We dropped in to say hi to Dagur B.
Dagur B. Eggertsson has some big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Jón Gnarr, changed the face of city politics in Reykjavík more than any mayor before him. The comedian-briefly-turned-mayor attracted so much attention from around the world that some people (Lady Gaga) came to think he was the mayor of Iceland. But enough about him, for now.
Earlier this summer, Jón officially handed over the keys to the city. Dagur B. Eggertsson is now mayor. Although the Social Democrat is not exactly new to the job, having been an interim mayor in the past, we thought we would drop in to meet him and learn more about what the new four-party coalition has in store for us.
Let’s start with some background. You went to medical school and were working as an ER doctor when you decided to enter city politics in 2002. How did that happen? Why politics?
It’s a tough question. I actually went into medicine to stay away from politics, but my interest in politics lurked somewhere all the time. I’ve always been interested in society, debate and making changes. In 2002, my newly wedded wife and I had other plans. I had actually just gotten a position at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm in the field of infectious diseases, and the shipping container with all our belongings was already in Sweden when I was invited to run for City Council. At first I said absolutely not, but then I changed my mind. And here I am, twelve years later.
In our outgoing interview with Jón Gnarr he said that entering politics was like taking up drugs, that politics is an environment of addiction. What do you make of that? And do you agree with him that The Best Party was an intervention?
I’m not sure I know exactly what he means… But in my case, I guess you could say that I went from drugs to politics. Prescribing them, that is.
I agree that it was an intervention. He entered the stage and gained support in an angry and hostile environment, that in many countries in Europe has given rise to fascist or populist parties. His aim was to create the opposite, something positive and beautiful, and I think that’s part of his legacy. If you look at Jón’s career, both as an artist and a politician, he’s always fighting violence, pushing for peace.
It is safe to say that Jón broke every rule in the rulebook of politics, if such a rulebook exists. Politics in Reykjavík are richer because of him, or his intervention, as he called it.
But in the sense that this was an intervention, was there a problem with city politics, and has there been some kind of recovery?
There was complete distrust in all politics after the crash of the banks. There had been four years of extreme turbulence in City Hall, and the last four years were in stark contrast to that. Everything was far calmer, and we took time to deliberate matters. Still, the work is never fully done and distrust in politics is still a reality, although trust is slightly higher. We’re on our way, in the right direction, but we have to keep on.
THE WAY IT USED TO BE
Right, you’re the fourth mayor in something like six years, and this is your second time as mayor. Tell me about your first time being mayor, from October 2007 to January 2008. What was happening then?
There were attempts by the majority at the time to privatise parts of Reykjavík Energy, so we formed a new majority to prevent that from happening, and we did. That was part of that political turbulence.
What is the most valuable thing you learned from that first brief stint as mayor?
That you can’t do a lot in a short time. [Laughs].
So much has happened since then, including an economic collapse. Does it feel different this time?
With that first coalition I headed, we resorted to unprecedented measures to prevent something bad from happening. This time around it’s the result of a popular vote in a democratic election, so in that sense it’s totally different.
It was a pretty close election.
In a way. One possible scenario would have been that the former majority would keep governing [The Social Democrats/Bright Future (successor to The Best Party)]. That did not happen.
Was that a disappointment to you?
To some extent. That was indeed what we had aimed for. At the same time, maybe this is better, to bring in new people. Both the Left-Greens and the Pirates bring a lot to the table. I believe that a broad spectrum of values, beliefs and politics can create good policies for a city, because a city in itself is quite varied. So this can turn out to be a strength as well, if we learn to trust each other, work closely, and find a common answer to difficult questions. It seems that’s working, at least we have had a good start.
This isn’t the first time that you’ve worked with a four-party city council majority. How did it work out in the past?
No, you’re right, from 1994 to 2006, The Reykjavík List [Reykjavíkurlistinn] was a cooperation between four parties, and I was a part of that from 2002. It went very well. It was stable and did a lot for Reykjavík. In a sense, it moved Reykjavík into modern times.
Tell me more about that.
Well, before, Reykjavík City Hall had been a part of a power structure of the right-wing party. It used the city as a power base, to give out jobs to people in the party and to commission work to firms with close ties to the party. There were few rules but a lot of party politics. For instance, the Reykjavík Art Museum didn’t have any money to buy art. The money used to buy art was at the Office of the Mayor, so artists came to the mayor and asked, ”Would you like to buy my painting?” The mayor would say, “Yes, I like you, and I maybe like your painting.” These things that sound very ancient were still here, part of the system.
Do you have more examples like that?
Yeah, for example, there were five politicians that sat on a housing committee which gave out rental permits instead of there being officials who followed a set of rules and distributed them through a system. I’m not saying that the old times were totally corrupt, but instead of politicians handing out favours, it is now done by a more rule-based approach.
Much earlier, the neighbouring municipality of Kópavogur was actually built by people who couldn’t get building lots, because they weren’t in the party. That was back in the 50s. The Reykjavík List got rid of those old-time practices and introduced a more international flair to Reykjavík in terms of culture and atmosphere. Reykjavík had to get a centre-left coalition to get rid of the red tape, the ban on selling beer outside the cafés and restrictive opening hours of clubs. It set Reykjavík free.
THE ELECTION, A GREAT BLOW?
