Icelanders want referendum on EU accession continuation

Despite Iceland remaining divided about EU membership, a majority of their citizens want a referendum on the issue, writes Cristian Preda.

14 Feb 2014

Many a voice rose in support of Iceland’s demand for accession in 2009. Olli Rehn, then then commissioner for enlargement, led by claiming that Iceland could follow a fast-track procedure and join the union at the same time as Croatia. Indeed, the tiny country started off as an excellent candidate: as a member of the European economic area and of the Schengen agreement, Iceland is from some points of view more integrated into Europe than some of the member states. The citizens from my country, Romania, are still eagerly awaiting entry into the Schengen area.

It would seem surprising, at first glance, that such an excellent candidate should stop accession negotiations, after having opened 27 out of the 33 negotiations chapters and provisionally closed 11. However, the truth of the matter is that, as an insular state that has only recently gained full independence, Iceland has always been divided about membership. The EU, and particularly the euro, did gain a certain glow in the Icelanders’ eyes after they were confronted with the collapse of their banking system in 2008. In the meantime, nevertheless, the EU has been confronted with its own crisis and the elections that took place last spring have brought a new, more EU-sceptic government into office in Iceland. Many claim that the evolution was unavoidable. I would beg to differ.

In the interval between July 2009 and April 2013, confronted with a very strong and well-organised opposition to the accession process, constantly accused of leading a propaganda campaign and of a lack of flexibility, the commission stood watching. The information centre it opened in January 2012 in Reykjavik chose much too late to present itself as a moderator and provider of factual information about the EU. But how can you moderate a debate between two very unbalanced sides? Unfortunately, we were far from having a battle over the hearts and minds of the Icelanders.

Moreover, the commission was far from sending a coherent message to the Icelanders. According to the renewed consensus on enlargement, adopted in 2007, the accession negotiations should have started with the most difficult chapters first. In the Icelandic case, everyone knew that these were fisheries and agriculture. Despite, differing public statements, the commission did not open these chapters, with the fisheries screening report remaining un-adopted by the council to this day. It is true that a large part of the reason why the chapters remained unopened is that the portfolio was for two years in the hands of one of the most vehement opponents of accession, Jón Bjarnasson from the Left Greens, and even after he was removed in a reshuffle, the new minister was still from the party in government, the Left Greens, that was opposed to the EU. But this was not the version of the story that was told to the Icelandic public.

On the other hand, the Social Democrats, the only Icelandic party that is a long-term supporter of accession, chose not to make the EU a main campaign issue – a strategy that has largely failed and that has allowed the parties in opposition, that form the new government, to campaign for a referendum on the continuation of negotiations. After coming to power, however, the new prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, leader of the Progressive party, does not seem so intent on holding a referendum, having declared that this is not an urgent matter. The Icelanders do not agree. [pullquote]A public opinion poll released this month shows that 67.5 per cent of voters want a referendum on the continuation of the accession negotiations[/pullquote], including 60 per cent of voters for the two parties in government. The story might not be over yet.