Tag Archives: Iceland

Twelve Years an Editor – Almost. Nordic-Mediterranean Perspectives on Iceland’s International Image


Since the year 2015 I have been working as editor in chief of Nordicum-Mediterraneum: Icelandic E-Journal of Nordic and Mediterranean Studies, published by the University of Akureyri (<http://nome.unak.is>). As such, I have received, read, reviewed and released a number of contributions by foreign and, in particular, by Italian scholars, dealing with Iceland under a broad variety of scientific perspectives. Also, especially during and immediately after Iceland’s 2008 financial meltdown, I was contacted and interviewed by a number of media outlets, primarily Italian. Thanks to these experiences, I can contribute to today’s discussion with an eminently personal yet qualitatively rich account of Iceland’s image among Italian and foreign academic circles. Above all, I believe the materials accumulated in the long life of Nordicum-Mediterraneum to be a truly interesting source of insight in the academics’ interest points, if not even the educated commonplaces, about Iceland.

Albeit in charge of the journal since its inception, I am not its real father, who is instead a scholar that has been working for many years at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Maurizio Tani. Eleven years ago, one year short of the title’s twelve, he approached me with the idea of a scholarly journal devoted to the many and diverse historical exchanges between the North and the South of Europe and, in particular, between Iceland and Italy. Nothing of the sort existed on the academic scene. Needless to say, his suggestion was taken aboard. Then, thanks to the small yet vital financial support of the University of Akureyri, plus the crucial help qua webmaster of Mr. Fabrizio Veneziano of Schiller International University in Paris and of Ms. Sigrún Magnúsdóttir qua Akureyri-based editorial assistant, the journal was officially born.

Foreign contributions about Iceland: Numbers and titles 

A true pioneer in open-access scholarly publishing in Iceland, the journal aimed primarily at serving as a forum and an archive for scholars interested in Nordic and Mediterranean mutual connections. Progressively, pressured by its growing readership, the journal expanded its scope to Nordic and Mediterranean matters at large, rather than remaining confined to the exchanges between the North and the South of Europe. At the same time, the journal continued to publish a variety of other contributions as well, ranging from reviews of recent literature to interviews and personal memoirs. The break-up of the publications listed below does not include the special issues 11(2-3), due this year and already in the pipes, editorially speaking, and reads as follows:

Regular issues: 11 (2006-2016)

Special issues: 12 (2006-2016 i.e. up to 10(3)/2016)

Of which:

Conference proceedings: 11 (2008-2016)

Other subjects: 1 (2006)

New articles: 42

Reflections on Iceland’s economic crisis: 13

Conference proceedings: 102

Conference-related notes: 11

Review essays: 5

Book reviews: 121

Interviews: 6

Memoirs: 6

Translations: 5

Republished books: 2

Degree theses: 1

Other contributions (short notes, reports, surveys, non-peer-reviewed articles, etc.): 19

Total publication: 333

Of all these published materials, 45 contributions can be said to deal with Iceland’s image in the eyes of foreign scholars, whether directly or indirectly, e.g. as reported in books reviewed for the journal (in the case of book reviews and review essays, I attribute each entry to either the reviewer’s nationality or the book author’s nationality, depending on who emphasises Iceland more). Longer pieces (e.g. articles, conference papers) amount to 21, while shorter ones (e.g. book reviews) to 24. Most of them are in legal studies (12), linguistics and/or literature (7) and history (5). Then we have contributions in philosophy (4), economics (4), geography (4), politics (3), psychology (2), art history (1) and personal memoirs (3). The countries of relative observation can be listed as follows:

  • Argentina: 1
  • Faroe Islands: 1
  • Finland: 1
  • Germany: 3
  • Ireland: 2
  • Italy: 25
  • The People’s Republic of China: 2
  • Romania: 1
  • Russia: 2
  • Scotland: 6
  • Spain: 1

True to the original spirit of the journal, publications by Italian scholars on Icelandic or Italian-Icelandic matters stand out as far more numerous than the others. This geographical predominance and the limited overall as well as specific number of published contributions make a quantitative analysis unlikely to provide valuable information. Their qualitative value as academic exploration of Iceland’s heritage and historical experiences persists, however.

The typology, depth and length of these 45 contributions varies enormously. I list them below in chronological order, specifying their category, in accordance with the journal’s internal system of classification. In the pages following the list below, I refer to the underlined authors and the relevant year of publication in the journal; when Icelandic-foreign collaborative projects are included, I underline and count for the country list above only the foreign specialists involved:



Antonio Casado da Rocha, “Narrative Ethics and the Ecology of Culture: Notes on New Italian-Icelandic Sagas”

Note on conference proceedings

Maurizio Tani, “Italo Balbo, Iceland and a Short Story by Halldór Laxness. Notes on the Conference ‘La trasvolata Italia-Islanda del 1933’ (Reykjavík, 7 June 2003)”

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Francesco Milazzo, “Teaching Roman Law in Iceland”



Maria Savi Lopez (1848-1940), “Akureyri”, Nei paesi del Nord, Torino: Paravia, 1893

Italo Balbo (1896-1940), “Nella terra dei Vichinghi”, La centuria alata, Milano: Mondadori, 1934



Emanuela Finocchietti & Luca Zarrilli, “Paesaggio naturale e politiche di sviluppo territoriale in Islanda”

Conference proceedings

Manuela S. Campanini, “Iceland as a Landscape Investigation Pattern”

Book reviews

By Antonio Calcagno: Paolo Borioni, Cesare Damiano & Tiziano TreuIl modello sociale scandnavo. Tra diritti e flessibilità (Roma: Nuova Iniziativa Editoriale, 2006)


Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Federico Actite, Ancient Rome and Icelandic Culture – A Brief Overview



Diego Ferioli, “On the Oral-Formulaic Theory and its Application in the Poetic Edda: The Cases of Alvíssmál and Hávamál”

Manuela S. Campanini, “Imagine a Collective Landscape”

Viola Miglio, “Old Norse and Old English Language Contact: Scandinavian Legal Terminology in Anglo-Saxon Laws”

Reflections on the economic crisis

Giorgio Baruchello, “Eight Noble Opinions and the Economic Crisis: Four Literary-philosophical Sketches à la Eduardo Galeano”

Maria Pia Paganelli, “Learning from Bjartur About Today’s Icelandic Economic Crisis”

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Antonio Costanzo, “Fyrirlestur um bókina Hávamál. La voce di Odino”

Marinella Lorinczi, “Dracula in Iceland”



Adriana Di Stefano, “Northern Steps of EU Enlargement: The Impact of ‘Cohesion’ Policies on Iceland’s Accession Process”

Book reviews

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: H. Beale et al., Cases, Materials and Texts on Contract Law, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010); and T. K. Graziano, Comparative Contract Law: Cases, Materials and Exercises (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Natalia Loukacheva (ed.), Polar Law Textbook (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2010)


Fabio Quartino, La Costituzione Islandese: storia ed evoluzione



Garrett Barden, “Responses to the contributors”



Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl, “’Karlson’ – A Stasi ‘Kontakt Person’. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy”

Book reviews

By Andrea Hjálmsdóttir: Aðalheiður Ámundadóttir & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Mannréttindi í þrengingum: Efnahagsleg og félagsleg réttindi í kreppunni (Akureyri-Reykjavík: Háskólinn á Akureyri og Mannréttindaskrifstofa Íslands, 2011)

By Anita Einarsdóttir & Tiantian Zhang: Herman Salton, Arctic Host, Icy Visit: China and Falun Gong Face Off in Iceland (Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Jorge Mejía, “Some impressions after a quick visit to Iceland”



Hjálti Ómar Ágústsson & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, “Practising what they Preach: Did the IMF and Iceland Exercise Good Governance in their Relations 2008-2011?”

Irina Zhilina, “The Security Aspects in the Arctic: the Potential Role of NATO”

Review essay

By Carlo Penco: Juha Manninen & Friedrich Stadtler (eds.), The Vienna Circle and the Nordic Countries. Networks and Transformations of Logical Empiricism (Vienna: Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook vol.14, Springer, 2010)

Book reviews

By Gísli Aðalsteinsson: Maurizio Tani, La chiesa di Akureyri: Guida storico-artistica alla parrocchiale luterana della «capitale del nord» (Grafarvogur: Snorri Sturluson, 2010)

By Guðmundur Heiðar Frímansson: Brian Lucey, Charles Larkin & Constantin Gurdgiev (eds.), What if Ireland defaults? (Dublin: Orpen Press, 2012)

By Herman Salton, “‘Arctic Host, Icy Visit’: A Response” (cf. Tiantian Zhang)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: Jesús Ballesteros, Encarnación Fernández Ruiz-Gálvez & Pedro Talavera (eds.), Globalization and Human Rights: Challenges and Answers from a European Perspective (Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives of Law and Justice, Vol. 13, Leiden: Springer, 2012)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: T. Kue Young (senior ed.), Rajiv Rawat, Winifred Dallmann, Susan Chatwood & Peter Bjerregaard (eds.), Circumpolar Health Atlas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012)

By Tero Mustonen, C. Raudvere & J.P. Schjödt (eds.), More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012)


Luana Giampiccolo, “Leiðarvísir, an Old Norse itinerarium: a proposal for a new partial translation and some notes about the place-names”



Matteo Tarsi, “On Loanwords of Latin Origin in Contemporary Icelandic”

Book reviews

By Federica Scarpa: Natalia Loukacheva (ed.), Polar Law Textbook II (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2013)

By Giorgio Baruchello: Þorlákur Axel Jónsson, Dagur Austan. Ævintýramaðurinn Vernharður Eggertsson (Akureyri: Völuspá, 2009)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl, “Regaining Iceland for the Catholic Church in the mid-19th Century”


Conference proceeding

Giorgio Baruchello, “The Picture—Small and Big: Iceland and the Crises”


Conference proceeding

Thomas Hören, “IMMI and Whistleblowing in Iceland – the new regulatory framework”

Book reviews

By Giorgio Baruchello: Sven-Olof Olsson (ed.), Managing Crises and De-globalization. Nordic foreign trade and exchange 1919-39 (New York: Routledge, 2014 pbk.)

By Giorgio Baruchello: Gaetano Roberto Buccola, Forme del centro. Percorsi analitici dal “Viaggio al centro della Terra” al nucleo dell’uomo (Palermo: Nuova Ipsa, 2013)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: Kári á Rógvi, West-Nordic Constitutional Judicial Review: A Comparative Study of Scandinavian Judicial Review and Judicial Reasoning (Copenhagen: Djøf Publishing, 2013)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Roberto Buccola, “The Unconscious and the Island: Fragments of Research on the Self”


Conference proceeding

Giorgio Baruchello, “Enemies of Interculturalism: The Economic Crisis in Light of Xenophobia, Liberal Cruelties and Human Rights“


Foreign contributions about Iceland: Recurring themes

What sort of recurring themes can be found in this collection of diverse scholarly and scientific texts? I have identified four.

  1. Iceland as “the land of the Vikings”

This is the title given by the aviator Italo Balbo (2006) to the chapter on Iceland in his 1933 memoirs, who also recalls how the Vikings discovered America before Columbus himself. Spanish-Portuguese philosopher Casado da Rocha (2006) mentions too the Vikings’ “stories of warriors and wise men, poets and politicians of the golden age of settlement and commonwealth.” The marauding hordes, their adventures and their legacy are very much a focus-point for many commentators. They are a reason for distinctiveness, if not distinction. For instance, law professor Milazzo’s (2006) account of his teaching experience emphasises how Iceland is not as much part of the legal tradition based on Roman Law as most other European countries. Legal scholar Johnstone too, in her 2011 review essay on comparative law, mentions the enduring island-centric character of mainstream legal education in Iceland. This is not to say that classical culture did not reach or influence Iceland’s cultural development. Quite the opposite, Actite’s 2009 text offers a concise account of the deep, extensive and sometimes surprising impact of the Latin tradition on this island: “For instance, the Latin phrase Rustycus es, Corydon gave origin to the Icelandic words rusti [farmer] and dóni [rude people]”. Tarsi (2014) offers an even longer account. Even some elements of the later Catholic Christianitas endure, as noticed by Cardinal Mejía (2012) and Tani (2013). Still, the land of the Vikings is distinct and original, which is shown by the interest of foreign scholars, and Italian ones in particular, in the history, development and influence of Old Norse or ancient Icelandic, and its literary accomplishments in the Edda and the Sagas, e.g. Ferioli (2010), Miglio (2010), Costanzo (2010), Lorinczi (2010), Tani (2006), Barden (2011), Mustonen (2013), Giampiccolo (2013),

  1. Iceland as a Nordic State

Former Italian governmental ministers Damiano and Treu, together with the historian Borioni (2008), lump Iceland together with the other Scandinavian countries, as though Iceland had as strong a social-democratic tradition as Sweden, Denmark or Norway. However, Iceland does not have it. It was never a welfare State, in the sense and to the extent these other countries have historically exemplified. The right-wing Independence Party has marked its history much more than the various incarnations of democratic socialism in Iceland (cf. also Meckl’s 2012 article on Iceland’s Cold-War history and Baruchello’s 2014 book review), as also reflected by the largely unnoticed repression of Falun Gong demonstrators in Iceland in 2002 (cf. Tiantian Zhang, 2012 & 2013). Difference does not mean intransigence, however. Thus, Hören (2015) and Johnstone (2013a) reveal significant changes in a more Nordic direction led by the historically weaker left-wing forces of the country, in freedom of the press and in human rights provisions respectively. Perhaps, the most obvious manifestation of the “un-Nordicness” of Iceland was the neoliberal boom-and-bust hot-money cycle that led to the notorious kreppa of 2008, about which a number of contributions have been published, i.e. Baruchello (2010), Paganelli (2010), Johnstone (2013), Lucey, Larkin & Gurdgiev (2013), Johnstone (2013a & b), Baruchello (2014 & 2015b). Penco (2013) adds another layer of “un-Nordicness” by noticing how Iceland’s philosophical tradition owes more to Anglophone and Dutch academic traditions and establishments than to Scandinavian ones. Still, there exist clear connections with Scandinavian political experience, notably the Danish roots of Iceland’s constitution (cf. Quartino, 2011). In fact, in addition to its linguistic-literary roots and heritage, the legal tradition of Iceland seems to be, at large, the most Nordic feature of Iceland’s culture, at least according to Kári á Rógvi (2015). Baruchello (2015) adds another line of continuity, i.e. the cartelisation of strategic industries during the 1930s.

  1. Iceland as an Arctic State

Less controversial is this third commonplace notion. Iceland is located in the North Atlantic, after all, which is cold, dangerous to navigate upon, remote. This is the tone of the account by Savi-Lopez (2006), who pioneered the study and dissemination of Icelandic literature in Italy in the first half of the 20th century. As to later accounts, it would appear that being located in the North Atlantic is strategic. It is so for NATO (cf. Zhilina, 2013), for the EU (cf. Di Stefano, 2011), but above all for the Arctic nations and the governance of the region, as emphasised by Loukacheva (2011), Johnstone (2013c) and Scarpa (2014). Indeed, Meckl’s 2014 studies on the Catholic Arctic mission of the 19th century show the Catholic Church being the first international institution to conceive of the Arctic as a geographically, politically and culturally strategic region of the World. The number of submissions and publications pertaining to this third notion have been growingly steadily over the years, reflecting Iceland’s own growing institutional and intellectual self-characterisation as an Arctic State, not least as manifested by the developments within the University of Akureyri, which is part of the University of the Arctic consortium and hosts a most successful Master’s programme in Polar Law.

  1. Iceland as a dimension of the spirit

Iceland’s unique landscape, the result of equally unique and rather extreme geographic, geological and climatic conditions, lead to awe and deep existential reflection. Scientific observations are the beginning of more profound considerations about the relationship between humanity and the natural environment, the struggle for survival that we have fought throughout our journey on this planet, and the most disturbing question of all: why do we keep fighting? More or less explicitly, this is the tone of the contributions by literary scholar Finocchietti (2008) as well as geographers Zarrilli (2008) and Campanini (2008 & 2010). The same applies to those of Jungian psychologist Buccola (2015a & b). Numerically, we are not talking of a large number of contributions. However, and here the qualitative character of the present account comes to the forefront, the number of authors that have been interested in Iceland because of its mystique is conspicuous. Methodologically unlikely to reflect upon and disclose the motives for their own research, scholars and scientists have often discussed them with me qua editor and a southern European expatriate in the far north. The fascination with Iceland’s lunar vistas and its seemingly prohibitive inhospitality, combined with the sense of authenticity that such conditions inspire, are a frequent reason for Mediterranean minds to develop an interest in Nordic matters, even if these may have little to do with the island’s vistas, inhospitality or authenticity.

Concluding remarks

The literature by foreign experts published over the years in Nordicum-Mediterraneum pertains to many different disciplines. Prominent are literary, linguistic and legal studies. These disciplinary areas of emphasis are the result of many factors, not least the network of scholars and researchers who have found the journal a suitable venue for their work and that of experts willing to review the books that we receive from publishers. It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge with certainty how representative they are of the stereotypes of, and commonplace conceptions about, Iceland. Nonetheless, I believe that they do offer considerable food for thought, which is an adequate and relevant aim for the present contribution.

