Member and neighbour States

Iceland’s U-turn

When MEPs backed Iceland's EU membership bid... An old story? (Flickr, EP)

When MEPs backed Iceland’s EU membership bid… An old story? (Flickr, EP)

This is an unnoticed but quite important piece of information: Iceland’s new government has just announced it suspended negotiations regarding its adhesion to the EU and it should hold a referendum on the issue during the next legislature. 

The decision of the centre-right government, winner of the last national elections held on the 27th of April, is not so surprising. In January, Johanna Siguroardottir, at that time social-democratic and centre-left government leader, already announced a break due to the elections. A break which was confirmed by Sigmumdur Gunnlaugsson, the new Icelandic Prime minister and leader of the Independence Party, who was not in favour of the adhesion of Iceland to the UE during the campaign.

Although the EU takes note of Reykjavik’s sovereign decision, Iceland’s volte-face is quite disconcerting, even though it was predictable. In fact, Icelandic people never hid their distrust, not to say their scepticism towards the EU, despite of the fact that Iceland has been part of the European Economic Area (EEA) since 1992. This country even participates in some EU policies and European co-operations – as Schengen for instance –, like Norway and Switzerland.

The 2008 financial crisis questioned the situation. The Icelandic banking system collapsed and the country was near to go into bankruptcy. The social-democratic and ecologist left benefited from the change and, just after winning the 2009 legislative elections, officially made a request to become a full-member of the EU, with the objective to join the EU in 2012.

Nonetheless, the social-democrats – already very divided on the EU issue – never succeeded in breeding a pro-European feeling within the island and the population. Indeed, despite of the crisis, euro-scepticism remains important. Worse, it has been reinforced when Iceland progressively recovered economically, getting out of the crisis as is shown by a growing purchasing power and a higher growth, as well as a continuously decreasing unemployment rate in the last two years. Consequently, and as we go along, Iceland came back to prosperity and, faced with a Europe in permanent crisis, the adhesion to the EU became less a priority issue.

What is more, the negotiations opened in July 2010 are still blocked. Reykjavik and Brussels disagree on some issues such as fisheries or agriculture. A certain enthusiasm, provoked by the 2008 crisis, fell, and with it the hope to quickly enjoy the advantages of the EU, seen as a kind of protection against the crisis.

Iceland’s attitude is very typical and shows the case of a country which came to the Union not so much because it was attracted by the European ideal and the will to share a collective project and adventure, but more because it wanted to find a solution to the crisis and protect its national interests. Thus, the Icelandic U-turn is quite unhappy, to the point of wondering whether this country really wants to join the UE, contrary to some States such as the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Ukraine and Turkey. And although the European Union took note of the Icelandic government’s announcement, it is highly probable that such a change of attitude will have a major impact on the pursuit of the negotiations, if they restart. This will depend on the Icelandic population’s decision, currently hostile to the EU adhesion.

Gilles Johnson

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