From Iceland — The Ghost Town on the Coast

The Ghost Town on the Coast

Published April 7, 2006

The Ghost Town on the Coast

On March 15th, the US State Department made an announcement that brought a decades-long chapter in Icelandic history to a close and left its future even more uncertain: effective October 2006, the NATO base in Keflavík will be reduced to little more than a few “submarine talkers,” with US forces withdrawing their four F-15s, their helicopter squadron and the vast majority of their personnel.

Response from the Icelandic government was mixed. Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson expressed surprise and disappointment (although he would later state that he expected the close to happen), while chairman of the Leftist-Green Party – which never wanted the base in Iceland to begin with – Steingrímur J. Sigfússon was decidedly jubilant. From all sides, proposals have come of different scenarios for Iceland’s defence, whether it be increasing the staffing of Iceland’s SWAT team, the Víkingasveit or appealing to other NATO countries for assistance.

But the way in which the base’s departure truly makes Iceland vulnerable is economically – over 700 Icelanders work on the base itself. Counting outside contractors, the number approaches 1,000 people in a region of the country sorely lacking in job opportunities. Couple this with all the services the base currently provides for – services that the Icelandic government is now going to have to pay for itself – and the economic burden becomes even greater. And the Icelanders with whom the Grapevine spoke aren’t particularly optimistic that their elected officials have a real plan in place.

Iceland joined NATO in 1949 with the understanding that it would not have to develop a military of its own. Built in 1951, the NATO base at Keflavík has provided for the defence of the country and was an important outpost during the Cold War. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of military conflicts in the Middle East, however, the location has lost a lot of its relevance, and with military spending for the war in Iraq reaching into the hundreds of billions of dollars, it began to appear an unnecessary expense. As Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy in Iceland Philip Kosnett told the Grapevine that by 2003 the US government came to the conclusion that, “airplanes weren’t an appropriate defence for Iceland. The Icelandic government disagreed. We analysed the situation and came to our own conclusions.”

Just last year, stronger indications that the base would soon close came out. In the summer of 2005, the US government closed 11 bases in Germany alone. In October, discussions regarding the base had been downgraded from the US State Department to Assistant National Security Advisor Steve Hadley. This transition is telling – the State Department, long a staunch ally of the NATO base in Iceland, was handing the matter over to the budget-conscious Department of Defence.

Who Will Save Us From The Crazed Motorcycle Gangs? Europe.
Despite the fact that NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced on March 20th that he was working to resolve the dispute between the US and Iceland, no one seems to be able to agree on what new form Iceland’s defence should take.

Leftist-Green Party chairman Steingrímur Sigfússon told the Grapevine on March 16th that increased staffing of both the police and the Víkingasveit should be defence enough for Iceland, adding, “Who is going to invade us? We’re not talking about being defenceless. If, for example, a crazed motorcycle gang came here and ran amok, we need to have an organised force that can deal with that. What we don’t need is an air force and a base full of soldiers.”

Others, such as former Foreign Minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, have taken a broader approach. Along with other members of the Social Democratic Party, he formed a committee called “Independent Foreign Policy.” While none of their proposals have been finalised, Hannibalsson told the Grapevine that Iceland’s defence should be based, both at home and abroad, on “analysing our own capacity for ensuring civil security, which includes analysing our weaknesses and our points of contact. But this also means coming into discussions with neighbouring countries such as Denmark, Holland and Norway for assistance with our national defence.” In addition, the committee hopes to chart a new foreign policy for Iceland, seemingly independent of American influence.

“We have to look at our own national interests,” he told the Grapevine. “And this means supporting solutions based on international laws and treaties, forming closer ties with Nordic countries as well as the rest of Europe and to stop being passengers going along with US foreign policy, such as we did with the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq.”

Looking towards other NATO countries seems to be precisely what the ruling coalition is driving at, with Ásgrímsson telling the Icelandic media on March 26th, “We’re a European people and the decision of the US to withdraw defence from Keflavík encourages Iceland towards Europe and away from North America.”

