To EU or not to EU? That’s… not exactly the question. As Icelanders have amassed in the thousands at Austurvöllur over the past few weeks, they haven’t been protesting in favour of joining the European Union. It’s more preliminary than that. What Icelanders want is, quite simply, to vote on whether the government should continue accession talks with the EU or unilaterally scrap the 5-year-old effort, as the ruling coalition in Alþingi aims to do.
This show of unity—reflected also in a 48,000-signature strong (at the time of writing) petition urging the Progressive and Independence party-run government to put the fate of accession negotiations up for public referendum—is rare where the EU is concerned; polls taking the country’s temperature on the 28-member coalition since Iceland tabled its application in 2009 have revealed a constant schism in Icelanders’ opinions on whether Iceland should become the 29th member state.
Once Upon A Time
The rollercoaster love affair between the behemoth EU and recently shell-shocked little Iceland began in July 2009, when the ruling Social Democrat/Left Green coalition tossed Iceland’s name in the hat as they began the long haul of trying to dig the country out of financial ruin. The economy had collapsed just nine months prior and the relative economic strength of the EU seemed a potential parachute.
However, this was no blind date. Iceland is a signatory of the European Free Trade Agreement, and party to both the European Economic Area (EEA) and the Schengen Area. The two parties are very closely intertwined on economic, social and education matters, and the EU is Iceland’s most important trading partner—a relationship that the EU purports would only strengthen further if Iceland were to officially join their team.
In January 2009, immediately following the government’s collapse and months before then Minister of Foreign Affairs Össur Skarphéðinsson submitted Iceland’s application, a Capacent poll showed 38.3% of Icelanders in favour of joining the EU, with 37.7% against and the remainder somewhere on the fence. A few months following the official application another poll conducted by Capacent found just 33% in favour of EU membership, with a whopping 50% opposed. And the yay/nay scale hasn’t stopped sliding since.
But as long as the pro-EU Social Democrats were in power and their anti-EU coalition mates the Left-Greens fell in line, the negotiations crawled forward. By December 2012, 27 of the EU’s 35 ‘community acquis’ chapters (legislation, legal acts, and court decisions which constitute the body of EU law) had been opened in the negotiations and 11 had already been closed, meaning Iceland’s policies in 11 areas were in line with the EU’s.
But Then They Weren’t In Power
Throughout the reign of the Social Democrat/Left-Green coalition the favourability of Icelanders toward the prospect of joining the EU changed, with the majority tending to fall into the anti-EU camp. Fears of the threatened sovereignty of Iceland’s fisheries and agriculture and sentimentality over the króna stopped many from warming up to the EU and, as the Spring 2013 elections approached and the former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir put EU negotiations on hold for the occasion, polls showed that just 24.2% of the country was in favour of accession.
Once the dust from the elections had settled and the Progressive/Independence coalition had formed their government the new powers that be were very clear about their intentions toward the EU—the accession negotiations remained on hold. And then the negotiating committee was disbanded altogether. Then Minister for Foreign Affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson tabled a proposal that the accession negotiations be cancelled once and for all.
This all came after the Progressive and Independence parties both promised in their election platforms to only cease accession negotiations if that was the will of the public as expressed in a referendum on the matter.
Like a teenage girl told whom she can and cannot date, the Icelandic people responded with an increased indication of wanting to join the EU (a third of the country is in favour, and only half are opposed), with the aforementioned popular protests and petition signed by 20% of the country. Oh the power of reverse psychology.
The EU delegation in Iceland has told Iceland to take its time, stating “The decision on what should happen regarding the future of Iceland’s membership application is entirely up to Iceland. The EU does not interfere in the Icelandic decision-making process. The EU would be ready to continue the accession negotiations if and when Iceland decides to do so, but will acknowledge whatever decision Iceland takes in the matter.”
The Progressive and Independence parties have both indicated they will support the motion calling for an official end to accession talks, with the caveat that they cannot be restarted in the future without a public referendum. Yet it does not look like the referendum that the country is currently calling for to decide the fate of the accession talks is going to be granted, with unpopular Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson going so far as to say that everybody should “maybe calm down a little,” Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson calling the possibility of a referendum “unrealistic,” and long-time President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson saying that “Iceland is not well suited for EU membership.”
At this point Iceland could pull a Malta and keep its application temporarily on hold, allowing negotiations to pick back up where they’ve been left off after five years of effort. Or the government can formally withdraw Iceland’s application, meaning the country would have to start from square one should it decide to apply again in the future. Or election promises can be kept and the current will of the people can be respected and the whole thing can be put up to a vote.
So, to EU or not to EU? Only time will tell.