Little Fish, Big Pond: Icelandic Interests and Influence in Arctic Governance


On pretty much any measure of international comparison, Iceland is a little fish. Nevertheless, its geographical location next to the Big Pond that is the Arctic Ocean has put in a position of influence in a region of growing international importance.

In this paper, I will explore Iceland’s influence in the Arctic region based on international relations considerations such as its political alliances; and based on international law: Iceland’s rights and responsibilities.

The paper presents the Arctic Council and Iceland’s role within it before turning to issues that are governed outside of the Arctic Council system, in particular, Arctic fisheries and maritime boundaries. The paper explains Iceland’s approach to Arctic cooperation in light of its published policy documents and explore the tools available to Iceland to defend its interests.

Iceland as a ‘Small State’

Small States seek shelter: usually on a regional basis.[1] They make alliances to advance their objectives and protect themselves from the lions. On hard security issues, Iceland finds this in the folds of NATO. The Arctic Council does not address hard security issues at all – and despite some heated press coverage, Russia is not posing a military threat in the Arctic, to Iceland or anyone else. But Iceland also needs economic and environmental security which it has fostered through Nordic cooperation, EFTA, the EEA and, of increasing importance, the Arctic Council.

International relations provides a number of objective criteria on which to measure a State as ‘small’: population, territory, GDP and military.[2] States may be small by one measure but not by another – for example, having a very large territory but a tiny military; or having a small population but a high GDP.

In a global context, Iceland is very small. Its surface area amounts to less than 0.07% of the Earth’s land; its population less than 0.005% of the World’s; its GDP is under 0.02%. And Iceland has no military as such.

But States are also big or small in a given geopolitical context: the Kingdom of Denmark is a small State in global affairs but not in the Nordic Council. Being ‘small’ or even ‘very small’ is a relative matter rather than an absolute. Therefore although Iceland is a very small State at the international level, within the Arctic Council system, it exerts an influence that belies its small territory, population and economy.

Iceland’s Relative Size in the Arctic Council

‘The Arctic’ has a number of different definitions for different purposes, even within the Arctic Council system itself. For example, the area covered by the sustainable development working group is based on human interests; the protection of the marine environment working group is only concerned with the seas; conservation of arctic flora and fauna is determined by ecosystems. In all cases, Iceland is included in its entirety even if almost all of it sits below the Arctic Circle. By contrast, for the purposes of the Polar Code, agreed through the global International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Iceland is entirely to the South of the protected area: this is based on considerations of the marine conditions – temperature and ice-cover especially.

The Arctic Council consists of the eight States with territory that stretches above the Arctic Circle: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States of America. In addition, there are six permanent participants: these are organisations of indigenous peoples from around the Arctic. Each is transnational in character. Five permanent participants represent peoples that inhabit more than one State: the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council and Saami Council.  The sixth is the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and represents over 40 small-numbered indigenous peoples in Northern Russia.

When thinking about small State theory, how ‘small’ is Iceland in the Arctic Council?

Iceland is still very small when territory is considered: it is dwarfed by the Russian and Canadian Arctics. However, when looking at population, Iceland is not far from the average with a population of approximately 330,000 (see Figure 1).

Arctic populations
Figure 1: Arctic populations

However, these figures are based on assuming that the whole of Iceland is ‘Arctic’. This is indeed the position of the Icelandic government and important to securing its legitimate participation in Arctic governance. Foreign Minister Össur Skaphérðinsson stated in his introduction to the Icelandic Arctic Policy statement in 2009 that: “Iceland is the only state that is wholly within the Arctic area, as it is generally understand international affairs or at the Arctic Council.”[3]

The current draft policy, Iceland’s Interests in the Arctic, goes even further and suggests that Iceland is somehow more Arctic than its neighbours – in which the vast majority of the population and the territory (but for the Kingdom of Denmark) lies well south of the 66th parallel.


Iceland is unique when we compare it to other nations that are geographically part of the Arctic. Most other countries, aside from Greenland, are predominantly South of the Arctic according to these definitions and their populations live mostly outside of the Arctic.[4]

If we then stop to consider the observers at the Arctic Council, the Iceland once more disappears – over half the World’s population is now represented in some form at the Arctic Council.

Further, it is not just the observer States and intergovernmental fora that make Iceland look little: WWF, observer at the Arctic Council, has a membership in excess of 5 million people. These are not just people who happen by birth to be affiliated to a particular State; these are people who care enough about WWF’s priorities, including its Global Arctic campaign, to pay an annual subscription.

The History of the Arctic Council

So how can Iceland exert its influence at the Arctic Council? And why was it in favour of the great expansion of observers in 2013? To understand this, we need to explore the Arctic Council’s origins and the way it functions today.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the only international interest in the Arctic was how long it would take to fire an intercontinental missile across it. A diligent doctoral student in the 1980s (now a very well-known professor of law of the sea) was told by his supervisor that he was wasting his time writing about the Northern Sea Route!

Iceland invited Gorbachev and Reagan to meet for disarmament talks in Reykjavík in 1986 and although no agreements as such were agreed, it was sufficient – no pun intended – to break the ice.

It was Gorbachev who then came along with the olive branch: the speech at Murmansk in 1987 in which he identified six areas that he saw as ripe for cooperation:

  • A nuclear weapons-free zone in Northern Europe;
  • Reductions and restrictions on naval activity in Northern Europe;
  • Cooperative development of hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic;
  • Scientific cooperation;
  • “Cooperation of the northern countries in environmental protection”; and developing “jointly an integrated comprehensive plan for protecting the natural environment of the North”; and
  • Opening of the Northern Sea Route to international vessels.[5]

Finland seized on this overture and initiated the Rovaniemi Process which in turn led to the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1991.[6] Pointedly, this initiative was established at a meeting of 8 ministers for the environment, not foreign ministers. The four original working groups, later joined by Sustainable Development and, under the Arctic Council, Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP), are all environmentally oriented.

The transition to the Arctic Council in 1996 was effected through the Ottawa Declaration.[7] This change indicated a much broader range of interests: this was no longer solely a forum for managing shared environmental threats and clean-up activities – it was now, in theory at least, able to address any shared concerns with the explicit exception of military security. According to the Ottawa Declaration, the Arctic Council is established to “provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.”[8]

But in 1996, the Arctic Council was still a fairly marginal institution and outside concern with the Arctic did not extend much beyond preservation of polar bears. Even in Iceland, there was little awareness of the Arctic as a geopolitical region as such or Iceland’s place within it. Iceland looked South to Europe and West to North American for trade but it did not really look North.

Between 1996 and 2000, the number of permanent participants rose from two to six and in the early 2000s, there was a slow but gradual increase in the number of observers. Iceland took the rotating chairmanship from 2002-2004; this also happened to be the time when international interest in the Arctic took off. By around 2005, the Arctic was gathering more and more attention in international relations, international law, development, economics and environmental scholarship and activism. The battle lines were being drawn between those that wanted it closed off as an international natural park; and those that wanted to exploit its apparently abundant resources (forgetting, perhaps, that Russia had been exploiting Arctic resources since at least the times of Stalin).

From about 2010 onwards, five rising Asian States, Italy and the European Union were seeking a formal place at the Arctic table: observership at the Arctic Council. This was awarded for the six States in 2013 and effectively for the EU at the same time but followed three years of intense lobbying efforts and heated discussions.[9]


The Operation of the Arctic Council and Iceland’s Influence within it

How can Iceland, then, maintain its influence in the shadow of these giants? To understand this, we need to examine how the Arctic Council operates.

The Arctic States are the members of the Arctic Council and the associations of indigenous peoples are permanent participants. This is a unique format for an international body. The Arctic States and permanent participants sit together at Arctic Circle meetings and have equal rights to contribute to the agenda and debate.[10] Decisions are made by consensus between the member States and in practice, usually the consensus of the permanent participants as well.[11]

The Arctic Council operates at a number of levels (see Figure 2). At the top is the biennial ministerial meeting, the location of which coincides with the chairmanship (which changes every two years on a rotating basis). The Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) are the member States’ ambassadors who meet alongside the permanent participants and observers twice yearly. A number of subsidiary bodies exist, principally the six working groups which are essentially scientific bodies that can present findings to the SAOs and ministerial meeting but whose policy recommendations must be endorsed by the Arctic States. The working groups are standing bodies but there are also time–limited Task Forces which address specific issues and now the Expert Group on Black Carbon.

The Arctic Council
Figure 2: The Arctic Council

Observers at the Arctic Council[12] have much less influence than the members or permanent participants; in short, their role is to ‘observe’ and not to talk. To become and remain an observer, an entity must: bow to Arctic States’ sovereignty; recognize and commit to uphold international law, in particular, the law of the sea in the Arctic; respect the rights of indigenous peoples; demonstrate commitment, including financial commitment, to the work of the permanent participants; and show its capacity to contribute to Arctic interests, including scientific research.[13]

Observers’ have limited rights at Arctic Council meetings and are expected to contribute principally through the working groups.[14] Unlike the member States and the permanent participants, observers may not propose items for the agenda or raise points during Arctic Council meetings (ministerial or SAO meetings) although they are permitted to submit written statements.[15] Even at the subsidiary bodies, the observers are sat apart at the ‘children’s table’, behind the main table and they may speak only after the States and permanent participants have had their say and even then at the discretion of the chair.[16] Observers are also reviewed every four years but can be excluded at any time as their observer status only lasts as long as consensus exists amongst the ministers. In other words, it would require only one member State to exclude an observer.[17] This means that observers cannot exert the influence they have in other international fora within the Arctic Council. To maintain their observerships, they must placate all the Arctic States and most of the permanent participants, most of the time. Iceland might be little but in the Arctic Council it wields a great deal more influence than China.

The Arctic Council punches well above its weight for what is structurally no more than a roundtable for discussion with no law-making powers or compliance mechanisms. Nevertheless, there are two very significant limitations on what it can do. The first is financial: it has no regular funding and seeks contributions on an issue-by-issue basis.[18] This requires States – including observer States – being willing to front cash. Secondly, the consensus model means that it requires only one State to object to anything to take it off the table – whether that be the wording in a recommendation or the initiation of a project in the first place. Iceland can veto anything.

The Arctic Council has also successfully insulated itself from international tensions and disputes that have dampened East-West relations over the past few years such as the crises in the Crimea and Syria. While Iceland ties itself in knots internally over the Russian sanction regime, this is entirely curtained off at the Arctic Council meetings. When tensions have occasionally arisen between Canada and Russia, Iceland can sit back and enjoy the show; it is not forced to take a position. Also, Iceland, having no indigenous peoples of its own, can play the honest broker and be a neutral mediator between the permanent participants and States.

Alliances in the Arctic Council are fluid; there is no obvious ‘Nordic block’ as often occurs at the United Nations and Iceland will defend its own interests on an issue by issue basis. The consensus approach – or the ‘veto’ approach if you prefer – means that fixed alliances are not necessary; no State can be forced into a position that it finds unacceptable.

Beyond the Arctic Council

From Iceland’s perspective, as a very small State, the Arctic Council is a very attractive forum in which to advance its interests. Its official policy, to prioritise the Arctic Council as the key forum, mirrors that of Sweden and Finland, because it is here that the States have the most meaningful influence.[19] A very small State has limited bargaining power in bilateral negotiations with much larger countries; but it also has minimal influence in global fora in which it is outweighed – and outspent – by major powers. Even worse is a forum in which Iceland is not represented at all.

The same consensus-based system that allows Iceland to protect its interests in the Arctic Council allows the other seven States to do the same – and allows them each to keep certain things of the agenda to be dealt with elsewhere. The so-called ‘Arctic Five’ have squeezed out Iceland over two issues: Arctic High Seas fisheries; and the delimitation of the outer continental shelf.

The Arctic Five

Iceland has a small Arctic coastline but it is does not itself border the Arctic Ocean per se. Its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is met by the Norwegian and Greenlandic EEZ’s in the North. Therefore although Iceland is an ‘Arctic Coastal State’ is it is not an ‘Arctic Ocean littoral State’ – i.e. it does not have a coastline or EEZ that borders the Arctic Ocean.

The Arctic Five – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the USA – meet occasionally outside of the Arctic Council framework, pushing to one side not only the other three Nordic State partners but the permanent participants as well. The basic justification for this is that the Arctic Ocean is a ‘semi-enclosed sea’ – a debatable claim geographically but one that gives those five States a special responsibility under the Convention on the Law of the Sea to manage the area.[20]

This group met in Oslo in 2007, Ilulissat, Greenland in 2008 and Chelsea, Québec in 2010 to discuss the legal framework for the Arctic Ocean. The Ilulissat meeting culminated in a declaration which was a broad reaffirmation of State sovereignty in the Arctic, an endorsement of the law of the sea as the governing framework for the Arctic Ocean and a message to non-Arctic States that a treaty based on the Antarctic model of environmental protection and internationalization would not be accepted in the North.[21]

Iceland registered its objections and emphasized the importance of the Arctic Council as the principal forum; but the Arctic Council cannot have a monopoly on any topic and nothing can prevent States from meeting and negotiating outside of the Arctic Council system.

The Outer Continental Shelf in the Arctic

The sexy issue in the Arctic today is the grand carve-up of the outer continental shelf. Iceland does not have a stake in this game because it does not have an Arctic coastline. In any case, while it might resemble a colonial land-grab with dramatic flag-planting and grand declarations of sovereignty, the system to resolve and allocate rights over the ocean floor is long settled.[22] It is admittedly slow and laborious but in short: Canada, Russia and Denmark or Greenland will sooner or later sit down and resolve their overlapping map submissions through bilateral negotiations. There is no hurry to do this as all the resources of any near-term commercial interest are far from the contested zones.

In respect of Iceland’s continental shelf, the Dragon Area to the North by Jan Mayen is long settled as a joint development zone with Norway. Iceland has three potential areas of outer continental shelf that are being mapped and of these, the Rockall area to the South is contested as four States (the Kingdom of Denmark (Faroe Islands), Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom) jostle for exclusive rights; but this is not an Arctic issue (see Figure 3).[23]

Iceland's maritime zones - The thick black line circling Iceland indicates the boundary of Iceland’s EEZ. The red line to the South indicate Iceland’s maximum potential outer continental shelf around Rockall; the purple, green and yellow lines indicate the submissions of the Kingdom of Denmark (Faroe Islands), the United Kingdom and Ireland respectively.
Figure 3: Iceland’s maritime zones – The thick black line circling Iceland indicates the boundary of Iceland’s EEZ. The red line to the South indicate Iceland’s maximum potential outer continental shelf around Rockall; the purple, green and yellow lines indicate the submissions of the Kingdom of Denmark (Faroe Islands), the United Kingdom and Ireland respectively.

Arctic Fisheries

Fisheries are more interesting but not an immediate concern. Iceland has exclusive rights over fish stocks within its EEZ but it has to manage shared and straggling stocks and highly migratory species in cooperation with neighbouring States (see Figure 3).[24] For the most part, this goes reasonably well though there is an ongoing sore point over the mackerel which has been gradually shifting Northward and Westward and competing with the cod stocks.

There are very good reasons to keep this out of the Arctic Council framework. The European Union is a key player in this dispute and the last thing any of the Arctic States want to do is give the European Union equal standing at the Arctic Council.

More speculative is the future governance of fisheries in the Arctic High Seas (see Figure 4). [25]

The EEZs and High Seas in the Arctic Ocean
The EEZs and High Seas in the Arctic Ocean

Currently, there are no fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean (the High Seas marked dark blue in Figure 4) as it is too far, and mostly ice-covered, to offer commercially exciting fisheries. Existing fisheries are all safely within the 200 nautical mile EEZ of the coasts. They are managed by the Coastal States and various regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs). The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) NEAFC covers a small corner of the High Seas, but otherwise, the Central Arctic Ocean is an international commons.

The Arctic Five have taken the lead – again under protest from Iceland. High Seas are beyond the jurisdiction of any State and under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Fish Stocks Agreement, to prevent a ‘free-for-all’ and a tragedy of the commons, States with a ‘real interest’ should work together.[26] The difficulty in the Central Arctic Ocean is that there are currently no fisheries and hence it is very difficult to determine who has a ‘real interest’ in the legal sense.

Where the High Seas are concerned, Iceland’s position is that it has just as much interest in the area as the five littoral States; the Arctic Five disagree and began negotiations amongst themselves. This concluded with a moratorium in July 2015 – a temporary ban on Arctic High Seas fishing until such time as scientific studies had evaluated the available stocks and their resiliency.[27]

A moratorium agreed with the Arctic Five cannot bind other States which is why they invited five other entities to a discussion in Washington DC in December 2015 about future governance of living marine resources in the Central Arctic Ocean. The five littoral States attended, alongside five invited participants: The European Union, China, Japan, South Korea and Iceland: the ‘A5+5’.

Russia had expressed scepticism as to the need to include any other States at this point but nonetheless attended the December talks.[28] This indicates the Arctic Five’s recognition that these are all entities with a ‘real interest’ as they are those most likely to have the potential for fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. It is also indicative of a view amongst the Arctic Five that no other State or entity has a ‘real interest’ – at least at this time.

Being left on the second tier alongside distant Asian States might be humbling for Iceland but an ‘Arctic Six’ is simply not going to happen. Iceland does have legal interests in the Central Arctic Ocean: but in law, these are no different to those of the EU or China. This is not an urgent matter as there is no immediate economic potential but Iceland nonetheless can be expected to protest any exclusion and to defend the role of the Arctic Council to prevent precedents being set for Arctic governance without its involvement.