Despite these strong words, the Foreign Minister has demonstrated a considerable amount of denial when it comes defence relations with the United States. After a meeting on 31 March between 26 representatives of the US State Department, Department of Defence and the Icelandic government, the US reiterated what it had said from the time the announcement was made about two weeks previous: the defence agreement will be honoured, but the base is going to be downsized. Undeterred, Minister of Foreign Affairs Geir H. Haarde told the press that, “We will of course continue to have talks with other NATO countries, but I don’t consider it realistic that any other country take this [defence] role besides the US.” Of course, this statement was made after he’d already exhausted talks with Norway, France, Denmark, Germany and Russia. Haarde even hinted that the Icelandic government would cover the base’s costs if it meant keeping them here, telling reporters that the cost of Iceland’s defence “isn’t that much.” The US military currently spends about 250 million USD (nearly 3.6 billion ISK) per year on the base. At the time of this writing, the dismantling of base facilities has already begun.

One-Thousand More Commuters Should Ease the Oil Demand
While the future of Iceland’s defence remains uncertain, the more immediate threat to the country is that many of the nearly 1,000 Icelanders whose livelihood depends on the base are currently wondering how they’ll be making a living this fall.

In addition to jobs, one must also take into account the fact that the maintenance and fire department of Leifur Eiríksson International Airport are provided by the NATO base, and the fact that the 56th Rescue Squadron of the US Navy assists the Icelandic Coast Guard with search and rescue operations.

While Ásgrímsson and Reykjanesbær Mayor Árni Sigfússon are currently negotiating how to deal with the situation, Steingrímur Sigfússon remains optimistic.

“I think we will be able to provide jobs for these people,” he told the Grapevine. “Some will simply switch employers, some will retire and the labour market in the capital area is growing. Some of them could either move here or commute to work here.” Reykjavík, it should be noted, is about half an hour’s drive from Keflavík.

The Grapevine went to the base two days after the closure announcement. Morale was not high.
“I heard that the base was going to close the day before yesterday, during lunch,” said Rakel, a single mother of three and a kitchen worker for the Three Flags restaurant on the base. “I received no warning whatsoever. I was like, ‘Oh my God, am I going to be unemployed? What’s happening?’ I’m still in a state of shock.”

Rakel doesn’t consider commuting to Reykjavík for work an option.
“Who’s going to take care of my kids?” she asked. “Plus, it’s very expensive having to drive to Reykjavík and back.”

Rakel believes the Icelandic government should instead invest in the area.
“They’re always talking about building up companies out in the country and everything,” she said. “They never did anything for this area here because they were always depending on the base. They’re going to have to work on job development in this area, because I don’t see any other solution about it.”

Michaela, who also works at the restaurant, took a similar train of thought.

“For me, it’s going to be hard,” said Michaela, “because I have kids and I just bought my apartment last November. I’ve been thinking about moving to Reykjavík, and I’m going to go now. I don’t want to be going up there when everyone else starts looking for work at the same time.”
Birgir, the chef at the restaurant, was worried that his staff might have to leave even earlier than the fall.

“There’s a lot of military people who’ll be leaving in May or June,” he told the Grapevine. “There’ll be something like 500 people here then, and we can’t keep the club open for that few people. There’ll be a lot of people working here who’ll be leaving a lot earlier than everybody else.”
Birgir’s own job prospects are unpredictable at best.

“Well, I have this one job that I could take in May,” he said. “Although I don’t know if it’ll pay as much as this one, but that one’s only until September, so then I have to go and find another job.”
Birgir also had little faith in commuting to Reykjavík.

“People are not going to have houses down here and drive to Reykjavík for a job that pays less than what you would make here,” he told us. “Some people have worked here for years and years, and have worked up in the pay scale. They’ll have to go to Reykjavík and start from scratch. The guys in parliament in Reykjavík, they’re just sitting in Reykjavík and don’t have a clue what’s going on down here. They haven’t come down here.”

