Hard to believe that 2015 is already half over, but it is. Maybe it seems like only yesterday since the calendar turned because this year has just been so action-packed. Some of that even included good news. It might be hard to qualify which were the best good-news stories of the year so far, but I’d still like to give it a try.
1) Foreign Minister ends Iceland’s EU accession with a letter.
Here was a story that seemed to hit everyone’s nerves, whatever side of the EU question you were on, and just kept right on going like some endless game of volleyball between Reykjavík and Brussels. Minister of Foreign Affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson sent a letter announcing that Iceland was done trying to join the European Union, and the general public reacted pretty strongly: protests were held in front of Parliament in a massive show of opposition from a people who are still predominantly against joining the EU. Then Brussels was all “no, your letter doesn’t count” and Gunnar Bragi was all “oh yeah it does, no takebacks.” After that the EU lists Iceland as an accession nation one moment, then takes it off that list the next. To be honest I doubt this story is close to over, and it continues to be highly entertaining every step of the way.
2) MP “just asks questions” about Iceland’s Muslims.
When Independence Party MP Ásmundur Friðríksson, perhaps capitalising on fear generated by the Charlie Hebdo attacks, stood before Parliament and rhetorically asked whether or not all approximately 1,500 of Iceland’s Muslims should be investigated for ties to terror, I was honestly not expecting the multipartisan backlash that followed. Last year’s xenophobia towards Muslims from the Progressive Party of Reykjavík was initially met with resounding silence from within the party itself, and then with a lot of backpedalling and excuses from party leadership. But when Ásmundur raised his question, even members of his own party called him out on this. Summarily cowed, he later agreed to meet with Muslim leaders to get an education. This story, in my mind, marked a turning point in terms of using fear of minorities for political gain. It’s a tactic that won’t likely disappear anytime soon, but Ásmundur’s very public scolding from his own colleagues—one of the largest parties in the country—might make would-be xenophobes think twice before using it.
3) The “Nature Pass” dies.
Probably the most hotly contested issue within Iceland’s hottest new industry died a natural death in the home of its birth, Parliament. As the number of tourists passed the one million mark last year, the Nature Pass was meant to balance revenue with preserving some of Iceland’s most treasured spots of natural wonder by charging people admission to sites that had always been free. A great many balked at the idea, not least of all when it turned out people who live here would have to buy the pass to see Geysir, too. Even though it was a ruling coalition bill—normally an almost sure-fire guarantee of passage—it seemed no one could come to any agreement on the particulars, and the whole effort lost steam.
4) Iceland buys tax dodger information.
This story is a grenade with its pin pulled. Last year, an anonymous source contacted Icelandic authorities, saying they had information about hundreds of Icelanders and Icelandic companies using tax shelters to avoid paying taxes. However, the informant wanted to get paid, so the Icelandic government hemmed and hawed on how to handle the situation. Last June, the deal was done and now the Directorate of Internal Revenue has their hands on the data, and has set upon the task of combing through it. Knowing what we know about some of the shadier aspects of finance, I think we can expect to see some big names come out of these investigations. As I write this, I am convinced there are bankers, traders and financiers all desperately trying to cover their tracks any way they can before the Tax People get their hands on them.
5) Bankers go to jail.
We’ve all seen that image macro of Iceland’s president and how Iceland jailed its bankers, unlike the US. For the longest time, we scoffed at this image, because it just wasn’t true. Until it was. A slew of high-ranking Kaupthing officials were sent to real and actual prison for their crimes; once in February, and again in June. Some of these guys got hit twice, in fact. The president still didn’t have anything to do with this (in fact, he’s been pretty cosy with a number of our tycoons), but at least we can now proudly say that this image macro is at least partly true.