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date: 15 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

Iceland’s European policy is a puzzle. Iceland is deeply embedded in the European project despite its non-EU membership status. Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) (1970), the European Economic Area (EEA) (1994), and Schengen (2001). Moreover, Iceland applied for membership in the European Union (EU) in 2009. Nonetheless, the Icelandic political elite have been reluctant to partake in the European integration process. They have hesitated to take any moves toward closer engagement with Europe unless such a move is seen as necessary to deal with a crisis situation. Decisions to engage with the European project have not been made based on outright economic and political preferences. They have primarily been based on economic or political necessity at times when the country has faced a deep economic downturn or its close neighboring states have decided to take part in European integration. The country has essentially been forced to take part in the project in order to prevent crises from emerging or to cope with a current crisis situation. For instance, in 2009, Iceland unexpectedly applied for membership in the EU after the collapse of its economy nine months earlier. However, four years later, after a swift economic recovery and after Iceland having been “betrayed” by the EU in the so-called Ice-save dispute with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, the accession process was put on hold. The EU was no longer seen as an economic and political savior. Iceland’s close relationships with its powerful neighboring states, the United States and the United Kingdom, have also had considerable influence on the country’s European policy. Iceland’s membership in the EFTA, the EEA, and Schengen was largely dictated by the Nordic states’ decisions to join the organizations and because of crisis situations their lack of membership would have meant for Iceland were it to be left out. Moreover, the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the Union has firmly frozen Iceland’s accession process and contributed to increased criticism of the transfer of autonomy from Reykjavik to Brussels that takes place with the EEA Agreement. Furthermore, many at the right of center in Icelandic politics do not see any security reasons for joining the EU, as Iceland’s defense is guaranteed by a bilateral defense treaty with the United States and membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

European debates about partial and full participation in the European project have led to harsh opposition in Althingi (the National Parliament), deep divisions in society at large, and public protests. Opposition has been driven by an overwhelming focus on sovereignty concerns. The political discourse on sovereignty and self-determination prevails except when the country is faced with a crisis situation. To prevent a crisis from emerging or to deal with a current crisis, Icelandic politicians reluctantly decide to take partial part in the European project. They are determined to keep autonomy over sectors of primary political importance, sectors that are close to the heart of the nation, those of agriculture and fisheries.

Keywords: Iceland, European Union, European Union politics, European Economic Area, European Free Trade Area, Schengen, United States, United Kingdom, political discourse, sovereignty, economy

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