Arctic Shipping

The last hot topic in the Arctic that is outside of the Arctic Council system is shipping. Freedom of navigation is a fundamental principle of law of the sea that applies right up to States’ baselines. It is a global right that is managed at global fora, in particular, the International Maritime Organization that developed the Polar Code. Iceland has no special legal or commercial interests in the Arctic shipping. .[29] Iceland’s EEZ has no ice-covered waters so it has no extended authority to protect its marine environment beyond that which applies generally under the Convention on the Law of the Sea.[30] But that will not prevent it examining commercial opportunities should commercial shipping develop.

Iceland’s Arctic Policy

The priorities I have identified are reflected in the development of Iceland’s Arctic policies. Increasing governmental attention to the Arctic can be traced at least to the Icelandic chairmanship of the Arctic Council but this section will look only at the official policy formulations from 2009 onwards.

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Össur Skarphéðinsson set the ball rolling in 2009 with the report, Iceland in the Arctic.[31] He followed this up by making the Arctic a key theme of his 2010 report to the Alþingi and then sent them a draft to develop into a formal policy (stefna) which the Parliament then took up and agreed with few changes in 2011.[32]

In May 2015, the new government issued a draft for consultation: Iceland’s Interests in the Arctic: Opportunities and Risks, though this has yet to be finalized and the projected date has been repeatedly put back.[33] The current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, put the Arctic once more at centre stage in his 2016 annual report to Parliament.[34]

In all of these, we see an emphasis on multilateral approaches, the importance of the Arctic Council and the assertion of Iceland as an ‘Arctic coastal State’ that is a challenge to the legitimacy of the Arctic Five.

In Skarphéðinsson’s extensive first report, Iceland in the Arctic, international cooperation is the first priority with particular attention on the Arctic Council. However, the Barents-Euro Arctic Council and the West-Nordic region are also mentioned as important fora. In his 2010 report to Parliament on international affairs, the first region to be addressed is the High North and of the ten Arctic priorities, the first is:

to secure Iceland’s position as a coastal state and a key stakeholder in shaping the future development of the High North. Iceland should be considered a full-fledged coastal state on a par with such countries as the USA, Denmark (for Greenland), Canada, Norway and Russia.[35]


This repeats an earlier rebuke to the Arctic Five for their exclusion of Iceland but it is also noteworthy that for all Iceland’s talk of the importance of the Arctic Council, it is not unduly concerned about the exclusion of Finland, Sweden or the indigenous representatives from the Arctic Five talks.[36]

Defence of the Arctic Council comes later (Arctic priority 4) but all the priorities point to Iceland’s need for multilateral Arctic governance and the importance of securing of Iceland’s role within it.[37]

Until such time as the current government agrees a new policy, the official Icelandic Arctic policy remains the 2011 Parliamentary Resolution.[38] It largely follows Össur’s 2010 report though one interesting change is that the Alþingi changed the order, placing the Arctic Council first. However, it also highlights Iceland’s special status as a ‘Coastal State within the Arctic Region’ in priority two.[39]

One surprising aspect of the draft of the latest Arctic policy is that it follows much of the previous approaches but makes very little direct reference, perhaps reflecting a desire of the governing coalition parties to present the Arctic as their project.[40] It was these two coalition parties who held the reins when the Arctic first hit the radar of Icelandic politics and who actively pursued increased cooperation and investment in Arctic relations and research. The draft highlights once more Iceland’s Arctic credentials, now suggesting that Iceland is somehow more Arctic than the other States (in which most of the land and population are far South of the Arctic).[41]

International cooperation is still the top priority, especially through Arctic Council.[42] However, other fora are mentioned and special relations with Greenland and the Faroe Islands are promoted.[43]

The opportunities (tækifæri) identified are very much business-focused: new fisheries, hydrocarbons and shipping; climate change is not presented as wholly negative.[44] This is reminiscent of Berit Kristoffersen’s concept of ‘opportunistic adaptation.’[45]

Indigenous peoples are overlooked in the report almost entirely; mentioned only once in the introduction, their rights and interests are ignored throughout, even in areas where proposed Icelandic activities can have serious impacts.

Most recently, in March 2016, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, delivered his annual report to Parliament. The Arctic is once more the first region to be assessed. The 2011 Parliament resolution remains the key policy and there is no mention of development of the new strategy document (i.e. Iceland’s Interests in the Arctic).[46]

Sveinsson seeks an increase in Iceland’s contributions to the Arctic Council’s activities, especially at the level of working groups, task forces and expert groups and points to the need to begin preparations for the Icelandic chairmanship that begins in 2019.[47] The Arctic Council’s operations are explained in a fair degree of detail to Parliament (given the habitual nature of such reports) some detail (given the nature of such reports) in the following pages.[48]

West-Nordic cooperation is also given special attention, indicating an interest in promoting further cooperation with the Faroe Islands and Greenland.[49]  This is a region or sub-region that is not given a great deal of attention in international relations but has the potential to grow in importance. In this context, Iceland is the ‘big State’ and the only one of the three countries to have decolonised from the Kingdom of Denmark (so far). However, the West Nordic Council is significantly limited in its activities in the absence of considerable investment: not easy to come by in three very small and cash-strapped countries.

The Arctic High Seas fisheries issue is not addressed directly in the report and no reference is made to the A5+5 December 2015 meeting in Washington DC. (This may have been a matter of the timing of the drafting of the report or it may indicate that the current foreign ministry no longer wishes to continue to fight this battle.) Nevertheless, within the section on Arctic cooperation, Sveinsson obliquely refers to the dependence on marine resources of the Icelandic economy and the importance for Iceland of ‘actively participating in international cooperation concerning ocean affairs’.[50]

Making Sense of Iceland’s Priorities

The official Icelandic approach does not diverge widely from what might be expected from a very small fish beside a very big ocean. Multilateral cooperation is key and the Arctic Council is the preferred forum as it secures Iceland’s influence. Nevertheless, although Iceland objects to the Arctic Five, it would quite happily accept an Arctic Six – as long as it is in it.  Iceland objects to its own exclusion and does not necessarily take a particularly principled stand in defence of broader multilateral cooperation.

However, Iceland has been open to the expansion of observers at the Arctic Council; some of these courted Iceland generously during the application period. Iceland needs its international partners beyond Arctic States but if Iceland can channel them through the Arctic Council, it prevents them from overpowering it.

Iceland continues to assert its interest and demand involvement in fisheries management. Iceland must be practical here and take part in the A5+5 – even if it would prefer an A6+4. The shelf is not so pressing and will be resolved in time. Iceland sees some commercial opportunities in shipping –but this is a very long game and will be managed through the IMO.

The current government’s approach to the Arctic is rather more commercially oriented that its predecessor as it looks to climate change as an opportunity (as well as a risk factor) and seeks to profit from the resources that the receding ice ostensibly presents. Nevertheless, those resources remain very expensive to access and develop irrespective of the state of the ice.

[1] See, eg, Alyson Bailes, Baldur Þórhallsson, and Rachael Lorna Johnstone, “Scotland as an Independent Small State: Where Would It Seek Shelter?,” Stjórnmál og Stjórnsýsla 9, no. 1 (2013).

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Össur Skarphéðinsson, Ísland á norðurslóðum, Inngangur, 2009 (translation by present author).

[4] Ministerial Committee on Arctic Affairs, Hagsmunir Íslands á norðurslóðum: tækifæri og viðsjár (draft), March 2015.

[5] Mikhail Gorbachev, Speech at Murmansk, 1st Oct.1987, available at <https://www.google.is/search?q=murmansk+speech&rlz=1C1LENP_enIS499IS499&oq=murmansk+speech&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l3.1838j0j9&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[6] Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), Declaration of the Ministerial Meeting in Alta, Norway, 13 June 1997, available at <http://library.arcticportal.org/1271/> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[7] Ottawa Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council, 19 September 1996, available at < http://library.arcticportal.org/1270/> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[8] Ibid, para. 1a.

[9] Arctic Council, Kiruna Declaration, 15 May 2013, 6, available at <https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/93> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[10] Arctic Council, Rules of Procedure, as adopted by the Arctic Council at the First Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, Iqaluit, Canada, revised by the Arctic Council at the Eighth Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, Kiruna, Sweden, available at <https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/940> para 19 (accessed 4 April 2016).

[11] Douglas C Nord, The Arctic Council: Governance within the Far North (Routledge 2016) 38 & 70.

[12] United States of America, Department of State, ‘Arctic Council Structure’ <http://www.state.gov/e/oes/ocns/opa/arc/ac/structure/> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[13] Rules of Procedure, supra note 10, Annex 2.

[14] Ibid, Rule 38

[15] Ibid, Rules 12, 19 & 38.

[16] Arctic Council, Observer Manual for Subsidiary Bodies, as adopted by the Arctic Council at the Eighth Ministerial Meeting, Kiruna, Sweden, revised by the Arctic Council Meeting of the SAOs at Anchorage, Alaska, United States of America, October 2015, available at <https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/939> para 7.3 (accessed 4 April 2016).

[17] Rules of Procedure, supra note 10, Rule 37 and Annex 2, Rule 5.

[18] See, e.g., Nord, supra note 11, 35 & 72-74.

[19] Parliament of Iceland, Þingsályktun um stefnu Íslands í málefnum norðurslóða (2011) 139th legislative session, 28 March 2011.

[20] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, 10 December 1982, 1833 UNTS 397 (UNCLOS), Part IX.

[21] Ilulissat Declaration, Foreign Ministers of Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States of America, The Ilulissat Declaration, 29 May 2008, available at <http://www.arcticgovernance.org/the-ilulissat-declaration.4872424.html> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[22] UNCLOS, supra note 20, Part VI and Annex II.

[23] Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Viðræðum fram haldið um Hatton Rockall-málið’ 24 November 2004, available at <https://www.utanrikisraduneyti.is/frettir/nr/2472> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[24] UNCLOS, supra note 20, Part V.

[25] Ron Macnab, Olav Loken and Arvind Anand, ‘The Law of the Sea and Marine Scientific Research in the Arctic Ocean’ Meridian Newsletter (2007-2008) 3, Figure 2 <http://www.polarcom.gc.ca/uploads/Publications/Meridian%20Newsletter/MeridianFall2007.pdf> (accessed 6 April 2016).

[26] UNCLOS, supra note 20, Part V; United Nations Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, 4 August 1995, 2167 UNTS 88, article 8(3).

[27] United States Library of Congress, Global Legal Monitor, ‘Canada; Denmark; Norway; Russia; United States: Fishing Declaration Covering Central Arctic’ 21 July 2015, available at <http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/canada-denmark-norway-russia-united-states-fishing-declaration-covering-central-arctic/> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[28] United States Department of State, ‘Meeting on High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean: Chairman’s Statement’ 3 December 2015, available at <http://www.state.gov/e/oes/rls/pr/250352.htm> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[29] IMO, ‘Shipping in Polar Waters’ available at < http://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/HotTopics/polar/Pages/default.aspx> (accessed 4 April 2016).

[30] UNCLOS, supra note 20, article 234.

[31] Skarphéðinsson, supra note 3.

[32] Skýrsla Össurar Skarphéðinssonar utanríkisráðherra um utanríkis- og alþjóðamál, May 2010; Parliament of Iceland, supra note 19.

[33] Ministerial Committee on Arctic Affairs 2015, supra note 4.

[34] Skýrsla Gunnars Braga Sveinssonar utanríkisráðherra um utanríkis- og alþjóðamál, May 2016.

[35] Skarphépinsson 2010, supra note 32, 15-16.

[36] Ibid, 12

[37] Ibid, 16.

[38] Parliament of Iceland, supra note 19.

[39] Ibid, 1.

[40] Ministerial Committee on Arctic Affairs, supra note 4.

[41] See quotation above, supra note 4.

[42] Ministerial Committee on Arctic Affairs, supra note 4, 6-8.

[43] Ibid, 8.

[44] Ibid, Chapters 2 & 3.

[45] Berit Kristoffersen, ‘Opportunistic Adaptation: New Discourses on Oil, Equity, and Environmental Security’ in The Adaptive Challenge of Climate Change, Karen O’Brien and Elin Selboe (Eds) (Cambridge University Press 2015).

[46] Sveinsson 2016, supra note 34, Chapter 2.

[47] Ibid, 12.

[48] Ibid, 13-14.

[49] Ibid, 14.

[50] Ibid, 12.

The EU’s Open Arms and Small States

Recent events notwithstanding, all things considered, the European Union has proved to be a brilliant success along several dimensions. This is why there are still several countries waiting outside the gates aspiring to membership while only the British are considering exit as if to confirm French President Charles de Gaulle´s initial doubts about British membership. And this is why US President Barack Obama encourages British voters openly to say No to Brexit in the upcoming referendum in June 2016, warning them that Brexit may weaken the “special relationship” between the Britain and the United States.

Peace, prosperity, and open arms

Recent troubles notwithstanding, I see three main reasons why the EU deserves to be regarded as a brilliant success: Peace, prosperity, and open arms.

First, the EU has helped keep the peace in Europe since 1945, the longest continuous period of peace and harmony in Europe since time immemorial except for some skirmishes – some major ones, it is true – in former communist countries in the Balkans. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, one of the chief architects of German reunification as well as of European unification, put the matter well when he declared that Germany wanted to share her sovereignty and her fate with her European neighbors lest her neighbors never again need to fear German belligerency.

Second, the EU has promoted prosperity on the continent by engineering a major economic and social transformation with an unwavering emphasis on human rights. European cities from Helsinki to Lisbon – and, yes, also from Athens to Dublin – have been transformed before our eyes, and the same applies to the European countryside. The EU´s strong emphasis on human rights has involved, among many other things, the abolition of the death penalty throughout the union membership. The Americans have begun to take notice: the number of death sentences and executions in the United States has dropped significantly since the mid-1990s.

Third, with open arms, the EU has welcomed formerly autocratic countries back into the European fold – first, Greece, Portugal, and Spain on the southern fringes of Europe, and then the former communist countries in East and Central Europe – enlarging Europe, making it whole. Thus far, only Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland have opted to stay outside the union. Switzerland is a chapter unto itself, having joined the United Nations as late as 2002. Norway is also a special case in that its voters have twice turned down membership in national referenda against the will of the country’s main political parties and interest organizations, a remarkably inward-looking attitude on the part of Norwegians. I will discuss Iceland toward the end of the article.

To continue with the EU’s open arms, Catalonia is eager to join – or rather, remain in – the EU, as is Scotland, after achieving independence. About a half of the Catalan population wants independence from Spain because many of them feel treated like a minority within Spain without full respect and full rights. The government in Madrid threatens to keep an independent Catalonia outside the EU, a threat that contradicts the EU´s open-arms policy and is, therefore, likely to prove empty. The Scottish situation is different. There, also, about a half of the voters want independence, primarily because they want Scotland to be more like Scandinavia, thus setting England free to become even more like the United States. Scotland joined the United Kingdom in 1707 primarily to gain access to a much larger market. Today, as a member of the EU, Scotland enjoys such access and, therefore, does not any longer need to be part of the UK for reasons of trade even if most of Scotland´s trade is still with England. The threat from Westminster that Scotland will lose its EU membership if it leaves the UK sounds hollow because, again, it is incompatible with the EU´s open-arms policy. The threat from Westminster appears also a bit comical in view of the fact that the Conservative government is just about to hold a referendum that may take the UK out of the EU, a result that would almost surely encourage demands for immediate Scottish independence to enable Scotland to remain in the EU.

In both Catalonia and Scotland, the prospect of continued EU membership holds the key to independence. Without membership, many of those who advocate independence would have doubts as they would fear weakened trade relations as President Obama has warned British voters. As members, however, Catalonia and Scotland, would have continued access to Spanish and British markets through the EU, assuming the UK decides against leaving the EU.

Union of small European states

With time, the character of the EU has changed as it has developed into a union of small European states. If Catalonia achieves independence and joins the EU, it will become the typical EU member in terms of population size. Of the 29 members, there will be 15 countries larger than Catalonia and 13 smaller countries. This shows how unreasonable it is to maintain that Catalonia or Scotland are too small to stand on their own feet as EU members. Denmark and Finland are the size of Scotland and smaller than Catalonia. Denmark has been an EU member since 1972 as well as a de facto subscriber to the euro and Finland has been a member of the EU as well as of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) since 1994. If Denmark and Finland were able to do so well by their EU membership, there can be no reasonable doubt about the ability of Catalonia and Scotland to do likewise.

With more small members on the horizon, there is reason also to believe that the common interests of small countries will weigh more heavily in EU policy making and institutions in the future. Clearly, Europe has its political disagreements separating left from right, north from south, east from west, and so on, as does the US and other countries. Even so, Europe´s advanced social model, harking back to Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who can be said to have introduced the first rudiments of the German welfare state in the 1880s, faces no serious challenge within Europe. This makes Europe quite different from the US where the more limited and less ambitious welfare state legislation launched by Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson is under attack by its Republican opponents in Congress, a situation that seems unthinkable in Europe.

