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Iceland starting to ponder EU membership

Iceland starting to ponder EU membership

| Text: Hallgrímur Indriðason

Iceland applied for EU membership in 2009, after the collapse of the banking system almost bankrupted the country. The government at the time, led by the EU-friendly Social Democratic Party, believed membership was vital for financial stability. The Euro was also seen as better than the small and unstable krona.

The government, however, did not manage to finalise accession negotiations before the end of its term in 2013. After that, a new two-party government coalition of the Independence Party and Progressive Party took over – neither of whom wants to join the EU. So the government halted the negotiation which have since been at a standstill. 

Possible EU membership has not been discussed after 2013. Since 2011, nearly every annual poll has shown more than 60 per cent of Icelanders are against joining. But recently, the support for EU membership started to increase and a poll from last February showed a majority in favour of joining for the first time since 2011. 40.8 per cent were in favour, 35.9 per cent against and 23.3 percent were undecided.

Last year, former parliamentarian Jon Steindor Valdimarsson founded the European Movement (Evrópuhreyfingin), as a reaction to the increase in support. He has always been in favour of Iceland becoming a member. 

“When we applied for membership, we always thought that we would reach a firm conclusion on the matter – that we would get a deal that we could vote on in a referendum. So it was a big disappointment that the discussions were halted. This was done in spite of many protests demanding that there should at least be a referendum on whether to continue the discussions or not.”

Ukraine war has changed minds

Valdimarsson says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered the foundation of the European movement. 

“Soon after that, I started to wonder whether this is something that shows that the EU is about much more that the economy, which had been the main focus in Iceland. Membership means to be a part of the decision-making process in Europe. So I started discussions with a few others who want Iceland to join and they were excited.” 

The movement was founded on 9 May 2022 (on Europe Day, not a coincidence). It went public on 1 December (Iceland’s independence day, also not a coincidence) and since then close to 1,000 people have joined the movement.

Valdimarsson says that the big change now is that other factors besides the economy are starting to matter more in the eyes of the Icelandic public in terms of EU membership. 

“This is about values, togetherness, defence against aggression.” 

That does not mean that the economy does not matter. Valdimarsson believes that the Euro would bring more stability as well as lower interest rates to Iceland. 

Along with Norway and Liechtenstein, Iceland is part of the EEA agreement, which in general is considered to be good for the country. Valdimarsson, however, agrees with the criticism that it is partly a false democracy. 

“We must implement EU regulations without having any say in the way they are formed. So in my view it’s more democratic to get a seat at the table where the decisions are being made.”  

Valdimarsson brings up a special aviation carbon tax as an example. 

“Our ministers have spoken to all kinds of commissioners and ministers without accomplishing anything. Iceland is in a special situation being a far-away island and flying is by and large the only way to get in and out of the country. If we could have presented that point of view before the rules were made, I’m sure it would have brought a better result.” 

Fisheries and agriculture main worries

The main argument against EU membership has been that it would be bad for fisheries and agriculture. Fisheries mainly because other countries could then fish in Iceland’s jurisdiction and agriculture because increased imports could harm domestic products. There are other factors, but these are the most important ones. The EEA agreement makes Iceland exempt from EU rules in these two areas. 

Regarding the fisheries Valdimarsson says: 

“We believe that the rules used by the EU to hand out fishing quotas mean there won’t be any ships coming to Iceland to fish. And regarding the species that move between jurisdictions, that is something we have to reach a special deal on. It is possible that at a later stage formal decision on the quotas will be taken in Brussels, but that is always based on science.  

“The Icelandic Marine Research Institute will send its recommendations and there is nothing that indicates that the EU would go against that. I think this is an example of something that we can argue about endlessly, but we can’t fully know what we will get before an accession deal is made.” 

Valdimarsson also points out that some of the biggest fishery companies in Iceland also operate quite a lot abroad. These companies are mostly against membership. 

“This is a question of power and influence. They have good access to ministers in Iceland so they think they would loose this influence on accession.”

In the case of agriculture, Valdimarsson believes the farmers’ opposition is based on a misunderstanding. 

“In Sweden and Finland farmers are not worse off than before EU admission. Farmers have been worried that this will reduce the number of farms and be the end of the old family farms, but this is already happening. The EU has been subsidising agriculture and will continue to do so.  

"The EU also has a strong regional policy that would support the regions throughout the country. The quality of Icelandic agriculture products is also so good that I don’t think we have to worry about foreign competition. And this gives possibilities for exports that could be very beneficial to farmers too.” 

“Politicians dragging their feet”

Politically, there does not seem to be much interest in the EU. The Social Democrats, which have been in a bit of a crisis for the past few years, have a new leadership that has decided to focus on other things besides the EU. Currently, it is only the pro-EU centre-right Liberal Reform Party that is talking about membership.

“After the war in Ukraine started, many countries began reconsidering their international cooperation. The clearest example is Sweden and Finland joining NATO. In Iceland the political parties just wave old policies form 10 to 15 years ago that say that Iceland is better off outside the EU. 

“But the last two EU polls show that the war in Ukraine has changed the public’s view, along with perhaps higher interest rates. This shift is real, but we don’t know how long it will last. I think the public is now more keen on membership while the politicians are dragging their feet,” says Jon Steindor Valdimarsson. 

He is not certain this change in the public view will affect the politics.  

“But I find it strange if the changes that are now going on in Europe will not affect the politics more that it has. The changes are that big.”

The European Movement’s main aim is to push for a referendum on whether to continue the discussion that was halted almost 10 years ago. According to another poll, 66 per cent of the public want such a referendum.  

“We think that this is the time to ask the public what they want. Most parties have said no further steps will be taken without doing so. So our goal is for such a referendum to take place. I think that it will be hard to say no to such a request, especially since a deal with the EU will also have to be approved in a referendum. So our dream scenario would be that such a referendum would be held before the next elections [scheduled for 2025] so the voters could ask their parties whether they would uphold the results.”

Jon Steindor Valdimarsson

last year founded the European Movement (Evrópuhreyfingin) as a reaction to increased support for EU membership. He has always wanted Iceland to gain EU membership.


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