Eleven weeks of negotiations have finally brought us a new government. Shortly thereafter, they made their joint platform public. Health care might be one of the biggest issues, but it isn’t the only one. We reached out to three Icelanders who have been active in important areas that this new government will have to confront—environmentalism, immigration and tourism—to get their thoughts on their first reactions to this coalition, and what they hope to see over the next four years.
Árni Finnsson, founder of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association:
We expect the government to deal with this as a matter of great urgency. Iceland is still increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, and that trend must be reversed as soon as possible, if Iceland is to fulfill its obligation under the Paris Agreement in cooperation with the European Union and Norway. Also, if the Icelandic government is to succeed in drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions before 2030, the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, Björt Ólafsdóttir, must take a strong lead, along with the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Minister of Industry and Tourism and the Minister of Transport. Since the Ministry for the Environment first introduced climate targets in 1995, very little has been achieved, which is largely due to lack of interest by other ministries. Thus, the Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, must elevate the Environment Ministry to a much higher level in government. The new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, must set the climate and the health of marine ecosystems as the centerpiece of foreign policy. What we miss from the government’s platform is a much stronger commitment to the conservation of the marine environment. This is strange, given how dependent Iceland is on the sea. How will Iceland contribute to the conservation of marine biodiversity in international waters, how will Iceland act to stop ocean acidification and what actions will Iceland take in order to stop or slow down adverse impacts on the marine environment due to climate change? Most recently, we learned that warmer seas are making it more difficult to find capelin. The Minister for the Environment has made some remarks on [heavy industry], but this is a very easy concession by the Independence Party and Viðreisn. For years everyone willing to know has realized that there is not enough energy left to build yet another aluminum smelter, plus, the price the aluminum smelters area paying for electricity is far too lowl. Lastly, the new Minister of Tourism faces the challenge of setting a long-term plan for that sector, sustaining itself financially and keeping Iceland’s main attraction, its nature, unspoiled and intact. We have long argued that a national park in the central Highlands is not only about conservation, but also, just as importantly, about proper management of resources. Now, with some two million tourists visiting the country, we need such management tools very badly. I believe that Björt Ólafsdóttir has great ambitions, she wants to achieve a national park, but unless she has a strong support within the government, her work will come to nothing. Also, it is not clear whether the Prime Minister will take on the role of a visionary leader in the coordination of a complete and drastic reverse of Iceland’s climate policy, a more active and forward-looking marine policy. I worry that he hasn’t, yet, acquired the vocabulary to lead that work in a confident manner.
Sema Erla Serdar, Social Democrat and founder of Solaris, an NGO for asylum seekers and refugees:
I was not very optimistic about this new government’s immigration platform, because we have a very-right wing government, which we know from experience does not put a great focus on human rights, human dignity, welfare and equality, which is needed now more than ever, especially when it comes to migration and the rising number of refugees and asylum seekers, both in Europe and in Iceland, where the systems are broken, unjust and missing the humanitarian factor.
Also, I was not very optimistic, because even though the parties have put some pretty words about multiculturalism, migration and refugees into their platform, the governing parties, in particular the Independence party, consist of members that have taken extreme positions on migration, refugees and asylum seekers, and have put forward some deeply concerning arguments and ideas.
I’m torn, and still not optimistic enough. Why? Because at the same time that the Welfare Minister has welcomed Syrian refugees and said that the government will welcome more refugees in Iceland, as well as taken steps into improving the status of asylum seekers that have been given a refuge here (which I do think is the work of the previous government), we have members of the governing party that talk about “using an iron fist on asylum seekers,” to “send all of them back,” and to “check the background of all Muslims,” and none of the party members seem to see a reason to object to this.
What is also concerning is the new Minister of Justice and her views on migration. She has recently said that that some asylum seekers come to Iceland for the purpose of “taking advantage of the goodwill of Icelanders” without anything to support her remarks. She has not shown any interest in improving the access and rights of asylum seekers and is opposed to reforming the Dublin Regulation system so that European countries would share responsibility for accepting more refugees and asylum seekers. This is concerning when there are few things that are more urgent than improving the system around asylum seekers and sharing the responsibility of solving one of the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time, which is of course not the responsibility of one country but for us all because there might be borders between countries but there are no borders between the pain and suffering of human beings.
Helga Árnadóttir, managing director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association:
There are a lot of positive things in the joint coalition platform where tourism is concerned. We especially welcome the emphasis on environmentalism and conservation, and the additional emphasis on safety and law enforcement. It would have of course been interesting to see more detailed explanations of those aspects that pertain directly to tourism. Even though a special ministry specifically for tourism has not yet been established, as we have asked, there are strong indications that this issue will receive greater priority, as the office is now called the Ministry of Tourism, Industry and Innovation. The new Ministry of Transportation has also become a reality, which is in line with the government’s emphasis on the development and maintenance of the transportation infrastructure, which is the lifeblood of tourism. During the last election term, Tourism Mission Control (Ed.: inexact translation of “Stjórnstöð ferðamála”) was established. There, we’re talking about a cooperative forum between the government and the tourism industry, and we welcome that which has come from the Prime Minister’s office with regards to the notion that good works get the full attention of the government, and the tourism industry as a whole. The lion’s share of companies in the tourism industry are small to medium in size. It is therefore a step in the right direction that their insurance premiums will be reduced, alongside changes to the tax system with simplifying matters in the forefront. The government also places emphasis on stabilising the currency, fiscal responsibility and harmony in the labour market, which are all the foundations of the healthy management of a company. We welcome these points of emphasis. We believe that actions will follow words, as we now approach a great upswing in the development of tourism. The Icelandic Travel Association wishes the new government well, and looks forward to a good cooperative effort with them in the years to come.