The strong parallel emphasis on efficiency and fairness is, as I see it, the key to the economic and social advances accomplished thus far by the EU. This helps to explain the continued attractiveness of EU membership to all but the most eccentric and inward-looking countries in Europe. Further, the minority of voters against EU membership within individual countries includes European advocates of the US Republican extremism that now, with the 2016 US presidential election approaching, seems to threaten the cohesion if not the existence of the Republican Party.

Three comparisons

The weaknesses that have emerged in modern America – lack of trust, imploding politics, stagnant wages, and increased inequality – mirror the strengths of the European model. In his seminal book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam charted the collapse of trust in American society, a gradual process the way Putman describes it.

Let me suggest three related phenomena to highlight some of the current differences between the US and Europe.

  • American workers spend 1,800 hours per year at work compared with 1,400 hours in Denmark and Germany, 1,500 in France, 1,600 in Sweden and Switzerland, and 1,700 in UK (source: The Conference Board. 2015. The Conference Board Total Economy Database). Why? One plausible explanation for these differences is that US workers need to put in long hours to compensate for the lack of social security that Europeans can take for granted (Gylfason, 2007). Unlike Americans, Europeans have seen their economic wellbeing rise through higher incomes as well as less work.
  • In 1960, the average American was 3 cm taller than the average German. Today, the average German is 3 cm taller than the average American as documented in a series of works by John Komlos and his associates (see, e.g., Komlos and Baur (2004) and Komlos and Lauderdale (2007)). Why this reversal? A likely reason seems to be that tens of millions of US citizens have been left behind, in poverty and without adequate social insurance, unable even to attain normal physical stature, thereby dragging down – or, more precisely, slowing down the natural advance of – the average height of the adult population in the US (Gylfason, 2007). If this interpretation is correct, it constitutes a devastating case against inequality of incomes and wealth on economic grounds quite apart from the ethical issues at stake.
  • New research by Nobel-Prize winning Scottish economist Angus Deaton and Anne Case, both at Princeton University, shows that middle-aged non-Hispanic white Americans have faced declining life expectancies since 1999 due to a sharp rise in life-style related diseases and suicides (Case and Deaton, 2015). Declining life expectancies are unheard of in modern times except in Russia after collapse of communism and in Africa due to public health disasters, especially the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The lives thus lost in the US are almost as many as those lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic since 1981 (0.5 million vs. 0.65 million).

Expansion fatigue

There is no denying that the EU presently faces serious difficulties, some of its own doing, some not, including the recent torrent of Syrian refugees into the EU. While the EU cannot be blamed for the influx of refugees, the extent to which the EU bears itself some of the blame for some of its other current problems is debatable. The EU has looked the other way while anti-democratic tendencies have intensified in Hungary and, more recently, also in Poland. The EU could have reacted by, for example, imposing economic sanctions by withdrawing financial support from Hungary but chose not to do so. Likewise, the EU seems not to have done much to try to rein in rampant corruption in Bulgaria and Romania. The economic troubles of Greece can be said to follow in part from the EU´s flawed fiscal and financial architecture, a problem well understood from the inception of the euro but one which the EU has yet to address satisfactorily. This list could be extended. In view of these issues, it is understandable that some older EU members are inclined to think that now is a good time to slow down the geographic expansion of the EU by sharpening the focus on deepening European integration while putting widening on hold for the time being. Even so, EU would benefit from the admission of new members such as deeply democratic Catalonia and Scotland. If they declare independence, the EU will almost surely welcome both of them with open arms. This would lend an even stronger voice to advocates of the EU as a union of small European states eager to advance economic efficiency and social justice side by side.

Back to Greece. Much has been made recently of Greece´s inability to overcome her financial predicament by devaluing her currency. The argument is that macroeconomic adjustment by other means within the confines of the euro is bound to be more costly than devaluation of the drachma would have been. This may well be true as far as it goes. Even so, several euro countries have managed a significant adjustment in recent years, including Ireland, Portugal, and Latvia where, in 2014, unemployment was in the range between 11% and 14% of the labor force compared with 26% in Greece. In 2007, all four countries had unemployment rates between 5% and 8%. The experience of Ireland, Portugal, and Latvia shows that adjustment by other means – fiscal restraint, wage cuts, and more, sometimes referred to as an internal devaluation – with the euro in place is possible even if it can be quite painful. None of these countries seriously considered leaving the euro zone, nor did Greece. Comparisons of the euro with the Gold Standard are misplaced because the European Central Bank can devalue the euro if it wants to; in fact, the ECB did so recently.

Iceland and the EU

Iceland became a founding member of NATO in 1949. The decision to join was not based on detailed benefit-cost analysis. Details did not matter. Rather, the Icelandic parliament decided that NATO is a club where Iceland inextricably belongs. In other words, Iceland´s parliament decided to share Iceland´s fate with that of other members of the alliance, including most of Iceland’s closest friends and allies. No referendum was held. Profiteering from Icelandic NATO membership came later. The defense agreement between Iceland and the US is considered to have generated incomes equivalent to about 2% of GDP per year from the 1950s until 2006 when the US government unilaterally closed the NATO base in Iceland against the will of the Icelandic government.

Similarly, the Icelandic parliament´s decision to apply for EU membership in 2009 was not based on an explicit benefit-cost analysis. The principle is the same as before: those in favor of membership view the EU as a club where Iceland belongs if only because all of our closest allies except Norway are members. Further, in fact, I believe Iceland should join the EU even if it could be demonstrated that the costs of membership outweigh the benefits, but then, of course, it is impossible to assess the monetary value of political benefits.

From the early 1990s until the crash of 2008 opinion polls showed that Icelandic voters were consistently albeit marginally in favor of EU membership whereas political parties, subservient to the oligarchs they had created by granting them virtually free access to Iceland’s valuable fish resources, and interest organizations stood shoulder-to-shoulder against membership. Here the situation was diametrically opposite to that of Norway. Up against the wall after the crash, Iceland filed an application for membership in 2009. The application could be understood as a way of saying to the rest of Europe: Please excuse us for having permitted our banks to separate you from so much of your cash, but from now on we shall abide by the discipline required by EU membership. With the political parties held primarily responsible for pushing Iceland off the cliff in 2008 through their crony privatization of the banks during 1998-2003 back in power in 2013, an attempt was made to withdraw the application in 2012 as if to say: We did not mean to say we are sorry, we were just kidding. This is, however, a controversial interpretation. While many Icelanders apparently sensed a collective guilt about having voted for politicians who through the corrupt privatization of the banks paved the way into the abyss in 2008, others had no such feelings of guilt, blaming the crash on the bankers or the politicians or even on foreign conspirators. Anyhow, the attempt in 2012 to withdraw the EU membership application failed. Specifically, parliament put in the membership application in 2009 whereas the foreign minister, not parliament, attempted to pull out unilaterally in 2012, a pullout considered invalid by the EU because an individual minister cannot undo a formal decision by parliament. Hence, Iceland’s application remains on ice, like the Swiss one from 1992, waiting to be reactivated by a new parliament which will then put the negotiated membership agreement before a national referendum as promised by parliament and as required by the new constitution that was approved by 2/3 of the voters in 2012 and awaits ratification by parliament.

Recent developments in Greece, Ireland, and Spain make Icelandic accession to EU membership a harder case to sell. This helps to explain why public opinion has swung against membership since 2008 even if developments in Baltic and Balkan countries suggest a different conclusion. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the EU in 2004 and by now all three use the euro. Croatia became the EU´s 28th member in 2013, ten years after filing its membership application. Undeterred by events in Greece, Albania became an official candidate for accession to the EU in 2014. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership in 2016.

Another reason for the change in public sentiment in Iceland is that some Icelandic politicians tried to deflect their own responsibility for Iceland´s home-made crash by absurdly blaming it on foreigners and whipping up immigrant-unfriendly chauvinism in Icelandic politics for the first time in history. In terms of economic damage relative to national economic output as well as in terms of fiscal costs, Iceland´s crash was among the greatest ever recorded (Laeven and Valencia, 2012). For example, the damage inflicted on foreign creditors and shareholders was greater than anywhere else relative to the size of the Icelandic economy.

What would be the main benefits and costs of EU membership? The economic benefits are clear even if European Economic Area membership from 1994 has delivered many of them already. Yet, several significant benefits are still missing.

  • Many Icelanders see the adoption of the euro as a key benefit in view of Iceland poor record of monetary management which has allowed the Icelandic króna to lose 95.95% of its value vis-à-vis the Danish krone since 1939. Quite apart from the general philosophy behind the EMU, small countries can benefit from outsourcing the least successful parts of their national policy-making just as they should resist outsourcing their most successful procedures.
  • The Common Agricultural Policy is far less expensive for Europe´s consumers and tax payers than is domestic farm protection in Iceland as has always been the case. Thus, while producer support in the EU decreased from 39% of gross farm receipts in 1986 to 18% in 2014, it decreased from 76% to 48% in Iceland during the same period (OECD, 2015).
  • In view of Iceland´s checkered history of oligopolies and lack of competition in a number of areas, including agriculture, banking, fisheries, and trade, the EU´s Competition Policy and associated monitoring and surveillance could offer significant benefits to Iceland.
  • The Common Fisheries Policy constitutes a problem for Iceland, however, that needs to be solved. Iceland needs to understand and respect that the EU was built on the fundamental premise of the original European Coal and Steel Community stipulating joint management of Europe’s natural resources. At the same time, the EU needs to understand Iceland´s significant dependence on her fisheries – a dependence that concerns the national economy of Iceland as a whole and not just local fishing communities as in the rest of Europe. The EU´s toleration of inefficient fisheries policies, tacitly justified by viewing fisheries as a fairly unimportant regional concern, cannot be accepted in Iceland where fishing remains a macroeconomic concern. Even so, Iceland needs a major overhaul of its fisheries management regime which the Supreme Court of Iceland ruled discriminatory and hence unconstitutional in 1998, a verdict confirmed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2007 (Gylfason, 2009a). In the national referendum on a new post-crash constitution for Iceland, 83% of the voters declared support for a provision stipulating national ownership of natural resources, including full charge for the right to fish in Icelandic waters in keeping with the user-pays principle of environmental policy now openly advocated by the World Bank and the IMF as the best way to deal with climate change (Lagarde and Yong Kim, 2015). Whereas Norwegian tax payers have been able to claim about 80% of Norway´s oil rent from the outset, 90% of the fisheries rent in Iceland still accrues to the vessel owners, Iceland’s answer to Russia´s oligarchs (Thorláksson, 2015).



Small can be beautiful. On average, small countries tend to have higher per capita incomes than large ones because various benefits of small size, including cohesion and homogeneity, seem to outweigh the diseconomies of small scope and scale and small pools of talent (Alesina and Spolaore, 2003; Gylfason, 2009b). The EU can expect to benefit from welcoming more small states as members. National boundaries matter less and less when cross-border trade is free. This is why the independence aspirations of Catalonia, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and others need not be viewed with alarm. Along European lines, ill-designed national boundaries outside Europe would be easier to redraw if trade were free as in Europe, supported by social efficiency, freedom, fairness, and respect for human rights.




Alesina, Alberto, and Enrico Spolaore (2003), The Size of Nations, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Case, Anne, and Angus Deaton (2015), “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” PNAS, National Academy of Science.

Deaton, Angus (2013), The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2007), “Why Europe Works Less and Grows Taller,” Challenge, January-February, 21-39.

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2009a), “Hvað segja lögin: Sameignarauðlindir eru mannréttindi” (What Does the Law say? Common Property Resources as Human Rights) in Ragnarsbók (Festschrift for Ragnar Aðalsteinsson), Icelandic Literary Society, Reykjavík, 497-522.

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2009b), “Is Iceland too small?,” VoxEU.org, 19 August.

Komlos, John, and Marieluise Baur (2004), “From the Tallest to (One of) the Fattest: The Enigmatic Fate of the American Population in the 20th Century,” Economics and Human Biology, Vol. 2, No. 1, March, 57-74.

Komlos, John, and Benjamin E. Lauderdale (2007), “The Mysterious Stagnation and Relative Decline of American Heights after c. 1960, Annals of Human Biology, Vol. 43, No. 2, March-April, 206-15.

Lagarde, Christine, and Jim Yong Kim (2015). “The Path to Carbon Pricing,” Project Syndicate, 19 October.

Laeven, Luc, and Fabián Valencia (2013), “Systemic Banking Crises Data Base,” IMF Economic Review, Vol. 61, 225–270.

OECD (2016), Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation 2015, OECD, Paris.

Putnam, Robert (2000), Bowling Alone, Simon and Schuster, New York.

Thorláksson, Indridi H. (2015), “Veiðigjöld 2015. Annar hluti” (Fishing Fees 2015. Part Two).


Kristjan Ahronson, Into the Ocean. Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015)

In the dialectic between established “certainties” and fundamental ambiguities that characterise north Atlantic islands, Kristjan Ahronson develops the argumentation on the relationships between Scots, Irish, and Norsemen of the early medieval period. The interaction of humans and their environments, as well as peoples’ migrations and the cultural diffusion in the north Atlantic, are the main areas of investigation of a book that is intended to be designed not only for a specialized audience. Popperian theory of science and interdisciplinarity represent the conceptual framework in which the author develops his method or, even better, his crossing of methodologies that are jointly employed to reach a multidimensional pictures of the subjects under inquiry.

Continue reading Kristjan Ahronson, Into the Ocean. Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015)

An interview with Kristján Jóhannsson


KJ. 38 years! Yes, 38 years. It was such a magnificent time in my life. Even if there were always challenges to overcome, sometimes truly tragic ones. Indeed, they started since the very beginning, in 1976, when my family and I arrived in Milan, and spent the very first night in a hotel by the train station. It was another world. For me, a farm boy from Akureyri, it was a bit frightening. I was with my first wife, two children, my daughter, then very little, and my son, who must have been 6 years old. I could hardly speak a word in Italian back then [the present interview was held in Italian in Akureyri on Saturday, 25 January 2015, and then translated into English]. I knew that my teacher there could speak English, though.  The following morning we went to catch a bus, the blue kind [for long-distance routes], in order to go to Turin, since my teacher was supposed to be there, at the local music school [It. conservatorio], not in Milan. However, not even that was a straightforward matter…


My teacher, Giuseppe Valdengo, a baritone known as “Toscanini’s baritone” for he was Toscanini’s favourite, and an accomplished violinist and pianist—indeed a great musician despite being somewhat eccentric—was no longer in Turin! As I said, he was eccentric, amusing, but only to a certain point. He took things lightheartedly and liked making fun of circumstances as well as people, often ending up with offending those around him. Well, just about the time of my arrival, he had gravely offended the director of the music school in Turin, so that he had to leave Turin and go elsewhere, which was not a problem for him, given that he found immediately a new position at the music school of Aosta, in the French-speaking part of northern Italy. For us, on the contrary, it was quite a problem: we had to change our plans on the spot and go to Aosta instead. Valdengo was kind enough to help us find an apartment in Saint Vincent, near Aosta, not far from the well-known casino. We found him there, cheerful, pleased, and I had my first class with him the following morning. I was introduced to the director of the music school in Aosta and that is how I commenced my first year of studies in Italy. I followed an intensive programme that should have helped me catch two pigeons with one stone, namely to learn the Italian musical repertoire and, at the same time, the Italian language.




NM. Were you following a regular study course, then?


KJ. Yes and no. I was at a regular music school, but every three months I would take an examination and move up one grade. After one year, if I kept going at that pace, I would be at the second-from-last year of the school curriculum. It was an ambitious plan and a very interesting experience, also because the school was very vibrant and demanding, much more so than here in Iceland, where there is far too little to do and life is far too easy, back then as well as today. Believe me, I do think that, without adequate pressure placed upon the students, real world-class talents cannot emerge.




NM. Do you think that there are still significant differences between the musical education available in the Italian schools and the one that you can get in the Icelandic schools?


KJ. Yes, it is still the case. In Italy you can tell a student that something is wrong and that he must do something about it, put more work into it. If you do it in Iceland, then you, the teacher, are in trouble! It makes an enormous difference.




NM. But why Italy? When you decided to go abroad to pursue your studies as an opera singer, you could have chosen other countries, closer to Iceland, either geographically or culturally, if not both.


KJ. Certainly, Sweden was very much talked about as a suitable option. Nonetheless, choosing Italy was such an important decision in my career. And I have a person to thank for that. You see, I had studied classical singing here in Akureyri with maestro Vincenzo Maria Demetz, who, among other things, had taught me some Italian—very little, in fact, just a few words! Unfortunately, we spoke together mostly in English and in German, since he came from Val Gardena, in the Alps of [German-speaking] Alto Adige. He had a rather particular opinion of me, in truth an amazing insight. He said to me: “You are more southern Italian than the southern Italians [maestro Demetz used the tongue-in-cheek derogatory term “terrone]: your physique, your temperament, your type of voice; you must not go to Germany or Scandinavia, you must go to Italy! There you will be able to let yourself go and, verily, sing. In Germany, in a way, they might get you to sing Lieder. That way, you could acquire a certain refinement, which would be good for a strong and loud voice like yours. But that is not really the place for you. Go to Italy!” Maestro Demetz was correct on all accounts, for I was not a lyrical tenor, I was not light, I was without agility; I had to get straight into Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Then, but only then, I could work on some additional aspects of my voice. He had seen all this back then, already, which is fantastic, for he was right! 




