Putting their foot down

Weekly Cover | Neither the people of Iceland nor the country’s government want to join the EU. Voters, though, say it’s their right to be able to tell Brussels off themselves

All they want is to be able to vote ‘nei’ (Photo: Klængur Gunnarsson)

Last Tuesday, February 25, for the second day running, as many as 3,500 of Icelanders gathered in Reykjavik to express their discontent about a proposal by their government the previous Friday to officially withdraw the country’s bid to join the EU.

In the style of a nation that has more than once been voted the world’s most peaceful country, the demonstrations, despite their size, were tame. The rowdiest it got was when protestors kicked and drummed on the police barricades. It was more a family gathering than a Kiev-style revolt, but it was still a protest.

“We are here to make sure that the government keeps its promise,” said Einar, a middle-aged economist. “But I am sure they will betray that like so much else.”

The promise in question relates to the complicated relationship between Iceland and the EU.

SEE VIDEO: Icelanders express their discontent (at end of article)

Following the economic crash of late 2008 and the subsequent demonstrations that winter, which led to the ouster the coalition government made up of the social-democratic Samfylkingin party and the right-wing Sjálfstæðisflokkur, Samfylkingin formed a new coalition, this time with the red-green VG.

It was this newly formed coalition that on July 16, 2009 officially applied for EU membership. Already from the start the application proved divisive, not least for the government: the official line of VG was not to enter the EU. The party, however, agreed to the let the application be sent, since it was a long-term Samfylkingin goal, and a condition of their being allowed to join the coalition.

The growing economic difficulties within the EU didn’t make the application process any easier. Nor did the tension between the Icelandic government and British and Dutch authorities over Icesave, a banking system that collapsed, affecting 425,000 depositors in both countries.

Polling after the application was sent showed a steady majority opposing EU membership. Even so, the application process has been, technically, ongoing.

With the general sentiment against EU membership, it would seem that there was little reason to protest the decision to withdraw the application. But more than just discontent over political backtracking, the demonstrators said they feel the government was making a decision they were told would be theirs to make.

In the minds of the protestors, there is a difference between being against membership and being against applying to get in. And what most people wanted was for the government to continue membership talks and then let voters make a decision in a referendum.

A recent poll showed 74.6% of Icelanders were in favour of continuing the application process, unless a public referendum decided otherwise.

Iceland’s EU relations took a turn toward the Eurosceptic last year, when the Sjálfstæðisflokkur formed a government with the Framsóknarflokkur party, whose official EU line was that “the application process would not continue unless a popular referendum decides so”.

The pause in the negotiations was hardly controversial, as VG had already managed to initiate a halt at the end of 2013. But what has infuriated many Icelanders and brought the people of the capital out into the streets is a proposal that was brought forth this week by Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, the foreign minister, which would make Iceland pull out of negotiations with the EU all together.

“If we cancel the application now, then I don’t see us being able to apply for a long, long time,” said a university student holding a sign reading “More democracy, less autocracy”.

He, like the others that turned up to vent their frustration at the government, said they felt “cheated”.

Inside parliament, heated discussions continue, as pro-EU legislators argued in favour of keeping the application valid. Out on the street, the protestors bang tamely on.

Parliament is expected vote on the proposal within the next few weeks.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

The Weekly Cover is The Rasmussen’s main story of the week. These articles will sometimes look ahead at one of the more important or interesting topics of the coming week, or they may provide insight and analysis about a current issue.

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