While in Iceland over the past four days – a stopover on my way back to Brussels from a visit home to New York – the question of EU accession was very much on my mind. In fact I made it a point to ask every Icelander I met how they plan to vote in the coming referendum (what can I say, I’m tons of fun at a party). I planned to write some kind of blog entry on the way back reflecting people’s opinions and concerns, and here I am on the plane writing it.
It’s tempting to start trying to explain Iceland’s reluctance to embrace Europe with an anecdote about geography, since it is so far the European mainland. I could describe the intense sense of isolation I felt while out in the uninhabited lava fields away from Reykjavik. Or I could muse about the feeling of being torn in two directions which I felt while standing in the gorge separating the two continents at Pingvellier Park.
Silvia Night was a comic character Erlandsdottir created for an Icelandic TV show in the early 2000s – a satire of a vapid, fame obsessed female pop singer. In 2006 she entered the national final to be Iceland’s Eurovision entry – a seriously competitive contest given that Icelanders, like their Scandinavian cousins, take Eurovision very seriously. She sang a satirical song in Icelandic called “Congratulations Iceland”, presupposing she had already won the Iceland national final. And she did.
“Born in Reykavik, in a different league, no damn Eurotrash freak,” she sang. “The vote is in, I fucking win, too bad for all the others.”The song, like most comic songs fielded in Eurovision (see Ireland’s Dustin the Turkey), was not well-received. In fact during her performance in the semi-finals, you can barely hear her over the deafening roar of jeers from the audience. The Greeks, who were hosting Eurovision that year in Athens and also take the contest very seriously, did not get that it was a joke.
She lost the semi-final and was eliminated from the competition, but it was then that the most outrageous part of her performance began. Backstage she found a crowd of journalists and delivered an obscenity-laced tirade against the European audience (“ungrateful bastards”), her European competitors (representatives of the “Eurotrash nations”) and the European news media (who were telling lies about her). You can watch the whole tirade in this video, from a Greek news report about the incident.
The tirade got big coverage in the Greek media, much of which did not understand that it was a satire. It didn’t help that the Greeks were already sensitive about slights from Iceland (they’re a generally pretty sensitive people) after Bjork called the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens “disorganised” after her performance there.
But more than that, the character's dismissive display of self-superiority reflected the unbridled confidence Icelanders were feeling at that time. Awash in cash, working American-level numbers of hours for the latest in American-made goods, the country was feeling quite self-sufficient and at the time was feeling much more North American than European. Anyone who would have suggested an imminent EU accession for the tiny country of 300,000 at that time would have been laughed at.
crash of 2008. Iceland was the first country brought to its knees by the global banking crisis (the precursor to the current debt crisis), with all of its banks almost collapsing. The Icelandic kroner lost 1/3 of its value overnight. The government was driven from office, and the new government quickly set about putting forward a formal application for EU membership. The weakness of Iceland’s overinflated tiny currency had been exposed, and the country wanted to join the euro as soon as possible.
But since 2008, the rest of Europe has caught up to Iceland’s misery. Though opinion polls in 2009 were showing that a referendum on EU membership would pass, today a full 60% of Icelanders say they would vote against joining the EU. Even still, accession talks continue. They are a long and arduous process, and are now progressing at a glacial pace. The negotiators know that asking Icelanders if they want to join the EU now - right as we are in the throes of the eurozone crisis and the whole union looks like it could fall apart – would not be the best idea.
Ready to join?
Interestingly, when I spoke to Icelanders about this they all kept referring to “joining the euro” rather than joining the EU, as if that was the only thing they would be joining. Of course it is not possible to use the euro currency without being a member of the EU. But the fact that Icelanders are associating the accession question only with the euro currency reflects two realities.
But secondly, it’s not surprising that Icelanders would association the accession only with the currency because that was the main purpose of the initial application – to adopt the euro and ditch the collapsing kroner. But perhaps more importantly, the euro is one of the few areas where Iceland isn’t already effectively part of the EU.
Because it is a member of the European Economic Area/European Free Trade Agreement, Iceland already has to follow the vast majority of EU law. Like Switzerland and Norway, Iceland is sort of pseudo-EU, a member state in all but name. Iceland must pay into the EU budget as well. And like the Swiss and Norwegians, I found this weekend that most Icelanders I talked to were blissfully unaware of this fact. But the fact is Iceland needs access to the European common market, and to do that they have to follow EU law. 78% of Icelandic exports and 52% of imports go to/come from the EU.
But in most other areas EU accession would be a breeze – Icelanders would barely notice the difference. So what would they gain? They would finally get representation in Brussels. Right now Iceland has to follow most laws made in Brussels, but they have no say in how those laws are made. By becoming a member state Iceland would get their own European Commissioner, their own seat in the European Council (with veto power over some areas such as nuclear and foreign policy), and representation in the European Parliament.
For the moment, it's come to be accepted both in Brussels and Reykjavik that the question of Iceland's accession will have to be put on hold until after the eurozone crisis is resolved - if that ever happens. There's no way the government will put accession to a referendum while there is still so much uncertainty about the EU. And given that analysts now say the only way the eurozone crisis can be definitely solved is for the EU to be fundamentally changed into a more centralised union, Icelanders will need to know what kind of union they are joining before they make a decision. It's a very real possibility that if the EU is upgraded to this more 'federalist' model, Iceland's Nordic and British neighbours will not want to be a part of it. And that offers up new opportunities for a Northern European free trade zone.
Iceland may be culturally and geographically in Europe, but geologically and psychologically, the country still teeters on a ridge of indecision.