NM. Moving to Italy, studying so hard: it must have been not only an exciting time, but also a hard one. What sort of sacrifices did it involve?


KJ. Big sacrifices. I was young, 26 years old, but I was already married. Besides, I had a fairly clearly defined life in Iceland: I had my own small enterprise, which I managed, I had two children, a house… Yet, I said it right there to maestro Demetz: if I go there, I’m going to make it; I won’t to be fooling around, wasting my time. I knew that, at my age, I had to be ready to go on stage in two or three years. Also because, back then, there were no scholarships, no grants, no student loans, like today. When I decided to go, I sold my house, I loaned out my small enterprise for two and a half years, in order to see how things would have worked out, and for that time we lived off the little revenue coming from my small enterprise in Iceland. After two years and a half I felt like I was dying. Moreover, after just one year, it was pretty clear that my wife couldn’t cope: she and Italy didn’t get along with each other. Not to mention the Italians: she thought they were all mad!




NM. As an Italian expatriate, who left his native country for the quieter north, I may be able to understand her!


KJ. Yes, exactly: the quiet north! Well, eventually, she needed to come back to Iceland. And so the troubles started. I began having a little fun around and, in the end, our marriage went down the drain. Also, I felt that she wasn’t really backing me. As regards singing, we didn’t have the same perception of things. She thought that we were going to have some fun for one or two years and then we would move back to Iceland, where I would have kept singing, certainly better than I did before. I wanted more. After six months in Italy, it was clear that things were going well for me at the music school and, at least for a year, my work with Valdengo produced tangible results. I was already giving concerts around, taking part in semi-staged operas. It was the beginning of my professional life. I mean, after just six months, I had my debuts in La Traviata and La Bohème. The voice was good, in all the ways that matter: it responded well, I wasn’t fatigued, and the high notes were good, solid and bright. After a year, I thought it sensible for my wife to go back home, for she was stopping me, rather than supporting me. Still, it was hard.




NM. And your children?


KJ. Our elder boy stayed in Italy with me, studying in the schools there. He grew up in Italy and thinks of himself as Italian. Later on, he went to the University of Bologna. Our daughter, instead, followed her mother back home and grew up in Akureyri. They remain close to each other to this day. My wife and I tried to be reasonable and avoid their mutual separation, as well as being separated from either parent. Besides, my daughter came to Italy when there were school holidays in Iceland. As a child, she would sometimes travel on her own. She was a strong little girl back then; she is a strong woman today—my dear Barbara. It was hard, but that much my wife and I could understand: that we didn’t understand each other any more. I was determined. I was strong-willed: I wanted to be on stage and be good at what I was doing. Furthermore, after a year, right in the middle of all this family chaos and unpleasantness, I felt I couldn’t progress much more with Valdengo. He was too lighthearted, too cheeky, he wasn’t taking things seriously enough for my taste. Thus, after a year, when I kept being told that everything was going well, I could sense, almost by instinct, that I was still lacking much to be a real opera singer.




NM. What couldn’t Valdengo give you as a teacher?


KJ. He was an excellent listener and very helpful. Nonetheless, as I travelled around Italy and attended concerts, also at La Scala in Milan, I heard and understood that there were certain additional elements of my musical education that I had to acquire or improve considerably more. Above all, I had to become an artist. The voice is one thing, but to sing as an artist is another. To interpret the music well, to master the Italian language, to absorb the Italian culture and make it mine: I couldn’t do it there, in Aosta, with Valdengo. So I told him that I was going to study under a tenor in another place. He became furious with jealousy! Just think of this: after Christmas that year, I took part in, and won, the Maria Callas Award: I had a scholarship, an Italian scholarship, and a contract to sing in five performances of Madama Butterfly at the Spoleto Music Festival as Pinkerton. Valdengo was so mad with rage and jealousy that he wrote a letter to the ministry in Rome, complaining that they were a bunch of idiots, that they had awarded the prize to a hopeless case, who sang like a dog, and so on and on… He destroyed me. The scholarship was revoked and I lost my performances in Spoleto. He destroyed me out of jealousy. In the process, he also destroyed the friendship that he had with Demetz, who took upon himself the full responsibility of sending me to Valdengo in the first place. It was horrible. And yet, what could be a catastrophe turned out to be a lucky break. I went to Piacenza, at the Nicolini music school, where I got my BA, studying with Poggi. Also, I studied acting with Eugenia Ratti, a world-class singer that had performed all over the world, including La Scala and the Met, and that taught acting there. It was precisely what I needed: how to move on stage, how to interpret different roles, how to master and use the Italian language effectively, how to make the Italian culture my own and, above all, how to approach the different composers, understand them. I travelled to Tuscany, to Emilia Romagna, to “meet” with Puccini, Verdi, even Bellini down in Sicily. 




NM. Did you make many friends during your studies and your travels around Italy, people that helped you to absorb the Italian culture, or did you work primarily at the music school?


KJ. Under this perspective, I trusted and benefited from the music school, most of all. Also, in my profession, it is hard to make real friends. You are too much on your own. There is too much competition for that to be likely to unfold. Besides, you cannot rely on friends, even if you can make them. Still, there are exceptions, and I met at the Maria Callas Award a lovely man that has become a life-long friend, Maurizio Barbacini. But before I talk about him, let me say that, in those years when I was based in Piacenza, life went on rather well. I was singing frequently, there, in Bologna, Parma, at a number of opera societies, in Turin. My name was getting around. Life was nice. I met also a dear Hispanic-American woman, Doria Cavanna, whom I married in May 1983. Sadly, she died the 31 December of the same year. Another tragedy in my life. She was an amazing artist. Much more developed than me as an artist. I learnt so much from her. I tried to absorb all the suggestions that I could get from her, especially when she was on stage. She wasn’t only a singer, by the way. She had been an actress. She had made movies in America. She was a great woman and a great artist. Despite our time together being so short, it was a very healthy and important period of my life. Her death was a terrible blow. Yet, they say that suffering helps an artist to mature and evolve. There can be no joy without sadness; nor sadness without joy. An artist must understand both realms of experience. I paid a terrible price for that understanding, but, over that period, I did open up to acting and to theatre as art forms.




NM. As time went on, given what you are describing, it seems clear to me that you integrated well within Italian society and the local way of life. However, how much of that Icelandic farm boy that had travelled from Akureyri to Milan, Aosta and Piacenza was left within you? Was there anything that you deem quintessentially Icelandic that helped you face and overcome the challenges that you met?


KJ. Absolutely so! I grew up in a big family, seven children, I was second-from-last; I had to fight every time to get anything I wanted, nobody ever gave me anything for free; in this sense, I was tough and autonomous; whenever I liked to do or achieve anything, I knew that I had to fight, on my own, in order to get it. Therefore, even after the shocking way in which my relationship with Valdengo had concluded, the sort of thing that would annihilate a person’s self-confidence, I thought that I would succeed anyway; in fact I wanted it even more than I did before. He told me to go to hell? I will show him that I am a real devil. He told me that I wouldn’t make it? I will show him; I will make it! Nothing could discourage me. And this is very Icelandic: personal autonomy, self-sufficiency. I knew that I had to fight and I did it. Then, you know, in the end, that Maurizio Barbacini of whom I told you briefly before, he helped me too. Consider this: I was penniless, I had been repudiated by my former teacher, I was divorced; in fact, I had left everything to my wife: I thought it was right to do so—and I wanted to be a gentleman. I needed only my toothbrush and I wanted my freedom. Besides, I felt guilty, so, in the end, it seemed right that way. And this is how I actually left Akureyri behind me.




NM. You didn’t leave it for good, though. You kept in touch with Iceland, didn’t you?


KJ. Yes, every once in a while I came to Iceland, almost every year, singing in Reykjavik as well as Akureyri and, of course, to see my daughter. My son was with me, in Italy. My daughter was here, in Iceland, her family was here. In 1982, to tell you the truth, I doubted that I could go on, and started thinking about coming back to Iceland. Yet, here in Iceland, I had made friends, powerful friends, people with money, politicians. I wrote to one of them, I described in the letter my situation; I told them that I was penniless and that my predicament was really desperate; I told him that I had to tour around Germany for some auditions there, and that I was ready to do anything. I got some help in return. Not much, but enough to rekindle hope. You see, in 1981… 


Actually, going a little further back, in 1979-1980, I graduated with Poggi, and they asked me to take part in a concert in Mantua. There is a beautiful little theatre there, and it is there that I got lucky: at the piano was Ettore Campogalliani, a great musician, who for 25 years had been working at La Scala, a real giant in the world of music! He was there, at that concert, playing the piano for some of his students, who would later become some of the most important singers in the world. I sang for him both big arias from Tosca and was very successful. I also sang other arias, from La Bohème and other operas by Puccini, receiving great applause—the little theatre truly seemed to be crumbling down upon me with excitation! So I had an opportunity to talk to him. He was a real gentleman and a man of great culture, not only an accomplished musician, but a published author of many books as well. He was also a poet, and he taught at the university in Venice. Over dinner, I spoke to him candidly and explained to him that he could give me what I needed most. Almost everywhere else, included here in Iceland, the music scene was provincial. I say this despite having been born and raised in the theatre here in Akureyri. My house was near the theatre. My father worked there and so did my mother. At the age of two or three I was already in the theatre of my hometown. That was already a great advantage. I had already understood many things there then, but in Milan, at Campogalliani’s prestigious theatre, I could advance so much more!


I needed more culture. That was the point. He said to me: “I really liked you today. In Milan, at least fifty of the best singers in the world have come to me: Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Katia Ricciarelli, Gianni Poggi, Carlo Bergonzi…” I couldn’t list them all! Renata Scotto and so many others! “However,” he said, “I normally require an audition, hence you will have to come to Milan and sing for me…  No! I’m joking! You proved your worth today: we can start our classes tomorrow, if you like.” So I went to him, and there was also Antonio Tonini, who was a good friend of his, and after two or three months with him he told me that, in Ancona, maestro Zino was going to stage Il Trittico by Puccini and that they needed a tenor, as usual! That’s how I got the job! Back then I knew well Rigoletto, La Bohème, La Traviata and I was preparing Lucia di Lammermoor. “Leave Lucia and study as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi“—that’s what he said. After a month, Tonini came to listen to me and told Campogalliani: “Let’s have him for Il Tabarro as well. He should do both, for there is no better singer—and we can save some money too!” This combination of roles is very rare, given that Il Tabarro is complex, deep and dramatic, while Gianni Schicchi is lyrical, even light, since Rinuccio’s role is very high [in the vocal register]. In May we go to the Marche for the rehearsals—and it was so beautiful! I had an enormous success in both roles.   I was the newcomer, though, hence I was not getting paid much: I was the last name on the list! Still, it was enough to survive. All these events happening in a rather short span of time. In Ancona, moreover, I met an Englishman, who was the director of the English National Opera. After listening to me, he decided to offer me the role of Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at their theatre in London…




NM. From one thing to the next…


KJ. Yes. Life seems to move that way. This is also how I met, out of sheer chance, the great maestro Menotti. It was at a concert in Parma. We started talking together. He told me that he was disappointed not to have me singing for him, as Pinkerton, in Spoleto. Then, I had to explain to him what had happened, how an angry person had tried to destroy me, my reputation, my career. He replied: “Don’t worry. In 1983 you come to Spoleto and sing in a new edition of the Madama Butterfly. It will be an over-the-top one, I warn you now!”—Ken Russell, a real genius, was going to direct it… Menotti and I became friends that way. He was then the super-intendant of the theaters in Rome, where I spent eventually 20 years as a regular performer, singing in all the big roles: Tosca, Il Trovatore, La Gioconda, Manon Lescaut.




NM. 20 years, during which you inaugurated with Il Trovatore the newly built opera theatre in Genoa, in 1992, as the city celebrated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas.


KJ. Exactly. The theatre Carlo Felice in Genoa. It was 500 years since the “discovery” of the Americas and 50 years since the destruction of the old opera house, which the Brits had bombed during World War II. I remember it very well.




NM. Yes, that is true, only the wing to the east had survived the aerial bombings and is still visible today. The rest is new—so new that it had sparked some controversy…


KJ. What a theatre! And what an occasion! Singing in one of the best roles Opera can give you. It was a remarkable experience. I recall the actual theatre, which is sort of inside-out, for it is meant to give you the idea of singing in a medieval square, like those you see in the old part of the city, which is just nearby. When I saw it, I said to myself: “It is true what they say about the Italians [that they are all crazy!]”. I found it very strange, but, at the same time, very interesting. It was something daring and novel. A stroke of genius, I would say.




NM. Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is said to be the best opera ever staged in that theatre, for it is possible to create the illusion of being in medieval Genoa, given the subject of the opera and the look of the theatre.


KJ. It’s true. Singing in a medieval square! By the way, I sang also La Gioconda and Rigoletto in that theatre. Somehow, 1992 was the year of my “explosion” as an international tenor. I started singing regularly in Britain as well, which lasted over a period of ten years.




NM. And what was your relationship with Iceland at that point of your career?


KJ. I was far away, very much. The sense of separation ran deep. Also, I was being mocked back home, they said that I had gone to Italy to become the new Caruso… Some rascal, I mean… But I took it mostly as a bit of fun. 




NM. You had also Icelanders that supported you, though.


KJ. Yes, certainly. Valur Hafþórsson, the head of KEA, had sponsored me. So did the Town of Akureyri. Not huge sums of money, but enough to make life easier. Above all, I knew that I had not been deserted. They were beside me. They supported me. Nevertheless, I felt distant. I was the first young Icelander to go to Italy in 25 years. After the war, in the 1950s, a few went to Italy to study, without great results. Then, nobody else. Even today, far too few Icelanders go to study in Italy. I cannot understand why. Italy is the cradle of civilization, the cradle of culture, the cradle of Opera. Why are they going elsewhere? Why London or the US? It’s all second-hand there!




NM. Do you think that in Italy there are still the best opportunities for opera singers? The best schools?


KJ. Yes, I do. Absolutely. I am certain of that. Also, think of this fact: while we are sitting and conversing here, today, there are literally thousands of concerts and operas being performed worldwide. More than 70% of them are either Italian or in Italian. Then, what’s the point of studying elsewhere? The main reason why I don’t do German Lieder is that I cannot speak German very well. A singer must have a high level of competence in the languages he wishes to sing in. Now, if more than 70% of the classical singing going on in the world is in Italian, then it is simply logical that anyone interested in opera singing should acquire a high level of competence in the Italian language. You cannot get that in London, Vienna, New York. You can only get that in Italy!


Also, let me add a few words on Maurizio Barbacini, whom I met at that Callas competition of which I was talking to you before. He sang back then and also played the piano very well—a gifted musician. I had him joining me in Iceland for some concerts, conducting the national symphony orchestra. We issued a record together too. Now he is often in New York and Vienna. A great pianist and a man of great musical culture, especially Italian opera. I would consult with him very often in those days, even if his career was not yet blossoming, for I trusted his judgment. He always had great insight in musical matters. Well, I was waiting before commencing at La Scala, which had hired me, but, as you know, theaters have often many-years plans to run through, meaning that, like with the Met, I sang for them in 1986 and then walked on stage in 1990! Well, I met with Barbacini. We conversed, had some fun, did some music together. And then he said to me: “Why do you take on these roles, which everybody else can take too?” He was referring to high lyrical roles in Rigoletto, La Bohème, Tosca, possibly the toughest one among them, La Traviata, some Bellini, like La Sonnambula and I Puritani—I had always very solid high notes, which are de rigueur for that kind of repertoire. He continued: “There must be at least three or four other tenors out there that sing these roles as beautifully as you do. But I know you, your vocal capacity, your temperament, your strength, both of will and of body: you must sing those parts that nobody else, in this day and age, sings really well. Those parts for which you cannot find really good tenors, apart from Luciano [Pavarotti]. He’s the only one.” It was an excellent idea. Also, I had noticed my own mental and physical development over those years, which was calling for something new in my career. Someone once told me that no idiot has even sung well!




NM. An interesting motto…


KJ. One must think about the roles he chooses, the possibilities available in the repertoire and in the theaters, selecting the place and the moment with some wisdom. It is not enough to just go on working, relentlessly. Thus, it was the mid 1980s, I started studying for Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, which I knew would have been performed in Iceland, with me in it, the following year. Then I started studying Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, for which I had received an informal offer from Florence, with Bruno Bartoletti conducting it. Meanwhile I had sung Tosca in Florence with Zubin Mehta, and it was very successful, at least as much as my Trovatore in Genoa. In between I sang the Gioconda and, in Turin, Il Trovatore. So, I had the Tosca in Florence and Il Trovatore in Turin: I was going back and forth between the two—what a mess! But I was young, lustful and strong! Up to 80 concerts a year! Barbacini was right: with these operas, my strong voice, my will and my wisdom, I must say—I had always 20% of my voice in my pocket, so to speak, for 80% of my strong voice was more than enough, while other colleagues in the same roles would have to push 100% all the time—it could be done. Theatre directors were happy with a singer like me. They long for stability, reliability; they don’t want to worry about whether the lead tenor will make it or not. I had this surplus of vocal strength that they could rely upon. Therefore they were happy to offer roles to a madman like me: “You sing better when you are sick than when you are in good health”, one of them told me once! My friend Barbacini was right: I knew more roles, I was known as reliable, there was now one of these roles available in Vienna, then another in New York, and then yet another in Florence…




NM. You expanded your repertoire and established your career.


