the few pro-EU MP's try to raise the EU issue in the Icelandic parliament - the seldom it happens.



Iceland is not on the way into the EU

In Iceland we are often told that Norway is on the way into the European Union. We have actually been getting this message for a very long time now – for decades. At the same time we know the people in Norway on regular basis get the message that Iceland is going to join the EU. In both cases, however, it is highly unlikely that either country will become member of the EU in the foreseeable future inspite of the wishful thinking of the Icelandic and Norwegian pro-EU movements. In fact, there hasn’t been any serious EU debate in Iceland for years now with the sole exception of the second half of 2002 and the beginning of 2003 when there was a short debate on the issue before the general elections in the spring of 2003. The result of this debate in the polls was a vast majority against EU membership and therefore the EU question was not raised at all during the election campaign.

Polls in Iceland
It has occurred that opinion polls in Iceland on the EU have a certain tendency. When there is little or no debate on the issue they tend to show those in favour of EU membership leading by few percents. However, once a serious debate starts – the seldom it happens – and all the cards are put on the table this turns around and those opposed to the idea of joining the EU become a majority. This was the case for example concerning the last EU poll in Iceland, published on September 1 by Gallup, where support for EU membership was a bit more than the opposition. After all there is no EU debate in Iceland at the moment. A good example for this is the fact we only have two polls on the issue a year while I understand there are monthly polls in Norway. In comparison we have polls every month on the support for the Icelandic political parties.

According to the poll on September 1 the crisis within the EU, after the French and Dutch rejection of the proposed EU constitution, don’t seem to have had much influence in Iceland unlike for example in Norway. There seems to be only one logical explanation for this. As I said before there hasn’t been any serious debate in Iceland about the EU for years unlike in Norway, as I understand, where there is always a certain ongoing debate on the issue. Therefore as a result what happens within the EU is more likely to affect the public opinion in Norway than in Iceland. The question whether Iceland should join the EU or not is obviously not high on people's list over the most important issues. What happens within the EU is therefore simply something distant to the Icelandic people.

Only one pro-EU party
Although it must be considered highly unlikely that Norway will join the EU in the foreseeable future it is even less likely that Iceland will ever do so. In addition to the nature of EU polls in Iceland we don’t have a pro-EU government nor a pro-EU parliament majority. In fact, only one of the political parties is in favour of joining the EU, the Socialdemocratic Alliance (Samfylkingin), although the party has never actually dared to put the issue on its agenda. The reason being both that the issue is somewhat debated within the party but more importantly the lack of necessary support among the Icelandic people.

All the other political parties in Iceland are opposed to EU membership including the centrist Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) although some people outside Iceland seem to think the party is pro-EU. That is, however, far from being correct. The chairman of the party, the current Prime Minister of Iceland Halldór Ásgrímsson, is indeed pro-EU but the vice-chairman is not and the same goes for vast majority of the members of the party. This became very clear at the party’s biannual general meeting earlier this year where those in favour of joining the EU in the party made several attempts to have membership put on the party’s platform but where forced to withdraw every time. In addition, according to a poll by Gallup the majority of the voters of the party is also opposed to EU membership.

No EU membership in 2007
I understand there have been some speculations in Norway that Iceland may seek EU membership in 2007. This is, however, as good as impossible. The current government, formed by the conservative Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) and the Progressive Party, will not start negotiations with the EU since the parties are not only both opposed to EU membership but have also an agreement that joining the EU is not on the agenda. The next general elections in Iceland are scheduled in May 2007, but since all but one of the political parties are opposed to EU membership a government in favour of joining the EU taking power in the wake of them is not a possibility.

Davíð Oddsson, Foreign Minister of Iceland and former Prime Minister, announced recently that he intends to leave Icelandic politics. He will step down as an MP and Foreign Minister on September 27 and not seek re-election as chairman of the Independence Party after the party's biannual general meeting in October, a post he has filled ever since 1991. The eurosceptic attitute of the Independence Party has probably been characterised in Oddsson by many outside Iceland. However, it is as good as impossible that his resignation will affect the policy of the party towards the EU in any way since it does not stand and fall with him. Opposition to EU membership is widespread within the party in all ranks of it.

Why should we join??
But what issues are most important to the Icelandic people when it comes to the opposition to EU membership? According to a poll by Gallup these are the fisheries (the public opinion in Iceland is that we must hold full authority over our fisheries and our waters in case of EU membership – something the EU will of course never accept), the loss of sovereignty a membership would entail, and little influence within the EU. Other issues include bureaucracy, overregulation and centralisation within the EU, lack of democracy along with the constant political, economic and social integration. Also polls by Gallup have repeatedly shown a large majority against adopting the euro instead of the Icelandic króna.

So in short there is nothing actually which indicates that Iceland will ever join the EU. The arguments of the pro-EU movement are not based on telling people that joining the EU would be good for Iceland – not anymore – but telling them sooner or later Iceland will be forced to join. Usually the addition follows that this will happen when Norway becomes member of the EU. But the fact is that neither country is likely to join the EU and it’s not difficult to see why. Both countries are doing great outside the EU. The recent United Nations report on living standards and wealth shows Iceland in second place after... Norway. So why should both countries even consider joining the EU?

Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson

(Written in September and published in the Nei til EU's magazine in Norway)