At the end of August, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson disbanded Iceland’s negotiation committee to EU, effectively halting our application after four years of work to that end. Some, like chair of pro-EU Social Democratic Party Árni Páll Árnason, claim that the minister was out of line in arbitrarily discontinuing the negotiations without consulting parliament, but Gunnar Bragi has presented legal opinions from his ministry that support his actions.
In any case, the government has opened itself up to ridicule by single-handedly deciding to break up Iceland’s EU negotiation committee, as the ruling coalition parties had advocated for a referendum on the continuation of the EU application when they were in opposition. To discuss this contradictory behaviour, and the implications of the minister’s actions, we met with Gunnar Helgi Kristjánsson, a professor of political science at the University of Iceland.
What is Iceland’s EU application debate, in a nutshell?
I think the EU dispute is not simply about what domestic markets will look like in the future, but fundamentally about what Iceland’s foreign policy should be. It is about where we want to be in the world, what kind of society we want, and who we want to work with.
I think it is safe to say that this government is, generally speaking, more nationalistic than the previous government in believing that Iceland is too unique of a country to fit into the mould of the European Union. The previous coalition parties may not have agreed on whether or not Iceland’s interests ultimately coincided with that of the EU, but they were both interested in completing the application and seeing what kind of offer would come out of it.
It is obvious that the current government wants to distance itself from the application, and build Iceland’s foreign policy on different foundations, such as the European Economic Area agreement that Iceland is a part of, and other future bilateral agreements.
TAKING THE HIGH ROAD
The foreign minister decided, without including parliament, to disband the negotiation committee. Are foreign affairs typically handled this way in Iceland?
It is important to note that foreign affairs are treated differently than domestic ones. The general principles of statecraft dictate that many qualities that are considered good in domestic governance, such as transparency, have no place in foreign affairs. There are simply different rules in play when dealing with uncooperative foreign negotiators, or delicate situations. This is why the executive branch has more leeway to shape its foreign policy and make decisions than with domestic matters.
The foreign minister is correct in that he acted within his legal parameters when he disbanded the committee, but he has not answered how legitimate his decision was. He would have proved he had support for doing this if he had put it up for a vote in parliament, and I personally believe that it would have been the wiser course of action to take.
Wouldn’t the government have had a breeze passing such a bill through parliament?
Indeed, as the coalition has a guaranteed majority. Armed with this knowledge, one has to wonder why the foreign minister didn’t proceed in this manner. We can safely estimate from polls that the majority of the population wants to see the outcome of the application, even if they are doubtful it will lead to us joining the EU. The minster acting like he did, it looks like he’s afraid of the ensuing debate that would follow a parliamentary vote, and of having to defend going against the preference of the general populace. That is the only explanation I can think of for bypassing parliament.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Can the opposition do anything to stop what the foreign minister has done?
Essentially, no. Putting forward a motion of no confidence against the minister would be impractical, as failing to get that passed would result in declaring confidence in the foreign minister and his actions.
What about disgruntled citizens, can they oppose the process in any way?
They have no way of doing so outside the normal rules of the democratic process. In between elections, citizens can hold protests, voice their opinions online, collect signatures, and demand referendums. They can then punish the government for their actions in the next elections, but that’s only if they remember to do so… Evidence points to voters having a very short attention span.
What consequences, if any, can Icelanders expect from halting their EU application?
I think the general goodwill that Iceland has had may suffer if we tell the EU that we are no longer interested in joining it. Our withdrawal may indirectly have a negative effect on issues such as the current mackerel dispute [The EU’s fisheries chief is deciding whether to impose harsh importation sanctions on Iceland because of a long-standing debate over quotas], but I doubt we will face direct consequences or punitive measures for halting the application.