KJ. Precisely. And I was always cautious in deciding my next move. I didn’t rush forward. I thought things through, paying attention to the health of my voice, never pushing too hard. I must concur with the adagio: no idiot has ever sung well! You may have a golden voice, but without wisdom you cannot go anywhere!




NM. Let’s get back to Iceland…


KJ. Yes, well, in the late 1980s there was Sigurður Björnsson, conductor of the national orchestra, which was a bit boring, to be frank. They took themselves far too seriously. They didn’t care for Opera. They cared for pure music, especially contemporary, which is good, but to a point. One should never forget what Karajan used to say about orchestras: the best ones play regularly in operas, meaning Vienna and Berlin, for the players must listen to the singers, pay attention to what is going on, following the artists on stage. Sigurður wanted to change this and he did change it, fighting and making use of me in this direction. It was a big bet—on a real racing horse, though! We staged many operas, also semi-staged ones, and there was no year in the two following decades when I didn’t sing something in Reykjavík. Needless to say, many local colleagues became very jealous! His wife, a fantastic soprano, with whom I had debuted in 1981 in La Bohème, was a good friend of mine. We were the best singers in the country. It is as simple as that. But then I could start hear people gossiping about us, spreading lies, being nasty. Now, I am no angel by any means, but things were being twisted and blown out of proportion… All this made me feel more and more separated from Iceland.




NM. Why coming back, then?


KJ. After singing for 30 years around the world as one of the best three or four tenors in the profession, facing also envy and gossip on your own, you become very self-centred. But the world doesn’t spin around you. In 1985, during the rehearsal for Un ballo in maschera, I met the woman that became my wife, with whom we will soon celebrate 30 years together. She was younger than me, a stage actress, I fell madly in love with her; and she with me, fortunately! Everything worked out well. There was something in her that my second wife also possessed: they were women of great culture, educated, and cosmopolitan. I had been alone for two year. Suddenly, thanks to her, I felt inspired again: I could receive so much from such a talented artist.  And she understood me. She came with me to Italy without any qualms, She had been abroad herself: 10 years in Norway. There was no uprooting. Nothing radical. She was cosmopolitan. She liked that kind of life. In Iceland, an artist’s life is very hard. Artists are paid poorly and, at times, treated poorly. People expect them to be available to act, sing or play, but they are flabbergasted if then the artists ask for money in return. And what they get is very little anyway. Thus the overall level of artistic life in the country, and I am talking about the widespread mentality not the artistic quality, has been condemned to provincial mediocrity.




NM. Haven’t things changed over the past 10-15 years though?


KJ. Yes, they have. And I think I played a role in this change. I insisted to be taken seriously and so all artists with and like me. It is fine to have amateur singers or artists that win their bread in a different way, but you also need people that go past that stage and turn their art into a career, a profession, a life. A life that can take you around the world: we lived for almost 10 years in Monte Carlo, we travelled regularly between Italy and the US.  And we had kids…




NM. That changes things, doesn’t it?


KJ. Yes, I used to joke about the fact that I led a better life than Onassis: travelling worldwide, singing in the best theatres, being famous, wealthy—and always with my family! But then the kids started growing and they had to go to school… As a result, my wife started being less mobile, while I travelled more and more often on my own; then she got seriously ill—now everything is fine, thanks God—and I was constantly worried for her while abroad. All this didn’t go down well, with her especially. She wanted to change things, for herself first of all. As for myself, I had had my shot. Thirty years on the top of the world, so to speak. Now she wanted, she needed, to think more about herself. And I understood that very well. After receiving so much from my family, I had to give back to them. So I slowed down, moved back to Iceland and began to teach on a regular basis, while she went to the university in Reykjavík. Meanwhile, I spent more and more time with the kids; she completed her first degree, got a Master’s degree… Now she earns more than I do! And that is just great: we are ready to face the future together. But be sure about this: I still love being, and I think I am still loved as, a man of music. In fact, I hope to die on stage!




NM. And what would you say of yourself as a teacher?  


KJ. I do my best to coach as many young voices as I can. Just few weeks ago, at the opera house in Reykjavík, there was Verdi’s Don Carlo: 8 singers were former students of mine. Some people acknowledged this fact; some didn’t… I am saddened, to tell you the truth, about the way in which Icelandic music schools operate. They are too relaxed, too lenient. Students approach their courses as some kind of fun or entertainment. I have always thought of education as something more than that. Getting an education, enriching your culture, pursuing a study line are meant to take you to some higher or deeper place—a stage at least! It is not just a bit of fun. I teach differently than most of my colleagues. I make demands.


Also, there are too many music schools in the country, which are starved of students, since these are never enough for all of them, hence the schools are always on the verge of bankruptcy, which reduces dramatically the scope for teachers to make demands on the students. Ten music schools, two for singing, would be enough in Reykjavík: there are 19 now! All are competing for the same funds. Fewer, better poles—that’s what we need. As long as the funds are not reduced, then they could be distributed among the fewer schools, which could then hire teachers as needed and increase the level of musical education in the country. Icelandic taxpayers pay about 65% of the cost of advanced students in music schools: the students should ponder upon this fact and behave more seriously, taking their studies more seriously, working much harder. On my part, I try to teach the way it is done in Italy: you pay more to study with me, but you get more hours, both with me and the piano accompaniment, and you are expected to do all that is required, such as music theory, etc. You are to be prepared as an artist. And I am much harder than my colleagues. You cannot spend five months studying one aria! And I can get very angry: sometimes I give the students a dressing-down. They accuse me of being mad, but mad are those students that do not study: they have the opportunity, the general population pays for much of it, and they are registered as students. Why on Earth should they consider studying as a discretionary option, then? If you are a student, then you study. It is that simple! 

A personal memoir by Róbert R. Spanó


It has always been a big part of my self-image to be “half Italian and half Icelandic”, although not in a negative way; quite the opposite.  I have always been proud of my background and have often wondered if and to what extent it has moulded my personality. Growing up I always felt a bit different from my “pure” Icelandic friends, in a subtle way, perhaps a bit more extrovert at times, certainly a loud and rather gregarious person; all in all classic stereotypical Italian characteristics. But for personal reasons my sisters and I did not cultivate strong ties with Italy initially. Later, my older sister and I have begun a pilgrimage of sorts, attempting to contact our relatives to the extent possible.


In my view it is important for those persons that have multicultural roots to attempt to understand from where they come from, as it is clear that one will better understand oneself in that way. Fortunately, I have not, directly, suffered prejudice during my life, due to being “half” Icelandic, despite having lived most of my life in Iceland. However, I could describe many amusing anecdotes that are related to my family name, which is certainly not a common one in Iceland. One of my favourites comes from the time when I worked as a Deputy Judge in the District Court of Reykjaness. I presided in a case where I had to appoint assessors in a real estate dispute. I later heard that one of the assessors, during an examination of the real estate in question with the parties to the case, read aloud from my court order appointing him for the job. Slowly he began by stating that in the District Court a hearing was held by… and then he paused, clearly having problems with the name of the judge, ending up by saying: “… held by Róbert R. Shampoo deputy judge”!


Currently, I work in a very international setting as a judge in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. In the Court, almost 700 staff members from all over Europe work together in a very interesting and collegiate atmosphere. I have already felt that my international background is an immense asset in this environment for many reasons. Firstly, having lived abroad myself when I was younger, both in Canada and in Italy, makes it easy to identify with others, their differing viewpoints on various issues and on the way they approach certain problems based on different starting points. Secondly, I have been very fortunate to work closely with my good friend and colleague, the Neapolitan Guido Raimondi, one of the Vice-Presidents of the Court and the judge elected with respect to Italy, and all the wonderful Italian lawyers in the Court. This experience has brought me closer to home, so to speak. I can converse with them in Italian and have dealt with many Italian cases for which I am, happy to say, well equipped.


I have four wonderful children, my foster daughter Rán, Karítas Diljá, Egill and Atli. They all have very Icelandic names and, with the exception of Karítas Diljá, they are light-haired and bluish-eyed like their mother, my wife, Arna Gunnarsdóttir, a very talented artist. My older sister, Ásdís Mercedes, is also an artist and a mother of two lovely boys. Unfortunately, Ásdís and I have not been very effective in teaching our kids about their Italian heritage, but hopefully that can be amended in the future.


Last summer my wife and I travelled to the Amalfi Coast to spend a week hiking in the hills, starting off in Ravello and ending in Positano. As I walked through the streets, sat in the cafés, ate pasta and pizza in the restaurants and drank some great red wine with my wife in the evening, I felt at home. It has always been like that, I think: living in Iceland, but sensing, to some extent, that I also have another home, far away to the south. It is a comforting feeling!

Icelandic Journalists & the Question of Professionalism

Characteristics of a profession

The conditions that an occupation must satisfy in order to count as a profession can be debated although certain elements seem well established as parts of any definition of the concept of a profession. We will approach this topic by considering first the related, but distinct, concept of professionalism and then turning to the concept of a profession.

Continue reading Icelandic Journalists & the Question of Professionalism

Papers from the NSU Summer session of 2014 – study group 3: “Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas”


The general theme of the meeting was CRISIS: Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas. In addition we had the special theme Neoliberalism, Economic Crisis and a New Economy.


The general discussion was a continuation of the work of the crisis study group on topics such as: the concept of crisis; democracy in crisis: the European Union and the public sector; crisis, existence and culture; Arctic crisis, climate change and environmental issues; crisis, paradoxes and new technology; globalization and crisis.

  Continue reading Papers from the NSU Summer session of 2014 – study group 3: “Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas”

The Crash Course from Iceland

I. Preamble

In October 2008 dramatic events unfolded in Iceland when it became apparent that its economy could no longer sustain the sensational economic growth the country had experienced in the previous years. To most of the public the news of the downfall came as a frightening surprise. The country’s banking sector, which had led the growth of the economy and expanded to over ten times the gross domestic product (GDP) in a short time span, collapsed almost completely. Nearly all of the largest companies in Iceland were owned by the notorious financial Vikings, who owned the controlling shares in the oversized banks. Iceland’s crash was in part so drastic because of the unhealthy cross-ownership of companies and banks. As a result, share values in the country’s stock market were nearly erased. Iceland’s independent micro-currency, the Króna (ISK), that had attracted a lot of foreign hot money seeking high returns during the boom, was all of the sudden in free fall. Unemployment, which was unheard of during the boom (1%), went all of the sudden to 9% and some analysts worried that it could spiral upwards even more as events unfolded. The instability was underlined with interest rates and inflation moving upwards to a staggering 18 per cent and GDP predicted to fall around 10%.[1]

On the streets people were angry and wondered: How had it come to this? Everything was in tatters. Nothing captures this as well as the story of Landsbanki, traditionally a State-owned bank, which had functioned as a cornerstone of Iceland’s economy since 1885 and played a part in the country’s road to independence in 1944. Under State ownership the balance sheet of the banks had remained for decades modest in relation to GDP and yet stable even though the country did experience some turbulent times. Iceland’s economy is massively reliant on fisheries and the bank had seen difficulties when fish stocks suddenly fell or even when whole stocks like herring disappeared completely. External factors like two World Wars and the Cod Wars against the British did also have their impact. In 2003 the bank was fully privatized in an attempt, as the politicians of the day would phrase it, ‘to unleash the powers of the free market’, which is precisely what happened. In the years from 2003-2008 Landsbanki, under their new ownership, managed to expand its balance sheet from under 50% of GDP to over 250% of GDP, when it eventually collapsed. Such massive expansion was also experienced by the other two main banks, Glitnir and Kaupthing, whereas the banks not only expanded in Iceland but led an outvasion in acquiring huge assets and leading ventures abroad. This was duly felt in the United Kingdom where the financial Vikings grabbed headlines with investment in known brands on the high street as well as English football clubs.[2] One of the main owners and chairman of Landsbanki, Björgólfur Thor, made a trademark oligarch move and bought West Ham United in 2006; he became chairman in 2007, until he lost the club after the crash in 2008. This event raised eyebrows since, given the size of Iceland’s economy, the room their businessman were taking in the UK and elsewhere was considerable.

The country asked assistance from its Nordic neighbours and the International Monetary Fund in order to stop further deterioration of the economy and avert a total collapse. Not only did Iceland face a banking crisis, but also a currency crisis and a huge economic crisis. Politicians in other parts of Europe, where dark clouds were gathering overhead, stressed that although they might have problems of their own, at least they were definitely not Iceland. Such voices have now been silenced, since the country has experienced a remarkable turnaround in economic terms. In August 2011 the country completed its successful IMF programme and the fund concluded that key objectives had been met and the government had stabilized the economy. Growth resumed with numbers that many troubled countries in the Europe would give a lot for (2,7% in 2011, 1,5% in 2012, 3,3% in 2013). The budget deficit was turned into a surplus, unemployment was reduced to 5% and continues to fall, interest rates went down by 12%, inflation was maintained at under 4%, the currency was stabilised albeit under capital controls. Growth for 2014 is predicted to be 3,7%.

Although several economic problems remain, the country has emerged from its deep crisis. New banks were successfully resurrected that are dwarfed, however, in comparison with the monsters that emerged during the financial Vikings’ era. Both private and public debt stabilized and is on a downward trajectory with the sovereign successfully entering capital markets again in 2011. Iceland’s economic crash and recovery has sparked huge interest in this tiny economy of 300.000 inhabitants, which managed banks whose bankruptcies are among the largest in history. The before- and after-crash tale is dramatic, full of surprises and extravagances.



II. Success stories

The success stories told of how Iceland bounced back from its near-death economic experience are many. Here is an example of something I have in mind:  

In contrast, Iceland avoided a public health disaster even though it experienced, in 2008, the largest banking crisis in history, relative to the size of its economy. After three main commercial banks failed, total debt soared, unemployment increased ninefold, and the value of its currency, the krona, collapsed. Iceland became the first European country to seek an I.M.F. bailout since 1976. But instead of bailing out the banks and slashing budgets, as the I.M.F. demanded, Iceland’s politicians took a radical step: they put austerity to a vote. In two referendums, in 2010 and 2011, Icelanders voted overwhelmingly to pay off foreign creditors gradually, rather than all at once through austerity. Iceland’s economy has largely recovered, while Greece’s teeters on collapse.[3]


There are various versions, but what they have in common is that they attribute success to the fact that Iceland did not bail out the banks. Some of them thank not the people for halting a bank bailout, but the government at the time. From this supposed fact Iceland did not have to impose austerity policies that are thought to have had a further negative impact on crisis-ridden countries such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (PIIGS). In Iceland policy-makers seem to have escaped an IMF bailout package conditionalized upon imposing austerity and recapitalized oversized banks with toxic assets. [4] This in turn is given as an explanation as to why Iceland experienced a rapid recovery while the other countries, especially Greece, have seen very little progress.

I think there is a need to urge for caution in comparing economic crises of different countries. Greece and Iceland had very different problems leading to crisis. Greece did not have a banking crisis like Iceland and Iceland did not have a public debt crisis before the crash like Greece. Ireland had a banking crisis like Iceland, but the former has the Euro as currency and the latter the independent Króna. Putting to one side the need for caution in these circumstances, then this Icelandic saga of a heroic escape from the bad banker is just a myth and lacks any factual basis. Iceland attempted a bank bailout, but it failed, and the cost of the Icelandic crash has been considerable both in economic and social terms. Although Iceland escaped better from the circumstances than many had envisaged, the impacts of them are still being felt.



III. The mini-crisis of 2006

The tragedy in the Icelandic case is that so much harm could have been averted if the authorities had only taken measures in a mini-crisis, called the Geyser crisis, that hit the economy in 2006. Analysts, especially outside of Iceland and most notably from Denmarks Danske Bank, gave out warnings that Iceland was heading for disaster as its banking sector was seriously unstable.[5] This is what economist Gudrun Johnsen calls the ‘missed opportunity’ for Iceland and points out that, rather than taking this criticism to heart, domestic politicians and bankers responded to it by shooting the messenger. They maintained that the analysts had ill intentions as they were in competition with the banks or that they did not understand the Icelandic banking miracle. So, instead of reviewing the fundamentals of the financial system and asking questions about the direction of the banking outvasion, all the wrong lessons were learned from the Geyser crisis. Bankers and politicians agreed that in order to correct the misperceptions over the banks, a PR campaign was needed as well as a restructuring of how they financed themselves so that they could continue to grow. The bank managers saw that they could not only rely on the international bond market, as the view was getting more commonplace that all was not fine in Iceland. Funding was getting harder and more expensive by the month, which these heavily leveraged banks could not withstand. Most notably, this meant the banks moved into introducing high-interest-rate accounts. Landsbanki, for example, introduced the now infamous Icesave online accounts out of their branches in the UK and the Netherlands. It managed to accumulate billions of pounds in deposits in just over a year. However, when the accounts became unavailable due to the collapse of the bank in October 2008, the UK authorities used anti-terrorism laws to freeze all Icelandic assets on UK soil, sparking a hefty row between Iceland and the UK that ended before the EFTA court in 2011. In 2013, however, the EFTA court came to an interesting verdict, acquitting the Icelandic State of any claims made by the UK and the Netherlands to reimburse them for moneys paid to depositors of the failed branches of Landsbanki. Rather, the UK and Dutch insurance deposit schemes stand to get reimbursed by the winding-up process of the failed bank but, importantly, the Icelandic State is not liable.