A Great Base for Finishing that Novel
Petty Officer 2nd Class James Barlow gave the Grapevine a tour of the base. As we walked and drove around the base, it was hard not to notice the ghost-town feel the place already has.
Barlow, like the vast majority of the men and women serving on the base, finds himself in a sort of limbo – as his orders aren’t scheduled to finish until February, he will either have his time cut short early, or it’ll be extended in another part of the world. While one can request whether or not to be sent home early or serve elsewhere, the decision is ultimately up to the chain of command.
“If I’m sent home early, that screws everything up for me,” he told us. “I was planning on paying off my debts and finishing school. I’m going to have a real hard time doing that if they send me home.”

We tried our hand at talking to two different Air Force servicemen, but their replies were almost identical to each other: “No one wants to hear my opinion.” Unfazed, Barlow got on his phone and called some of his friends to meet us at his room.

The barracks that Barlow shares with nine others are the size of an average block apartment building in Reykjavík, with enough to room to house hundreds at a time. Just walking into the building itself you get a Shining vibe – this place is so deserted, your imagination wants to fill the vacuum. Shortly after we showed up, Barlow’s friends arrived.

HM3 Clay Garcia, DN Jarret Meyers and HM3 Pattison Mall are all enlisted men in the Navy, and have been in Iceland 7 months, 16 months and 11 months respectively. Like their Icelandic co-workers, they were also taken by surprise with the news of the base’s closing, if to a lesser degree.

“I’d been hearing rumours every day for a couple of weeks,” said Meyers. “But I just thought someone else would take over, instead of us just packing up and leaving.”
“They only told us they’re shrinking the base not closing it. That’s the official word,” said Mall. “Who knows who they’re leaving behind? We’re all single. And that’s the big catch, because if they’re going to leave a couple people behind and save some money, it’s probably going to be us single people. America likes to have its hand in every cookie jar in the world and that includes here. I don’t see them completely shutting us down.”

Garcia was upbeat about the news of the base’s closure.

“Personally, I was kind of happy,” he told us. “Not necessarily that they’re closing the base, but I got a year left in the military, so this is kind of an opportunity where they might cut my orders short so I can be out of the military, period. But it sucks for Iceland because a lot of the guys working on the base are going to be out of jobs. I just hope that the military helps them find jobs in Iceland.”

Mall wasn’t particularly worried about his own situation, either.

“I don’t have any kids and I’m debt-free,” he said. “Plus I’m a bit too liberal for the military lifestyle, so I’m hoping they’ll cut my orders short. They’re not going to pay for me to fly somewhere else, take a job where I’m not working most of the time for eight months, and then check out.”

“They might try to recruit me to re-enlist,” added Garcia. “But they’re not going to get very far with that.”

“They can actually extend you for three more years than you’re signed up to do,” corrected Mall. “It’s called putting a stop-loss on you. They do it if they feel as though you’d be useful somewhere else.”

So the trick to get out of that is to appear as useless and incompetent as possible?
“I wish,” sighed Mall. “I’ve been trying that trick for a while. It’s hard to get kicked out of the military.”

The three were curious about the economic and political situation in Iceland, asking questions about the level of unemployment, what the different political parties are and how they feel about the base. Mostly, they expressed concern for the Icelanders they’ve come to work with and know.
“I mean, it’s not just about the people who work on the base,” Mall pointed out. “You also have to think about the people who go off base to spend money in town. Their going could start kind of a depression, couldn’t it?”

“I’m going to miss the Icelandic people I work with,” added Garcia.
“I know they got families to support,” added Mall. “I hope it doesn’t affect them too much.”
“They’re all awesome people,” said Garcia. “It sucks that a few months from now they’re all going to be jobless.”

Gunnar Hrafn Jónsson contributed reporting to this article.

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