After the election, Hanna Birna said that the results were “a great blow” to outgoing mayor Jón Gnarr and The Best Party, and that the election was your “personal success.” How do you feel about that?
I think some of the things said after the election were an expression of grief and desperation from this old party that held Reykjavík for a hundred years. Also, it portrayed an annoyance towards Jón Gnarr for having changed the political landscape in Reykjavík. I think part of my support was based on the fact that I had a successful partnership with The Best Party and Jón Gnarr. So my success is not my success in the sense that I own it. I share it with him, with the Social Democrats, our co-workers in The Best Party, other people on the list and, not least, the issues we put forward, such as housing.
She also warned, “Believe me, this will be the most left-leaning coalition we have seen in Reykjavík in a long time.” She obviously meant this as an attack, but what do you think, is that a good thing, a bad thing?
I am just not buying it. If you look at the matter at hand, we have a coalition with the Left Greens on the left, us, the Social Democrats, The Pirates and Bright Future—where are they on the spectrum? I think it’s a majority based on a lot of common sense, and good will toward the future and Reykjavík. All of the parties and their representatives have different strengths, culture and angles that are valuable, especially when it is all put together.
There’s one party, the Progressive Party, that you made a point of not inviting to take part in any of the city’s councils and committees. [City Council President Sóley Tómasdóttir of the Left-Greens said: “We in the ruling coalition have had great doubts about whether the Progressives are a governance-suitable party, and we do not see any reason to engage in more cooperation with them than we need to.”] Is that because of the mosque comments [made by Progressive Party mayoral candidate Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir] or were there other reasons?
I think the Progressive Party has to set the record straight about what they meant—how they are going to talk about people, minorities, and human rights in general—before we can even start to discuss a collaboration.
I talked to a lot of people who felt threatened by their comments, I’m talking about non-Muslims who reflected: “Okay, now a party is starting to build its politics on dividing society by newcomers and those who have been here, and their religious views. What’s next?”
Ultimately, it’s about a deep-seated Western tradition of democratic values, human values that I cherish very deeply. I think we have to take this discussion very seriously.
WHAT’S THE PLAN, THE REAL PLAN?
Moving on to agenda, how do you plan to run the city for the next four years? Do you have plans to change anything from the former city government, which you were very involved in, or will it be more of the same?
I think people will see a focus on what we established in the new Master Plan for Reykjavík before the election, and that was not just work of the former majority, but a lot of other people in City Council and society in general. It was very participatory. In terms of housing, we want to establish a better rental market. I think we will put an emphasis on that.
Right, you talk about increasing the number of rental flats by 2,500 to 3,000 in the next three to five years. That’s a lot. How do you plan to do that?
With good planning, providing building areas and plots in mid- and central Reykjavik and co-operation with student-housing organisation, non-profit building companies and private developing companies.
After housing, what are your second and third most pressing tasks?
I would say housing, housing and housing.
Of course, we are doing a lot of other important things that you see in the coalition’s joint platform. My focus will be on housing and running the city’s finances. We have a plan for the continued rescue of Reykjavík Energy that we will enact through 2016. We want to take green steps in how the city develops. There are always a lot of things on a city’s agenda, a lot of issues, but we will try to focus on these.
Reading through the coalition’s joint platform [‘samstarfssáttmáli’], there’s a lot of great stuff there, but it also seems pretty abstract. There’s stuff like, “eliminate the gender wage gap.” Do you have concrete plans for all these things?
Yes. We didn’t put anything in there that we don’t plan to deliver on.
Okay, so how about closing the gender wage gap?
We have an extensive plan for this issue. It has a lot to do with the extra payments for working overtime and driving, for instance, which seems to make up much of the difference in salaries. We have analysed that, have a plan in place, and want to do our utmost to execute it.
I read in the coalition’s platform that you want to build a bike rental system. How realistic is that?
A lot of cities are doing it very well. We want to plug into that. We see BSÍ as a hub. Big bus lines could come in there from the suburbs, there you have the bike rental, hubs at the universities and big work places. You could even connect it to the big hubs in the suburbs. Picture yourself living in the suburb, taking your bike to the hub, leaving it there, taking the bus, then picking up a bike that you share with thousands of other people, taking it to the university, leaving it there, picking up another one back to the bus or even biking home and leaving it there at the hub where you pick up your own bike. This is the vision.
It’s a great vision.
Yeah, if you think about it, this area around BSÍ and downtown Reykjavík, this is our own Denmark. Here you have all of the biggest work places in Iceland and most of the tourists. And it’s flat. So it should work out.
What about bike paths?
We have been building them up and we say in the platform that we want to continue doing that. We want to be a first-class city for bikes.
People seemed to be really unhappy with the bike path on Hofsvallagata.
Well, the birds liked it. [Laughs]
Is it here to stay?
No, it was just thought of as an experimental thing. We have to have space to do things that are seen as wild, kind of to get the debate going. We can even allow ourselves to make mistakes, when we are finding out the right spots, squares, and the right design. That is actually a method used by a lot of cities called ”The Meanwhile Strategy.” That is, you do something inexpensive temporarily, to try out public spaces. Will it work? What elements of it worked?
What worked on Hofsvallagata is that we managed to slow down traffic, which was the main goal actually. But did we make people happy? I’m not really sure about that, and of course we also want people to be happy. We want slow traffic on Hofsvallagata and happy people.