IV. Contingencies

After the 2006 Geyser crisis, the banks did not only change their strategy and turn to the pockets of depositors. In addition to accumulating deposits, the banks manipulated their access to the Central Bank of Iceland and the European Central Bank for funding when international markets closed on the Icelandic banks. As Johnsen notes, ‘[i]nstead of using their existing asset portfolio (which was depleted), they issued new unsecured bonds in the domestic market at a favourable rate, then colluded on exchanging these bonds among themselves. Another bank could then use them as collateral against short-term lending from the Central Bank’.[6] Or to put it simply, the banks were taking money out of the Central Bank in exchange for IOU tickets they had exchanged among themselves. These tickets became known as “love letters” in Iceland. In effect, they were printing money, and on a massive scale. One of the results of this is that the Central Bank of Iceland became de facto bankrupt, with losses estimated at 11.1% of GDP, which is another peculiarity of the Icelandic case.[7] A court case is currently ongoing in Iceland where the CEO’s of Kaupthing are charged for financial transactions and loans made in the final weeks leading to the crash. Part of the money used in those transactions, 500 million Euros, was a large portion of Iceland’s currency reserve loaned to the bank by the Central Bank of Iceland.


The years between 2006 and 2008 are key in understanding the Icelandic case. One of the main questions one gets when discussing the lessons from Iceland is: Was the quick recovery due to how the country ‘burned’ the creditors? Myth has it that when things got tough for the banks, the Icelandic government denied to bail them out and the country therefore escaped the difficult long-term consequence felt by, for example, Ireland. But that is a serious distortion of what happened. The Icelandic banks were on Central Bank life support from 2006 to 2008. After the Geyser crisis, the banks got the funds needed in order to continue their ventures. Paradoxically, what turned out to be Iceland’s luck in the circumstances was that heads of other Central Banks did not abide to the demands of their colleague in Iceland, Davíð Oddsson, for a loan to continue funding the banks. In all actuality, it turns out that it was the Icelandic authorities that were the last to spot the ill health of their own banks. In a response to a letter from the Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King, where he proposes the need for a downsizing the banking system and that more funds are not what is needed, Mr. Oddsson writes:

The Icelandic banks are well capitalized but they are dealing with a problem of perception. The signals we receive from the markets are that a swap facility for the Central Bank would contribute immeasurability to the alleviation of the problem. I hereby kindly ask you to reconsider this matter.[8]


Mervyn King did not reconsider nor did any other Governor of a Central Bank in Europe, which then meant that the authorities, out of necessity, had to switch to plan B i.e. to split up the banks and make them go into administration. For admirers of historical contingences, this case is a treat. Iceland did not take a calculated decision to let the banks fail, but an attempted bail-out failed. This meant that that its tackling of a banking crisis took an unexpected turn, as banks were put into a winding-up process, a move only considered in the face of failure. If drastic measures against the banks had been taken in 2006, then Iceland would offer a role model for averting crises. But then an interesting political question arises. The banks fuelled sensational growth. What politician would stop the promoters of such growth and who would vote for him? And in a political climate of complete confidence in the self-regulation of markets, the role of regulators gets very small.



V. Iceland’s bad/good bank move

Iceland’s bank manoeuvre has received a lot of interest because it deviates in important ways from the current orthodoxy in crisis response in Europe, where the argument for a bank bail-out is the standard. The recipe needs mentioning. In response to the crisis, the Icelandic Parliament passed emergency laws in 2008 that gave the financial services authority (FME) the tools to take drastic measures and intervene in the financial market. An important part of the legislation was to give all depositors (wholesale and retail) priority status over other creditors such as bondholders. On this basis domestic deposits were moved into new banks that received a capital injection from the State and assets and loans from the old banks matcing the deposits. The failed banks were then put into administration, which makes this a good/bad bank split. And even though Iceland did not deliberately choose this route, it turned out to be beneficial, which proves an important point that alternatives to bank bailouts are possible. One should also note, however, that the good bank / bad bank move is based on sound principles that are sadly overlooked by policy-makers in Europe. If the State finds it necessary to salvage a financial institution, then State funds should only be allocated to such bail-outs provided that the assets of the financial institution are sound and important for the functioning of society. Rather, it may be sensible to seize the opportunity to minimise risk by downsizing the banks and eliminating toxic debt. A bank that faces default is doing so for a reason and the government needs to ensure that it is not throwing good money after bad money. The argument that banks should always receive tax-payer money because of systematic importance and contagion fears should not be accepted as a wholesale argument. The State does not of necessity need to bail out the banks in the exact shape they are in when they seek assistance.


So, although Iceland stumbled upon the correct route eventually, the attempt to sustain the banks since 2006 became immensely costly. Despite the much-praised route taken by Iceland, the total cost of the economic crisis for the State has surpassed Ireland’s, which was thought to be the very bad case, in terms of GDP (Ice 70% Ire 60%).[9] The most recent IMF report discusses this surge in debt and estimates it for Iceland even higher than previously assumed, stating that ‘the collapse of the banking system led to an increase of Icelandic public-sector debt to almost 100 percent of GDP’.[10] The reason is that the pure size of the banking system was such that even though a late good/bad bank manoeuvre rescued Iceland from complete economic annihilation, the crash remained immensely costly for the tax-payer. But there are also important caveats to stress here. The fiscal costs are in part caused by the refinancing of the new banks. A lot of the increase in public debt is due to establishing an adequate foreign reserve of currencies to support the Icelandic Króna. The State also recapitalised the new banks and so the majority of the financial sector is now largely owned by it. And as Iceland’s economy is growing again, the assets of the banks are improving and the State will in the future be able to receive considerable revenue from the banks to repay its own capital contribution. Hopefully, it will all be repaid in full and with interest, which would make up for some of the costs of the crisis. Nevertheless, Iceland did not miraculously escape the crisis; although its recovery has been positive.



VI. Emerging from crisis

There are many factors that explain Iceland’s emergence from the crisis. Economists would point to the stabilizing and downward path of private and public debt and stabilization of currency, which brought down inflation. Another peculiarity of the Icelandic case is the introduction of capital controls in an IMF programme, which helped stabilize the currency. Some would point to how the depreciation of the currency helped hasten the recovery for an export-driven economy. But keeping in line with the peculiarities of the Icelandic experience, I want focus on other factors that I consider pivotal in its recovery. Bergmann notes that in terms of the recovery, a key component of it was that it was welfare-orientated.[11] One of the main aims of the government was to do as much as it could to protect Iceland’s Nordic welfare system and the consolidation measures implemented after the crash were based on social principles.[12] Cuts in the budget were curtailed to shelter the most important elements of the welfare structure. To meet the rising costs of such a social protection scheme after the crisis hit, in addition to falling revenue, considerable tax reform was introduced. An increase in income tax on the highest wages was introduced instead of a flat rate. Capital and corporate income tax rates were raised, new special wealth taxes and a bank levy introduced, environmental and carbon emission taxes launched. The capital controls also helped by preventing capital flight once they were set in place and they also retained the assets of the creditors of the failed banks. A special resource rent tax on the export-driven fishing industry that targeted substantial increases in profits resulting from the depreciation of the Króna was introduced. This and running a deficit to fund certain social programs necessary to soften the impact of the crisis were important in achieving economic progress. For example, in 2011 and 2012, 1% of GDP each year was used to subsidize interest rates to indebted households and a special social stimulus package was introduced in 2011 which increased wages and benefits. Both the IMF and OECD have pointed to this social emphasis with the latter claiming that “[c]onsolidation policies appear to have been designed in an overall equalising manner.”[13]


As a result Iceland was the only country within the OECD where the average income of earners at the top of the scale fell more than that of those at the bottom of the scale. During the boom inequality increased significantly, making Iceland an interesting test case for the debate surrounding Professor Thomas Piketty’s claims on wealth inequality and the development of capitalism.[14] But in tackling the crisis, socially just principles contributed to Iceland’s recovery. The Icelandic authorities were terrified of the prospects of a double-dip crisis which could have easily become the reality if funds were not redistributed through the tax system and social protection shielded from cuts. Strong moral arguments support such an approach, as measures should focus on getting the whole of society through the crisis and not just financial institutions, but they are also economically sensible. The focus should be on maintaining as much as possible the purchasing power of low- and middle-income groups. A counterproductive move would have been to cut unemployment benefits when it peaked, in the name of cost-cutting, and then introducing extra costs in areas people highly rely on, such as education or health services. Austerity not only hurts the individual who lost his job, but also the community that relies on him as a consumer, as his diminished income needs to pay for public services he previously did not have to.


The Icelandic boom, bust and recovery story offers a fascinating study for policy-makers, journalists, academics or just anyone interested in understanding financial crises. The big question is whether Iceland can offer any lessons to other countries that face a crisis. I think the verdict is mixed. There are lessons in the failures leading up to the crisis and in what made the country emerge from crisis. It is right to stress that every country faces a different set of circumstances, even though they are all lumped together as countries facing economic crisis in discussions on “crisis”. But maybe the most important lesson from Iceland is that when tackling a crisis there are always more possibilities available than are usually laid on the table. Even when facing serious consequences, taking the unexpected route is not so disastrous.





Baruchello, G. (2013a), ‘The Picture—Small and Big: Iceland and the Crises’, Nordicum-Mediterraneum, Vol. 9, no. 3, available at: http://nome.unak.is/nm-marzo-2012/vol-9-no-3-2014/73-conference-paper/480-the-picture-small-and-big-iceland-and-the-crises


Bergmann, E. (2014). Iceland and the International Financial Crisis: Boom, Bust and Recovery. Palgrave Macmillan.


Byrne, E. & Thorsteinsson, H. (2012):‘Lessons for Ireland from Iceland’s financial crisis?’, in Lucey, B., Larkin, C. & Gurdgiev, C. (eds): What if Ireland Defaults?, Dublin, Orpen Press, pp. in press.


Halldórsson, Ó.G. & Zöega, G. (2010): Iceland’s financial crisis in an international perspective. Economic Institute Working Paper Series W10:02. Reykjavík, University of Iceland Economic Institute.


Huijbens, E. & Thorsteinsson, H. (forthcoming): Maintaining welfare in the wake of collapse – the case of Iceland‘. Geografiska Annaler B


IMF (2011): ‘Iceland’s Recovery – Lesson and Challenges’ The International Monetary Fund, 27th October, retrieved from: http://www.imf.org/external/np/seminars/eng/2011/isl/index.htm, 9th November 2011.


IMF (2012): Iceland 2012: Article IV Consultation and first post-program monitoring discussion. Washington, D.C., International Monetary Fund.


IMF (2013a): Baltic and Icelandic Experiences of Capital Flows and Capital Flow Measures. Washington, D.C., International Monetary Fund.


IMF (2013b): Fiscal Monitor April 2013 Fiscal Adjustment in an Uncertain World. Washington, D.C., International Monetary Fund (World economic and financial surveys, 0258-7440)

IMF(2014): Iceland: Fourth Post-Program Monitoring Discussions-Staff Report; Press Release; and Statement by the Executive Director for Iceland. Washington, D.C., International Monetary Fund. .


Johnsen, G. (2014). Bringing Down the Banking System: Lessons from Iceland. Palgrave Macmillan.


Lane, P. R. (2012). The European sovereign debt crisis. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(3), 49-67. Chicago


Karanikolos, M. (2013) et al. “Financial crisis, austerity, and health in Europe.”The Lancet 381.9874: 1323-1331.


Konzelmann, S. J. (2014). „The political economics of austerity“. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 38 (4): 701-741


Loftsdóttir, K. (2010). The loss of innocence: The Icelandic fnancial crisis and colonial past. Anthropology Today, 26(6), 9-13.


Magnússon, G. (2010): Lessons from a small country in a financial crisis or Dr. Minsky and Mr. Ponzi in Iceland. Economic Institute Working Paper Series W10:03. Reykjavík, University of Iceland Economic Institute.


OECD (2011): OECD Economic Surveys: Iceland. Paris, OECD.  


OECD (2013): Crisis squeezes income and puts pressure on inequality and poverty. Paris, OECD.  


Ólafsson, S. and Kristjánsson, A.S. (2012): Skýrsla I: Umfang kreppunnar og afkoma ólíkra tekjuhópa [Report I: The scope of the recession and returns to different income brackets]. Reykjavík, University of Iceland Social Research Centre.  


Thorsdottir, T. K. (2013). Iceland in Crisis. Women and Austerity: The Economic Crisis and the Future for Gender Equality, 102.


Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Harvard University Press.

Wade, R. and Sigurgeirsdóttir, S. (2010): ‘Lessons from Iceland’, New Left Review, 65: 5-29.


Wade, R. and Sigurgeirsdóttir, S. (2012) “Iceland’s rise, fall, stabilisation and beyond.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 36.1: 127-144.



[1] For an overview of main economic indicators before and after crash see IMF 2011, 2012 & 2014 and Halldórsson & Zöega 2010.

[2] Financial Vikings are discussed in Loftsdóttir 2010 and see Baruchello 2014 for discussion on the neoliberal ethos during the boom years.

[3] Stuckler & Basu. “How Austerity Kills”. New York Times. May 12, 2013. See also Karanikolos et. al. 2013 and see discussion in Byrne & Thorsteinsson.

[4] See Lane 2012 on crisis packages for European countries especially p. 57-59. On the history of the idea of austerity see Konzelmann 2014.

[5] Christensen 2006

[6] Johnsen 2014:93

[7] Byrne & Thorsteinsson 2011. See also Magnússon 2010.

[8] Johnsen 2014:185

[9] IMF 2013b

[10] IMF 2013b: 11.

[11] Bergmann 2014:159

[12] For detailed argument consult Huijbens & Thorsteinsson forthcoming.

[13] OECD 2013: 3. Gender issues are discussed in Thorsdottir 2013. See also Ólafsson & Kristjánsson 2012 for discussion on how changes in the tax system sheltered low income groups.

[14] Piketty 2014.

Sven-Olof Olsson (ed.), Managing Crises and De-globalization. Nordic foreign trade and exchange 1919-39 (New York: Routledge, 2014 pbk.)


Historical memory is unwelcome by people who have too much at stake in the short term to realise that they may have much more to lose in the medium and/or long term. Historical memory is also unwelcome by people who wish that economic history could fit neatly within the theoretical constructs that they favour because of ideological, political, moral or pecuniary commitments of theirs (cf. Francesco Boldizzoni, The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

  Continue reading Sven-Olof Olsson (ed.), Managing Crises and De-globalization. Nordic foreign trade and exchange 1919-39 (New York: Routledge, 2014 pbk.)

Jón Ólafsson (ed.), Lýðræðistilraunir. Ísland í hruni og endurreisn [Democratic experiments. Iceland in collapse and renaissance] (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2014)


The indications are that the costs are 44% of Iceland’s GDP, meaning that it is internationally the third costliest financial collapse ever (Luc Laeven og Fabian Valencia. 2013. Systemic Banking Crises Database. IMF Economic Review, 61, pp. 225-270). The series of events leading to the collapse and what has happened afterwards has had serious consequences for Icelandic society and government. The most obvious sign of these consequences is that trust levels within Icelandic society have declined. The banks enjoy least trust of all Icelandic institutions, as is to be expected, as only 10.2% of Icelanders said in October 2014, six years after the financial collapse, that they trust Icelandic banks (MMR Market and Media Research). Just 12.8% trust Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament, according to the same source.


One of the consequences of the financial collapse was that in 2009 the Icelandic republic had the first left-wing government in its history, i.e. since it was established in 1944. This government had to deal with all the most serious consequences of the financial collapse. On top of that, it tried to engineer changes to important Icelandic social institutions like the fishing quota system, which has been controversial since its inception in 1983, and the Icelandic constitution. The reasons behind the changes to the quota system were based on justice and fair allocation of natural resources. The reasons behind changing the constitution were not as clear, but it seems to me that the best construal of them is that the attempt to change the constitution was a confidence-building measure, an attempt to reconstruct the most important legal document of the republic´s legal system and secure general trust in governmental institutions. According to the same survey firm as referred to above, the legal system as a whole enjoyed the trust of 28.9% last November, but in November 2013 the same measurement was 38.1% and in October 2009 the trust in the legal system as a whole in Iceland was 36.5%. There is no reason to read too deep a meaning into these measurements, but they are some indication that the preparation, writing and rejection of the draft constitution have not affected public trust in the legal system. Some may think that we can infer from this that the whole affair surrounding the drafting of a new constitution was in vain. But this may be too hasty.


What actually happened in this process? First, there were public protests against the sitting government ending in its fall in early 2009. Second, after the general election in 2009, the first left-wing government in the history of the Icelandic republic was established. The prime minister of that government had long been of the opinion that the constitution needed revision. Third, some general meetings were arranged early in 2009, trying to find out which were the most important values of Icelanders. The government organised a similar meeting in early 2010 to figure out those values that should govern the revision of the constitution. Fourth, the government established a committee gathering data and evaluating various ideas about such a revision, thus preparing the work of a constitutional assembly. Fifth, the government decided that an assembly should be elected by the general public to write a new constitution or revise parts of the existing one. Sixth, the election to the constitutional assembly was declared null and void by the Icelandic Supreme Court after a legal challenge. The government decided then to establish a constitutional committee with the same mission and the same individuals as voted onto the assembly. Seventh, the constitutional committee delivered in four months a draft of a new constitution. This draft was never assented to twice by the majority parliament with a general election in between, as it must do according to the rules laid down by the present constitution.


