The Lowest Common Denominator: Icelandic Populism, American Inspiration - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Lowest Common Denominator: Icelandic Populism, American Inspiration

The Lowest Common Denominator: Icelandic Populism, American Inspiration

Published May 23, 2019

Andie Fontaine
Photo by
Screenshot/CNN

Iceland’s right wing populists may not be a part of the coalition government, or wield tremendous political power (yet), but they have already demonstrated an ability to disrupt the political process and degrade the public discourse in a way eerily reminiscent of American Republicans. This may come as a surprise to those who think of Iceland as a progressive country, replete with third-wave feminism, queer pride, and socialism, but the country’s small, yet increasingly vocal, contingent of right-wing populist nationalists are proving impossible to ignore.

To take one example, there’s these bons mots from People’s Party chair and Icelandic MP Inga Sæland voicing her opposition in Parliament to a bill (which has since become a law) allowing for the termination of pregnancy until the end of the 22nd week: “These halls have certainly displayed, with great cheering and hollering, that we intend to make the decision here to let a 22-week-old unborn child be killed in the womb. And I will always say no!”

Baby mail

In an act reminiscent of American anti-choice protesters, Inga made over the course of the bill’s debate a decidedly emotional appeal to the media, employing a six-year-old child as a prop. A mass email sent by Inga’s office to the media included current photographs of a child, as well as others of the girl as a micro preemie, born 23 weeks into her mother’s pregnancy.

“Due to the abortion bill that now awaits voting in Parliament, I am sending you these photos with the knowledge and consent of the parents of this little girl,” Inga wrote in the email.

It bears mentioning that Inga was not the sole anti-choice voice in this discussion. Others from her party, as well as MPs from the Centre Party, were also diligent in their opposition to the bill.

Given the fact that this bill was created by Left-Green MP and Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the emotional blackmail being employed by the People’s Party and Centre Party had little chance of derailing it. However, the rhetoric certainly influenced public discourse on the matter, which was arguably Inga’s goal.

The People’s Party isn’t the first in Iceland to capitalise on the spread of misinformation. The fact that it takes considerably less effort to distribute misinformation than it does to refute it has been habitually exploited by Iceland’s populist right-wingers.

The spectre of Europe

The European Union is one of the populist right’s favourite boogeymen. While Iceland is not an EU member, and a slight majority of Icelanders are against joining, Iceland does belong to the European Economic Area. In reality, this means that Iceland is bound by EU law but, not being represented in the European Parliament, has no voice in the drafting or enforcement of these same laws.

“As Iceland’s populist right takes its cues from American right- wingers, Icelanders would do well to take the US as an object lesson on what happens when you think ‘the facts should speak for themselves.’”

For some, this is the strongest argument in favour of joining the EU. For others, the populist right in Iceland amongst them, this is the strongest argument in favour of leaving the EEA altogether. Nowhere is this anti-EU sentiment more apparent than in the discussion surrounding the Third Energy Package (TEP).

At its core, the TEP is intended to open the EU’s gas and electricity markets, to prevent vertical integration (i.e. when the supply chain for a company is owned by the company itself), and prevent other monopolising behaviour. As an EEA member, Iceland is ostensibly affected but it is difficult to see what impact the TEP would have on Iceland’s energy market in practice. Iceland is famously energy self-sufficient, generating its own electricity and hot water from hydro- and geothermal power. It neither imports nor exports power, and the cost and logistics of doing so are prohibitive. Not that these facts have gotten in the way of Iceland’s populist right.

The Centre Party have been vocal opponents of the TEP. Disgraced former prime minister and current chair of the Centre Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has spared no hyperbole, calling it “exceedingly dangerous,” and equating the package to Iceland ceding its energy sovereignty to the EU. His party has orchestrated filibusters on the matter that have lasted well into the early morning hours, which have inspired criticism from Reform Party chair Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, who called this “Bannonism,” a nod to former Trump advisor Stephen Bannon. This concept she defined as “speaking misinformation long enough to awaken fear in the general public.”

EU the fish hoover

This particular rhetoric is reminiscent of when discussions about joining the EU first began to gather steam in the early 21st century. At that time, the populist right aired a now-infamous television ad, depicting fleets of foreign fishing boats sailing into Icelandic waters and stealing all of our fish.

EU protests at Alþingi on March 15, 2015, by Jón Benediktsson

Was that ever a possibility? Doubtful. During accession talks, held when the pro-EU Social Democrats were in power, fishing and agriculture were reserved for the final phase of negotiations, and the EU seemed very eager to let Iceland maintain fishing and agricultural sovereignty if it meant we would join the bloc.

That would never come to pass—new elections in 2013 put the right-wing back in power, and shortly thereafter, the government withdrew Iceland from accession negotiations. This was done with considerable ease, in large part due to two factors: the willingness of the populist right to use misinformation and scare tactics, and the unwillingness of everyone else to speak up just as loudly about the actual facts.

The truth shall cost you the election

As is increasingly the case worldwide, the United States’s populist right is wholly unconcerned with the facts. In an infamous interview with CNN, right-wing pundit Newt Gingrich dismissed FBI statistics showing that violent crime is declining in the US, telling the reporter, “As a politician, I’ll go with how people feel; I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.”

Iceland’s populist right has taken this to heart. They were very loud and vocal during EU accession talks, and continue at the same volume today with TEP debate. Those actually concerned with the facts regarding EU accession were remarkably absent from the discussion, believing—incorrectly, in hindsight—that the facts would speak for themselves and that any reasonable person would be able to tell that the populists were spreading lies.

When it comes to abortion, the TEP, and a host of other issues, those who care about having an informed discussion—whatever their particular stance on the issues—should learn from these past mistakes, speak up to amplify the proven facts and figures, and drown out the more dishonest voices in the discussion.

As Iceland’s populist right takes its cues from American right-wingers, Icelanders would do well to take the US as an object lesson on what happens when you think “the facts should speak for themselves.”

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