Monday, 3 September 2012

A long-distance relationship

There are many clichés used to describe Iceland’s position in the middle of the Atlantic. Torn between Europe and North America – quite literally sitting on the fault line separating the two continents geologically – the country’s location is the most frequently used metaphor. This has been particularly true now that the country is in the process of EU accession.

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.

But instead, I want to tell a story about Eurovision. One of my favourite Eurovision entries of all time is Iceland’s 2006 entry, Silvia Night. So deep is my obsession with this woman, a well-known actress in Iceland named Augusta Eva Erlandsdottir, that I unsuccessfully spent the last week trying to get her to meet me for a coffee. Sadly, that did not work out, though it seemed that every Icelander I met knew her in some capacity.

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.

But afterwards she did something technically not allowed by Eurovision rules – she changed the  lyrics to English for the European final. She didn’t just translate the song – she invented entirely new lyrics. The new song was colossally (and deliciously) offensive, lampooning both the Eurovision song contest itself as well as Icelanders feelings of superiority over Europe.
“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.

The whole episode, aside from being hysterical (in my humble opinion), is also a rather humorous illustration of the relationship between Iceland and Europe. For one thing, as an English-speaker living on the continent, it’s the kind of humour that we find hilarious but continental Europeans aren’t so amused by. Would Silvia’s satirical performance have been more appreciated in the United States, or Britain? Probably.

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.

But then came the 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.

Firstly, as many commentators have pointed out, the problems with the euro currency are overshadowing anything EU-related at the moment. People are increasingly coming to view the two as one in the same, and it is the frailties of the euro that will not be foremost on Icelanders’ minds as they are still reeling from their own currency crisis.

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.

So why hasn't Iceland joined already? There are both political and philosophical reasons. Philosophically, much as in the case of Norway, Icelanders are reluctant to give up some of their independence after they only broke free of Denmark in 1918. But politically, the reluctance to join is all about fish. It’s an area of national sovereignty that is very sensitive in their history and the biggest part of their economy. They have their own way of managing their fisheries and do not want to be bound by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. This is proving to be the most tricky part of negotiations.

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.

Most of the Icelanders I talked to were overwhelmingly negative about EU accession, though some of their opinions changed over the course of our conversation (it doesn’t seem to me that anyone is working very hard in Iceland to educate people on the benefits of formal EU membership). But they were all very sceptical that a country of 300,000 would have very much power in the corridors of Brussels even if they did become a formal member state. I gave them examples of small countries such as Malta and Latvia that have managed to greatly influence EU policy at key times, but they still had doubts.

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.

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