Last winter we had a German intern here at the Grapevine. She is called Sophia van Treeck, she is awesome, and she turned in some great work over her three-month stint. Now, we like to talk about all sorts of stuff that interests us here at the office, and one of those things happens to be the European Union and Iceland’s pending application to join in on all the purported EuroFun. As a born and bred citizen of the EU, Sophia had some trouble understanding why Iceland joining the EU should even be a topic of discussion.
“I don’t know, it seems odd to me that people would even have this argument,” she would often exclaim as we debated the matter. “I have a real hard time spotting any drawbacks to an EU membership. I don’t think of Germany as any less German even though it belongs to the EU, and I certainly haven’t noticed any real problems stemming from our membership. Also, you guys adopt EU legislation all the time. Wouldn’t it be better for you to have a say in it?”
Now, we are curious, inquisitive folks at the Grapevine, and we thought it would be best if Sophia went into a full-on investigation of the matter, with the help of some local smart folks that have been outspoken on the subject. Then you readers might perhaps learn something along with Sophia.
With the help of her interlocutors, Sophia lined up some key talking points of the EU debate, and then she tried her hand at responding to them, using her helpers’ handy quotes and thoughts to build on. What follows is a sort of opinion piece backed by quotes from interviews, which details Sophia’s findings on the subject. It is in favour of the EU, and should be read keeping that in mind. It’s also real fun. Take it away, Sophia!
According to a recent opinion poll by MMR, 57% of Icelanders are in favour of their nation withdrawing its application to join the EU. Coming from a EU-country. I wonder why that is. What follows are some of the most frequently pronounced fears Icelanders seem to have towards joining the EU, and a EU-citizens attempt at responding to them, with the help of some local opinion-makers.
Iceland is too small a country to have a say in European politics!
It is true, Iceland is a small country and there are big countries in Europe that pay lots of money to the EU and have a big influence on its politics. Germany and France, for instance. But as Baldur Þórhallsson, professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland—who has done some excellent research in the field of small countries within the EU—told me: “Small states are doing quite well within the EU. Of course they don’t get everything they want from the membership, but most politicians in these small states have been of the opinion that the EU-membership has served the states’ interests.”
Baldur emphasises that most decisions made within the European Council and the EU are taken unanimously, which according to him indicates that “EU decision-making is about solidarity,” and not about ousting small nations or working against their interests.
Iceland doesn’t need the EU!
This argument is as wrong as can be, as far as I can tell. Iceland needs a powerful ally, because otherwise no one will come to the rescue when the Taliban blow up Vatnajökull or when wicked citizens of evil countries like Britain or the Netherlands come to claim their money?
As Baldur Þórhallsson puts it: “All small states need an ally.”
Now, you might try to argue that this ally needn’t necessarily be the European Union. But then, who else? The United States, who ditched Iceland as soon as ceased to be strategically important? Or, as some have proposed, the kingdom of Norway, with its population of 4,8 million and an army of 16.000? If this is the ally Icelanders want, they might as well go back to their dark past as part of Denmark.
Iceland needs economic partners, and since 83% of its exports go to EEA (European Economic Area) countries and 65% of its imports come from EEA countries, wouldn’t it make sense to join them in a union?
In our conversation, Baldur also told me of another problem Iceland has, namely the “widespread corruption within ministries and governmental institutions, where relatives and friends or party members are hired over of qualified people.” He argues that there are powerful interest groups (for example in the financial and fishing sectors) that make their own laws. There is a chance that joining the European Union and collaborating with other EU nations could influence the Icelandic society and effectively decrease corruption.
The EU didn’t stand by Iceland in the Icesave negotiations!
Many Icelanders blame the EU for not supporting Iceland in its fight against the Netherlands and the UK and their “unreasonable demands for reimbursements for their losses in the financial crisis,” Political Science Professor Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson phrases it.
But how could it? There seem to be people out there who still haven’t understood the idea behind the EU. It stands by its members, even if they are not always right about everything. And not even Iceland’s “friends,” the Nordic states, supported Iceland in this fight. “These countries stand together when it comes to such matters. We are left on our own, stranded in the North Atlantic,” Baldur Þórhallsson tells us. His conclusion may sound quite horrible, but there is some truth in it as long as Iceland doesn’t become a member of the club.
Iceland would sacrifice its agriculture!
Not necessarily. It seems to be a common fear that by joining the EU, prices of farm products on the Icelandic market will drop and everyone will run out to buy Dutch tomatoes instead of the good old Icelandic ones. There is certainly some truth in that, people like cheap goods. On the other hand, however, the EU offers great opportunities for farmers, like special subsidies for Northern European countries, which might in the end improve conditions for Icelandic farmers.
Joining the EU won’t make Iceland’s economic situation any better!
True, but it might help avoiding the next crash, or as Benedikt Jóhannesson, CEO of publishing company Heimur, puts it: “You will not grow thin by eating one apple, but eating apples is still better for you than devouring hamburgers.”
Adopting Euro would stabilise Iceland’s economy, and thus help Iceland get the foreign investors back that would otherwise probably not take the risk of investing in this country again. Or, as Baldur Þórhallsson puts it, “we will simply be stuck in the mess and forever remain second-class citizens in Europe.”
This statement shouldn’t surprise you if you compare the Icelandic living standard to other European countries: The interest rates are extremely high, properties have been devalued by half, wages have been halved and at the same time, food prices are very high in comparison with other European nations. And they are constantly rising. How is an Icelandic family ever going to have the same standard of living as, say, a Swedish one?
They can’t buy a house because the interest rates on their mortgages are too high, their wages too low and because they have to spend the little money they have on the far too expensive food in order to somehow keep their kids alive? Alright, I admit that goes a little bit too far but the point is clear: I believe that without adopting the Euro, Icelandic households are never going to reach the same living standard as their European neighbours.
Icelandic waters will be overfished!
This concern is actually the most understandable one. If Iceland joins the EU, it might lose the control over its waters. According to the rule of “relative stability,” access rights and catches are currently allocated on the basis of historical catch records, which means Icelandic waters wouldn’t be in danger of being overfished by European trawlers, as many Icelanders are afraid of.
The EU has discussed amending this rule, however, allowing for fishing rights to be traded between nations. The rule of “relative stability” does therefore not stand on safe grounds.
However, according to Baldur Þórhallsson, it is likely that Iceland can make a deal with Brussels concerning fisheries. For example, Finland remains in control over the nation’s timber industry.
Thus, the question is: why are some Icelanders still terrified of losing the control over their waters if they haven’t even tried negotiating?
Might be there is a slight influence coming from the local fishery interest group, LÍÚ. Baldur Þórhallsson states that “powerful interest groups like the agricultural and fishing ones, have been able and are still able to lay out the regulation framework for their own industries.” Why would they want to give their power to some institution in Belgium?
There is certainly a danger of Icelandic waters getting overfished but as long as no Icelandic politician has tried to negotiate a special agreement with the EU, worrying about it is useless.
Iceland will lose its autonomy!
Actually, Iceland would gain autonomy. As member of the EEA, Iceland implements all the laws of the common market, except for the agreements on fisheries, agriculture and regional policy. That is, the majority of Icelandic laws are already decided upon in Brussels, but Iceland has no influence on making them. According to Baldur, this is “extremely undemocratic.” By joining the EU, Iceland could gain this influence and thus more autonomy.