While my friends and I stretched out on Arnarholl on Independence Day, enjoying the sun and watching Gunnar & Felix yuck it up on stage, we noticed a ship in the harbour proudly flying a huge Danish flag. This, I thought, should be cause for outrage among the Icelanders – their independence from Denmark is only 61 years old, after all, and for a Danish ship to hoist a reminder of Iceland’s colonized past is insulting. On the other hand, just how independent is Iceland from Denmark anyway?
Ask a politician about where they got the idea for this or that law, and I can guarantee you that nearly every time, their answer will begin with, “Well, as we see in Denmark . . .” Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason summed it up best when he told Grapevine earlier this year, “Traditionally, Iceland has taken notice of legal trends in Denmark and, after this rule [referring to a recently passed immigration law] became law there, we copied this law as our own.” When I spoke with Alliance Party MP Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson about the bill he introduced that would lift the statute of limitations on sexually assaulting a child, he told me that when Independence Party MP Bjarni Benediktsson rejected the bill, one of the reasons Benediktsson gave for justifying the rejection was that Iceland should have similar laws to other Nordic countries.
This sort of logic has always confounded me. Do other formerly colonized countries check to see how their former colonizers are voting before they make a decision on how to manage their own affairs? Probably not. I doubt MPs in India – which became independent one year after Iceland – check British law before passing legislation of their own. If an MP in Canada (a country that has more in common with Britain than India does and is in fact still under the British crown) suggested referring to British legislation before passing a law in their own country, they would be laughed out of parliament. And yet Iceland continues to look to Denmark before making most of its legislative decisions.
Here’s an idea: how about trying to flip that over? Why can’t Iceland be the trend-setter, the country that the rest of Scandinavia, Europe, or even the world looks to as a model? It does happen on occasion: Swedish government researcher Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson wrote a report recently suggesting that maternity leave in Sweden be based on the Icelandic model of dividing up the maternity leave between both parents. This is something Iceland should be proud of. More to the point, what if the Icelandic parliament simply crafted legislation that meets the needs of the nation, determining its own destiny on Iceland’s terms? I thought that was the whole point of wanting independence.
It can certainly be inspiring to raise a flag in your backyard on June 17th, watch the fjallakona recite poetry and listen to the Prime Minister read a laundry list of Iceland’s accomplishments. But Iceland won’t be truly independent until the legislative body can start thinking for its own nation.
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