Global Insider: For Iceland’s Public, EU Accession Remains a Divisive Issue

Global Insider: For Iceland’s Public, EU Accession Remains a Divisive Issue

This month, Iceland’s new conservative coalition government announced it would suspend talks to accede to the European Union, pending a referendum on whether the talks should continue. In an email interview, Maximilian Conrad, an assistant professor of European politics at the University of Iceland, discussed this decision and the recent history of Iceland’s relations with the EU.

WPR: What were the reasons behind Iceland's EU accession application, and what is driving the coalition government's decision to suspend accession talks?

Maximilian Conrad: The Icelandic decision to apply for EU membership can only be understood against the backdrop of the “kreppa,” Iceland’s economic and financial crash after the bankruptcy of the country’s three biggest banks in 2008. A dramatic outcome of the crisis was the collapse of the Icelandic krona, which made countless Icelandic families unable to pay off their foreign-currency housing loans. But the crisis was also political, as Icelanders, weary of the political establishment, took to the streets in what became known as the “kitchenware revolution.” The Social Democrats came out strongest in the following parliamentary elections, after having campaigned on a platform prioritizing EU membership. The mandate given to the new government—the first leftist government coalition in the history of the Icelandic republic—reflected the hope that economic stability could be restored by a speedy replacement of the Icelandic krona with the euro. The application for EU accession nonetheless remained controversial. The two conservative parties, with close ties to the agricultural sector and the fishing industry, remained staunchly opposed to EU membership throughout their time in opposition. On the surface, their opposition is founded on notions of national sovereignty and identity, but more importantly, it has to be understood as a reflection of the material interests of Icelandic farmers and fishing quota owners.

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