Well, it’s official now: the event we predicted last November (The Base Bows Out, on www.grapevine.is) has finally happened. Not that we were the first, of course. The signs had been there for a long time, whether you’re talking about the downsizing over the past 15 years, the base’s command switch from Joint Force Command (in Virginia) to the European Defence Command (in Germany) in 1999, or the fact that the US told Iceland in 2003 that it was going to withdraw the aircraft. Which makes it pretty peculiar that Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson reacted to the announcement of the base’s closing with any degree of surprise, as he did the day after the announcement was made. Perhaps sensing how out of touch this would make him seem, he said about a week later that he’d expected the base to close.
Whether he expected it or not, the most bizarre reaction out of this series of events is the emphasis being placed on what Iceland’s going to do for defence now. Ásgrímsson’s been putting a lot of effort into this subject, organising talks with officials from different NATO countries, writing a letter to President Bush and speculating on the cost of buying a helicopter. Many in the Icelandic government are putting together all kinds of different defence scenarios, with the Social Democrats forming a special committee, “Independent Foreign Policy,” with the purpose of carving out new defence strategies.
Meanwhile, the real danger of the base’s departure is being all but ignored: the economic hit that Keflavík’s going to take.
According to Statistics Iceland, the base employs around 640 Icelanders. Add to this outside contractors who do work on the base, and that total reaches over a thousand. These people will be out of work within the next few weeks to months. Add to this the men and women of the US Navy and Air Force who go to town and spend their money, and the economic impact becomes that much greater.
Suspend belief for a moment and assume that the base’s departure did, in fact, catch the Icelandic government by surprise. Why is so much effort being put into avoiding a scenario that’s not at all likely to happen (Iceland being attacked militarily) while the scenario of a massive economic drought in Keflavík – which is entirely likely to happen with the next few months – gets cursory attention from the Icelandic government in the form of a brief visit from the Prime Minister and some vague notions that people will simply commute to Reykjavík for work?
It’s a shame the government won’t give the men and women paying their salaries the same attention they’re giving to staving off unrealistic and imagined threats. The real threat posed to Iceland by the base’s departure comes from within.
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