Deal With It - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Deal With It

Deal With It

Published June 18, 2010

Vooral Gerard van Vliet was running a children’s project in Kenya, and in August 2008 decided to invest his money in Icesave. Like many others outside of Iceland who had an account there, he lost that money. He began to bring other Dutch Icesave depositors together, founding among other things the website—his organisation is now about 250 members strong. Grapevine got a chance to talk with Vooral shortly after he met with Icelandic government officials to try and get his take on the issue.
Tell us about your group. What inspired you to start this entire project?
No one knows exactly how many there are, but our members are all people who lost more than 100.000 Euros from their Icesave accounts. Personally, I had a good relationship with Iceland. I’d been here, had a good relationship with the people here, and wanted to put my money here.
So it had nothing to do with the interest rates Icesave was offering?
No, not at all, because you could get the same interest rates in a Dutch account at the time. Everybody’s talking about the extra percentage, but it wasn’t there. If you looked at the market you’d find competitors offering the same amount. Maybe you had to take it in a one month account or a three month account, instead of a floating account, but in general you could get comparable rates elsewhere.
And these other banks are still solvent?
All of them. Only one of them went down, and that was Icesave, because these other banks either stayed solvent, or the government rescued them. But in any event, with Icesave—my house was sold. I’d had the intention of moving back to Kenya because I had children’s’ projects there. We were on the edge of starting a coconut factory project, where 15.000 farmers would have taken part. I had other banks joining me on this project, but it was my starting capital. I put my money [in Icesave] on the 27th of August 2008. And of course we lost that money, so my main motivation in getting involved in this was one; it’s for charity and two; it’s for children and for the farmers. Within seven days of starting this project, without knowing who was involved, we had sixty people and it’s grown to about 250.
I understand you met with some government officials yesterday. How did that go?
You could say “astonishing.” You have to realise, time and time again, that Iceland is only 320.000 people. It’s acting like a country, but it has the resources of a small city. Besides that, you also have to realise that the point of view within Iceland is totally different than the point of the view of the rest of the world. If you look at the report of the [Special Investigative Commission], you can see in all transparency what happened. And I think that makes some people responsible for what happened. To put it bluntly, we were fucked up.
So I’m sitting at a table with one person from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one from the Ministry of Finance and one from the Prime Minister’s office. They’re sitting opposite you, telling you that they’re not aware of what’s going on, and not aware of the fact that they’re responsible, and not aware that something has to be done—well, I think that’s a lousy game.
They told you specifically that they’re not aware that anyone’s responsible?
Well, they don’t think they’re responsible. It’s only because EFTA told them that they are responsible for the 20.000 euro guarantee sum [per deposit]. Before that time, they didn’t believe they were responsible for the deposit scheme itself. They said, “For one bank, maybe, but for all the banks, er, we’re not responsible.” But now it’s clear they’re responsible for the first 20.000, but they deny they’re responsible for the rest of the savings. It’s hard to believe that people are thinking that way.
What are your thoughts on Bert Heemskerk’s remarks that Holland can pretty much forget about seeing the entirety of the Icesave money?
Well, the thing you have to understand about Bert is that he used to run a large bank called Rabobank, and at a time when Icesave was being applauded as challenging the larger banks, he was saying that Landsbanki was going to collapse. At the time, the media said he was just jealous. But to be honest, I don’t think he really knows what’s going on.
Yesterday, I asked the government representatives, “Why didn’t you ever think of a solution?” Because if we’re all friends, you know, Dutch, British, Iceland—we’re all friends—if they’re really your friends, why didn’t you ask them for a solution? Help on an economic level, help on an energy level, what have you. And I was told, “Well, then you show them your weakness.” And I’m astonished about that.
What sort of solutions are we talking about here?
I talked to the Dutch distributor of energy. And they’re mainly responsible for the distribution of energy throughout Europe. And I asked them if it would be feasible to have an electricity line between Iceland and Norway or Iceland and the UK, because we already have lines between the UK and Norway through the Netherlands. Nowadays, it’s possible to have those lines without a significant loss of electricity. It’s easily possible, and we’re even prepared to pay for that.
So what’s stopping it?
I don’t know. Pride? Stupidity? Non-commitment? I have no idea. Because if Iceland put their energy into Europe, they could get four or five times as much money as they’re getting from the smelters here. Why nobody is thinking about this? I have no idea.
Many Icelanders—and I think this was the main reason why the previous Icesave bill was defeated—ask themselves, “I’m not a bank manager. Why should I be paying for part of this debt?”
That’s the bad part of democracy. If your administrators, your government guys, your statesmen are fucking up, then the whole of the nation carries the burden. That’s everywhere. You know the situation where a minister is sacked because of something his predecessor did wrong.
Granted, but we’re talking about payments that could span over decades, paid for by Icelanders not even born yet.
Yes, but somebody allowed it to get that far. The banks didn’t grow by themselves; they were allowed to do it. The government closed its eyes, the Central Bank closed its eyes, the bank managers closed their eyes, the shareholders closed their eyes. So, of course you can’t blame the guy on the street for things getting this far, but you can blame everyone else. And one of the bad things about democracy is you’re responsible, all in all, for the things being done in parliament. It’s lousy, but that’s what happens.
Well, the counter to that is, “Sure, we’re responsible for the government we elect, but they lied to us. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Even in those circumstances, you’re liable.
Do you think that information was intentionally withheld from the public?
I think so, and if you look at the press, who really knew what was going on? At the time, information was manipulated. Right up until the collapse, you could look at the bank reports, saying everything was great. If you look at the reports of Fitch, of Moody’s, or Standard & Poor’s, they knew what was going on, but that information was kept in professional circles. The individual in the street didn’t know anything about it. Because the press didn’t report it. The press in the Netherlands lauded Icesave as a hero, because they were challenging the big banks.
Ideally, what would you like to see happen, and what do you think will actually end up happening?
Ideally, I’d hope someone, somewhere, somehow would say, “Well, guys, you’re 250 people. The money we owe you is 25 million [Euros].” On the whole we’re talking about billions and billions, so on a larger level, 25 million is lousy money. On a personal level, it’s serious money. It’s pension money, housing money, children’s study money. If you’re really serious about this, you should pay them.
Without interest?
Well, at the very least the money that people put in should be there. But what I would say is, “Because you’ve been so stubborn, you’re going to pay double the interest, you lousy statesmen.” If you don’t understand that there are real people behind this money—not an institution, or a bank—then you have to be punished. It’s real money from real people.
The EFTA said that number one, consumers should be able to rely on their banks to hold onto their money. And number two, that Iceland discriminated. Icelanders got their money back, people outside of Iceland didn’t. And in our case, which is coming up next month, we’re hoping that they say the same.
What would you like to tell the average Icelander on the street—what do you think is imperative they understand, that they’re maybe not getting?
First all, I’m sorry to say, but some countrymen fucked you up, and you have to bear the responsibility for that. That’s democracy. You have to understand that. It’s not a question of personal responsibility but collective responsibility. And take that responsibility to the government. So if the prosecutor says, “We won’t go after [former Central Bank chairman Davíð] Oddsson, and we won’t go after [former Prime Minister Geir H.] Haarde,” then that’s your responsibility, and the Icelanders should start a new pots-and-pans revolution to get those responsible punished. Secondly, better clean up ship sooner than later. The earlier you do it—and they should have done it long ago—the better off you’ll be. If you put your energy into positive things, positive things will grow.   

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