föstudagur, apríl 24, 2009

choosing europe

Tomorrow is the election day for Alþingi, Icelandic Parliament. And it will be my first time voting here in the Land.

I find the election system here sort of odd. There are only 6 districts (kjördæmi) serving the whole country (and Reykjavík city gets two of these by virtue of its dominating population). In each of these large election districts, voters choose their favorite political party (not person) and then the parties each take a pro rata share of the parliamentary seats they won in that district. Each district controls between 9 and 12 seats, for a total of 63 seated representatives in Alþingi.

Before the election, each party has set up a ranked list (via primary elections) of its candidates, and then fills the seats it won in that order. Having voted all my life up to this point in the U.S., I find the prospect of choosing a party rather than a person a bit unsettling: in Iceland I can't point directly to the parliamentarian who represents me.

But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, "As you know, ah, you go to elections with the political system you have, not the system you might want or wish to have at a later time." So I had to figure out which party gets my vote. There were none that really appealed to me, only one that definitely does not appeal to me. I for sure would not be giving my vote to Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn, the party that through 18 years of governing only to maintain their own power finally brought this country to its knees last autumn. The other three parties in contention, having been out of the governing spotlight for so long, suffer from either disorganization, fringe thinking, or lack of support.

In the economic crisis that began to unfold here in early 2006 (and hit the all-out-panic stage last October), the one thing that became clear to me was just how few friends Iceland truly has. The Land is too small of an economy, and too remote, to be more than an afterthought in international politics. Iceland occupies a sort of no-man's-land between Europe and America. It is a strategically important location against Russia, but not much else. As the influence of the U.S. in Iceland has waned (culminating with the closure of the Keflavík Naval Air Station a few years back), Iceland has increasingly looked to Europe. As part of the European Economic Area, which Iceland joined in 1994, Iceland enjoys the same free movement of goods, people, services, and capital as the other European Union states. It also imports and enacts a significant percentage of E.U. legislation (it must enact all social policy, consumer protection, environmental, and corporate legislation by the terms of the EFTA agreement) and by some accounts this is as much as 75% of all E.U. legislation. But Iceland does not belong to the E.U. and so remains a wallflower at the European prom, with no overt acknowledgment of its status by the big European powers, and no say in the legislation that it has signed on to enact without question. Iceland is a bit of a Puerto Rico: all of the rules but none of the say.

Iceland is a misfit in another way: with the highest literacy in the world and a tradition of democracy stretching back to before 1000 A.D., it has a claim on being one of the most advanced Western states. But on the other side of the coin, the small economy has only really opened up to the world in the last 10 years, and it is an economy with many features (such as inflation indexation, or verðtrygging) that are decidely third-world. The Land thus has a bit of a distance to travel to get its economic framework up to snuff with its advanced society.

With the economy here now in shambles - rising unemployment, rising personal and company bankruptcy, and a currency that is practically worthless on world markets - and with the significant hit in reputation that Iceland has suffered as a result of its government's botched handling of the banking crisis last autumn, there is really only one way to regain the confidence that is needed to rebuild. Only by reaching out to the European Union can Iceland show that it is serious about rejoining the world community, and remind the other nations of Europe that it has been along for the ride with them (albeit sitting back in the shadows) since 1994.

Unfortunately much of party politics these days in Iceland seem mired in minutiae. The immediate start of the E.U. application process is only on the platform of one of the parties. That party is center-left Samfylkingin. In my view, Iceland needs to get the E.U. ball rolling now before a further serious leg down in the economy.

It is imperative that we start this process now, as a show of good faith. The decision to actually join the E.U. will come later in a national referendum, when we have more facts on just what membership will entail for us. But to end the comparisons with Zimbabwe and terrorists, to re-join the list of Western nations where we belong, to show that we are serious about modernizing our economy: now is the time to extend a hand to the E.U.


Blogger Helgi Briem said...

I'm very glad to see that a sober, financially astute "outsider" has independently come to the same conclusion as I did.

Thanks Jared and let's hope we win.

Anonymous Biskupinn said...

As ever, a great post. Compelling reasoning.

I'm a touch jealous at not being yet able to vote. Someone started to discuss British politics with me the other night and I had to explain that I'm completely disconnected from the UK. Not having voting rights here leaves me feeling left out, but I'll wait...

Anonymous Paul H said...

I am really hoping there is some positive change in Iceland.
It's been troubling to see the recent adversities Iceland has been going through.
I want to see Iceland maintain its independence, that's part of its character, right?
However, you are probably quite right about the whole E.U. thing.

Here's wishing for much better days for all Icelanders.

Anonymous Lars Erik Bryld said...

Since Iceland is probably not going to rejoin the Evil Danish Empire™, and Denmark likewise is most unlikely to leave the Evil European Empire™, I would personally hope that Iceland together with Norway would become a full member of the EU, and together with the other Nordic counties would be able to become a powerful faction within EU. Regarding the currency issue I would also welcome a revival of the Scandinavian Monetary Union which was active in 1875-1914.


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