Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Skeptical Political Elite versus the Pro-European Public: The Case of Iceland

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Skeptical Political Elite versus the Pro-European Public: The Case of Iceland

Article excerpt

FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, surveys in Iceland have indicated considerable support among the population for membership application to the European Union. However, not a single political party at present advocates membership, and very few politicians publicly support membership. This has to be explained, particularly as European integration has had an elitist character in the other Nordic states, where leading politicians have advocated involvement in the European project but have had difficulties in convincing the public (Katzenstein 1997:258). (1) Also, interest groups in Iceland have been more reluctant to campaign for membership application contrary to many of their counterparts in the other Nordic states. The aim of this paper is to explain the elite-electorate gap: why political parties are reluctant to advocate membership in the EU while around half of the electorate want to start discussion with the EU about membership.

An intense debate on whether Iceland should join the EU has not taken place. There was a considerable debate concerning Iceland's membership in the European Economic Area in 1992 and 1993, but the question of membership in the EU has never seriously been on the agenda. However, Iceland is deeply involved in European integration as an associated member of the EU by the EEA-agreement. Iceland adopts around 80 percent of EU law and regulations through the EEA (2) but has very limited chances of influencing EU decision-making.

The paper will argue that the skepticism of the political elite in Iceland toward membership in the EU can be explained by three factors: first, the influence of the primary economic sectors combined with the electoral system and the role of interest groups in decision making of the government; second, the Icelandic political discourse concerning independence and sovereignty; and finally, the geographical location of Iceland and the defense treaty with the United States. The willingness of around half of the electorate to apply for EU membership is explained by the looser connection of the populace with the primary sectors compared with the political elite, the electorate's greater concern with their economic prosperity than the political discourse of the elite, and the electorate's anxiety about isolation from Europe, particularly the other Nordic states.

The paper is divided into four sections. It will start by examining the polices of the political parties toward EU membership and compare their polices with those of their sister parties in the other Nordic states. Secondly, the paper will analyze why the political elite are reluctant to adopt a pro-European policy. Thirdly, it will examine the public attitude toward EU membership. Finally, the paper will examine reasons behind the growing discussion in Iceland about EU membership. It will analyze why two of the political parties, the Alliance and the Progressive Party, as well as the main labor market organizations have been revising their policies toward European integration.


Political parties in Iceland have adopted one of two approaches toward the question of EU membership: a firm approach against membership and a "wait and see" approach. The strategy of the Independence Party and the Left Green Movement is to reject EU membership altogether. They also reject any challenge to put EU application on the agenda. On the other hand, the Alliance and the Liberal Party have adopted a "wait and see" approach. This is also the case of the Progressive Party as it has moved from its firm opposition to EU membership toward a "wait and see" approach. The main argument by politicians against EU membership has been that Iceland would lose control over its waters by joining the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

The policy of the Independence Party (4) toward membership in the EU has moved from a "wait and see" (Kristinsson 1996:150) (5) approach to firm opposition to EU membership. …

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