This book is a collection of essays in Icelandic about this whole process and other democratic experiments in Iceland’s recent years. It is written by two Icelandic authors and six international authorities on democracy and democratic developments. Jón Ólafsson edits the book and writes an introduction describing the development of the constitutional project and other democratic experiments in Iceland. James Fishkin analyses some of the processes that took place in the constitutional preparation and the drafting of the new one, and he evaluates to what extent deliberation and rational discussion were features of them. His conclusion is that neither the general meetings nor the constitutional committee reflected the general population and we should be careful about drawing any conclusion about the views of the meetings and the committee coinciding with the views of the population as a whole. He is also critical of the lack of rational discussion both in the preparations and the drafting of the new constitution.


Hélène Landemore examines the process of preparing and writing a new constitution in Iceland from an epistemological point of view. She is interested in: how the constitutional committee dealt with the problem of writing a constitution; and how it used “crowdsourcing”, meaning the competence and the intelligence of the general public, especially in writing the draft of the new constitution. She is critical of the role of experts in writing and editing the draft of the new constitution; she believes that the process had serious drawbacks, as she thinks that the general public and its representatives are capable of writing a constitution upon the condition that as many as possible take part in the process. She believes that the current Icelandic method for establishing a change to the present constitution or adopting a new one is too restrictive. Tom Ginsburg and Zachary Elkins approach the preparations and process of writing the draft of the new Icelandic constitution from a comparative point of view. They review various views of transparency in such a process, as well as the role of experts. They are, like the other experts writing in this book, favourable to the opening up of the process for preparing and writing a constitution and the government process in general, but they realise that there is no simple solution or simple recipe for a constitutional process, in Iceland or anywhere else. Thus, they ask the difficult question: If the new constitution was the result of a grassroots movement, why was it so easy to stop it in parliament? Why were those parties that opposed the new constitution elected as the new parliamentary majority in 2013? There is no simple answer to that question and there are two appendices to their article that are informative and interesting.


Paolo Spade and Giovanni Allegretti write about novelties in democracy or new initiatives in democracy, especially participatory financial budgeting as practised in a number of Brazilian cities. They explore the connection between these new initiatives and the new possibilities that have opened up on the net. They realise that these connections are complex and they can easily become counterproductive from the point of view of participation, if not used carefully. Democratic experiments in other places are drawn into the discussion such as Portugal, Germany and the United States, and in Reykjavík, Iceland. This is not directly relevant to the process around the constitution but the discussion broadens the picture of new initiatives in democracy. The last article is by Kristinn Már Ársælsson and is an overview of democratic initiatives in Iceland in the years 2009-2013, i.e. the years of the first left-wing government of the Icelandic republic. These include the preparation and the writing of the draft constitution, plus two national referenda on the Icesave agreements between the Icelandic government and the British and Dutch governments. These referenda were engineered by the refusal of the Icelandic president to sign two laws supported by the majority of parliament. In both cases the general public voted against these laws. These were the first national referenda since 1944, when it was decided to establish a republic. He also discusses the initiatives taken by the city council in Reykjavík.


All these articles are interesting, make important points and throw light on the events that have taken place in Iceland in the last five years. This is of particular value for a small society like Iceland, because very few people outside the country can understand what happens here and why. Icelandic scientists are a part of their own society and sometimes find it difficult to analyse what actually happens. The critical distance of foreign scientists can bring benefits.


This distance has its drawbacks too. This is clear from the discussion of the constitutional process. There is no attempt to relate it to the political culture in Iceland. What is most interesting about this process, which elected a constitutional assembly from members of the general public, is also a major break with the Icelandic tradition of politicians and legal experts discussing and drafting changes to the constitution. Part of this tradition is that all the major parties have had to agree to the changes put forward. Even though this is not literally true of all the changes proposed, it is true of most of them. This has guaranteed that the changes proposed and consented to in parliament before it is resolved, are consented too unchanged in the newly elected parliament. This threshold to changes to the constitution has not proved to be serious or impossible in the Icelandic context. Changes have regularly been made to the Icelandic constitution. It is not fashionable nowadays to take Icelandic political culture seriously, since its vices rather than its virtues have been more prominent in recent years, but it seems to me that one of the reasons working against the new constitution was that there were serious political disagreements about it. Pushing it through parliament would have been a serious break with the national consensus tradition. You may not think very much of this tradition, but it is an historical fact; besides, traditions in political cultures have to be reckoned with.

Per Eliasson, KG Hammarlund, Erik Lund & Carsten Tage Nielson (eds.), Historie didatik i Norden: del 1, historiemetvetanda – historiebruk (Malmö & Halmstad: Malmö högskola and Högskolan i Halmstad, 2012)

The challenge is tackled in two volumes; “historiemetvetanda – historiebruk” [history usage] rewieved here;  and “historisk kunskap” [historical knowledge], in a separate volume, not covered here.

The authors constitute a group who have a background in history teaching and research in history teaching. They cover all three levels of schooling, from compulsory school through upper-secondary and university level.

Continue reading Per Eliasson, KG Hammarlund, Erik Lund & Carsten Tage Nielson (eds.), Historie didatik i Norden: del 1, historiemetvetanda – historiebruk (Malmö & Halmstad: Malmö högskola and Högskolan i Halmstad, 2012)

Deweyan Democracy: The Epistemic Context

Dewey’s characterizations of democratic conduct show that he thinks of it as involving a give and take. One’s contribution (according to ability) creates a claim (according to need). The individual has duty to his or her community (or society) and society has corresponding duties toward him or her. The mutual dependence of individual and society is the dynamic that generates values. Intellectual freedom, cultural and intellectual diversity, growth and participation are examples of central values made possible by the democratic dynamic. Democracy for Dewey is thus primary: It is an ideal because of the conditions for value formation that it creates. Other values are then (or can be) derived from the democratic ideal.

It is in this complex sense that Deweyan democracy is a “way of life.” The claim is not that democracy is just one of many possible choices of a way to organize society or a way to live. It is in Dewey’s view the only possible framework for the ever-increasing intricacies of the modern world.

There are two ways to explore the conception of democracy sketched here. One is a thorough exegesis of Dewey’s works to investigate whether this characterization of his view makes sense – to check its correctness. Another is to look beyond Dewey and see whether the approach to democracy so inspired by his philosophy is a good approach to democratic theory, if the goal is to seek a useful justification of democracy. In this paper I am interested in doing the latter. In what follows I will attempt to show that “Deweyan democracy”—i.e. the idea of democracy as a way of life—offers interpretive possibilities that help understand how we can both have a substantive notion of democracy and put it in a justificatory framework where rejecting it is certainly possible, but fails to make sense unless, before rejecting it, one is prepared to accept it, in which case rejection, of course, does not make sense.



The democratic ideal—democracy as a way of life—looks like a moral concept. It has, obviously, a moral side to it in the sense of presenting a morally superior way of organizing social life (to use Deweyan vocabulary) to other available ways of doing so. But it is a mistake to overemphasize this moral side of the concept (although a frequently to be seen in comments on Dewey’s philosophy). The moral side in my view is less important than the epistemic side of Deweyan democracy. Democracy as a way of life provides the environment that protects and fosters science or, more generally, inquiry. The reason is proximity in method: In a democratic arrangement moral and political problems get a treatment similar or even analogous to what scientific method would dictate for inquiry. One must be careful not to take the analogy too far however. It does not mean that the method of science should be used to solve moral issues, but it is a recipe for moral cognitivism. Moral as well as political problems should be approached by reason and argument: Democracy is the intellectual environment that fosters reason and argument.

One should also follow Dewey in drawing a distinction between the idea of democracy and the manifestations of democracy (Dewey 1954, p. 143-144). The forms of power associated with democracy, such as representative government, majority rule, parliaments, elections etc. are no necessary features of democracy. Democracy is thus characterized by its ends rather than by the specific means that have traditionally been used to reach them.

Deweyan democracy has evoked considerable discussion in recent years. Many philosophers, who are generally sympathetic to Dewey, have been skeptical about his democratic theory and some have rejected it outright. Robert Talisse has argued that if democracy is a moral ideal it must be treated as other (possibly competing) ideals and values, from the point of view of value pluralism. Talisse correctly points out that from this perspective one cannot think of it as a shared or basic value, it would only amount to a moral value which could certainly be chosen or desired by any reasonable person, but could equally well be “reasonable rejected” by anyone adhering to different values (Talisse 2012, p. 109). For Talisse, Deweyan democracy fails the “pluralism test.” He argues that Deweyan democracy is simply one version of perfectionism because of the emphasis on human flourishing that it entails. In other words, if we read Deweyan democracy from the point of view of a Rawlsian conception of liberalism, the democratic ideal turns out to be just one more “comprehensive doctrine” which can never serve as a basis for a political organization acceptable to all reasonable persons (Talisse 2012, p. 112-114).

Matthew Festenstein points out—contra Talisse—that the notion of reasonable rejectability is not the kind of constraint that the pragmatist (i.e. the Deweyan) could accept. Since it only proposes a fixed standard to adopt or reject basic values it amounts to an a priori evaluation, which is not very useful from a pragmatist point of view. While Festenstein recognizes that one can reasonably reject the democratic ideal that, in his view, does not exclude it from being a possible “basis for the justification of state power.” It is difficult to see, however, what is gained by his result, since relativizing the democratic ideal does not remove Talisse’s objection, it only refocuses the difficulty (Festenstein 2010, p. 42).

Eric MacGilvray picks a useful element out of Deweyan democracy when he argues that it provides a kind of a test, similar to the pragmatic maxim, to determine whether one or another belief is fit for public discussion. It means that holding—and promoting—a belief about how to justify state power e.g., requires willingness to present it in experimental terms. The threshold for access to discussion about basic values for the social contract need in his view not be higher than that. If a belief can be tested and discussed experimentally—it would not have to be experimentally tested—and its meaning (conceivable consequences) for society can thus be assessed and discussed, there is no way to say that it is unfit for providing a justification of state power (MacGilvray 2004, p. 163-167; see also Festenstein 2010, p. 33). While MacGilvray provides a more interesting way of filtering issues fit for public (and political) discussion, his argument is no direct counterargument to Talisse’s. He carves out a role for Deweyan democracy, i.e. to offer a framework for determining the democratic meaningfulness of beliefs. While I think this is an interesting and in fact very useful and practical way of using the idea of Deweyan democracy, it limits it to a methodological tool.

Other authors such as Elizabeth Anderson have praised Dewey’s experimentalist account of democracy and yet other, such as Cheryl Misak, suggest that by using the more rigorous Peircean approach to inquiry as a model for understanding Deweyan democracy, one can exploit the inquiry/democracy analogy and apply methods of inquiry to the search for common solutions to social, political and even moral problems (Anderson 2006, p. 14-15; Misak 2000, see p. 45-47).


The question still remains whether and why Deweyan democracy should be chosen as an ideal, what kind of choice that would be, and what one has so chosen. I think this choice must be seen as a result of two related beliefs:

  1. Value articulation: The choice of democracy as a way of life implies accepting the claim that democracy is a necessary condition for articulating central activities, goods and values in community such as freedom and equality, education, public discussion, openness and opportunity.
  2. Opportunity creation: Democracy is a better way to create opportunities for inquiry, experimentation and in general solve problems using best available means and methods than other models of social organization.

If these beliefs can be sustained, one could see democracy as a prism through which certain values become articulated rather than itself a simple or core value. To reject democracy is therefore to refocus or rearrange social or moral values. If a democratic approach is not seen as basic, values such as the ones already mentioned, as well as many other central values of modern society such as pluralism, toleration and participation loose the meaning that democracy as a way of life gives them. Democracy thus should be chosen as “a way of life” in the sense of a principle of articulation and arrangement.

I depart from the authors I have mentioned in this paper since I want to show that the best argument for democracy comes neither from the independent standard that a Peircean model might create, nor from the experimentalist vision that it entails. The public action test does not per se provide an argument for democracy it only explains how we can make a useful distinction between issues that properly belong to public discussion and those that don’t. One might simply argue, of course, that there is no alternative. In a very practical way democracy is accepted as the only viable kind of social and political arrangement in modern society. The superficial acceptance of democracy does not mean that democracy is ideally practiced (or even practiced at all) in every case. It only reveals the dominance of the discourse of democracy.

There are however alternatives to democracy, some of them quite powerful. Sometimes these alternatives are presented as the necessary basis of democracy and there are social forces that promote them as necessary restrictions of democracy, since without certain restrictions democracy could lead to undesirable results.

As Bo Rothstein has shown, the correlation between democracy and good life is not always in democracy’s favor (Rothstein 2013, p. 15). Many surveys show it to be negative over a range of accepted indicators measuring quality of life. Good governance seems, on the other hand, to be strongly correlated to success in improving the lives of citizens, and increased democracy may lead to deterioration in governance. The alternative to democracy might thus be efficiency and justice in the design of institutions, as well as basic liberties that promote equality and individual freedom in accordance with liberal principles. It is clear in any case that if increased democracy is shown to go against improving the quality of life for citizens that indeed would deliver a strong argument against democracy.[1]

My contention is that by “choosing democracy” one is not choosing a particular method or procedure for a specific kind of decision-making but rather a general framework for public choice and deliberation. One could see such democratic commitment as a moral commitment. In such a case one would argue that the fairness of democratic approaches should commit one to them, even in cases when certain problems might seem better solved using a different approach. But the commitment is clearly epistemic as well: If there is an approach to problem solving best described as democratic to which one is committed, then one is also committed to the limitations of the approach. While Dewey seems not very keen on providing a moral justification for choosing democracy, he seriously attempts to provide an epistemic justification, i.e. argue that democracy will, in the long run, provide a better environment, better tools and on the whole better approaches to problem solving than other conceivable (or available) approaches.

From the Deweyan point of view the epistemic commitment must therefore be seen as prior to the moral commitment. It means that democracy should be seen as a way of dealing with and solving problems. It would not do to argue simply that democracy somehow ensures that the best methods are used or that solving problems democratically will always yield the best solutions. What it does mean is to take seriously the duty to seek not only solutions that can be had by majority decision or solutions that can be forged by negotiation and compromise but to seek the best solutions. If “real” democracy often (even most of the time) falls short of the democratic ideal, this does not make the idea of democracy any less clear. Quite the contrary, since it is the idea by which political decisions should be elucidated and criticized.



In the last part of the paper I want to sketch how I think that the idea of Deweyan democracy should be used to discuss and judge political and administrative practice. The objective is on the one hand to see how democratic practice falls short of an ideal of democracy (or not), on the other to provide a healthy angle of democratic criticism. Dewey’s emphasis on experimentation in connection with democracy, i.e. seeing democracy as the free exchange and discussion of ideas where the point is to have a generation and selection process based on making full use of “intelligence” is key to understanding this conception of democracy (Dewey 1985, p. 362). This means that in democracy as a way of life, individual contribution to decision and policy-making is matched with (conceivable) individual influence on decisions and policy.

In addition to the two basic democratic beliefs—that it is a framework for value articulation and opportunity creation—one should think of two central conditions of democracy:

  1. The efficiency condition: For each participating individual success does not necessarily entail being able to convince others of one’s point of view or being in the majority but on the efficiency of democratic process. Success is to be a part of a conclusion based on discussion, fact-finding, deliberation, debate and eventually (perhaps) voting that harvests the input of the participants.
  2. The integrity condition: A decision made, or policy adopted, must be a result of what has been democratically concluded. If the logical space of decision-making is different from the logical space of reason-giving, the procedure used is meaningless.

The efficiency condition deals with the ability of a group to come to a conclusion and the integrity condition with the relation between that conclusion and an eventual decision or action. Democratic failures may appear in both parts undermining either grounds for policies or legitimacy of decisions. The work of parliaments often evokes suspicion about the integrity of the democratic process when the connection between arguments and information revealed in deliberation and the eventual decision seems vague or absent; when positions are known in advance, more or less, and the debate carries only a symbolic function.

The give and take mentioned earlier need not be understood as individual willingness or commitment to participate in public debates or policy-making and therefore the efficiency condition does not depend on actual participation. Instead of seeking a standard to determine the content of public reason, one should seek a framework to connect participation and policy. The point should be access rather than inclusion, where the possibility of participating, not only in exercising free speech, but in actually providing input into policy, is at stake. The problem with participatory approaches taken by governments is often their reluctance to acknowledge the importance of public participation seeing it rather as a possible hurdle in successful governing. Therefore there is tendency to both limit the power of extra-institutional participation and place all kinds of security valves on the possible decisions to be reached by such extra-institutional participants. To illustrate this and at the same time probe the conditions of democracy and the basic democratic beliefs, I want to discuss four recent examples from Icelandic politics:

  1. National assemblies 2009 and 2010
  2. Annulment of the elections to the constitutional assembly 2011
  3. The first Icesave referendum 2011
  4. National referendum on the constitutional bill 2012

After the financial collapse in Iceland in 2008 there was considerable pressure on the government to use unorthodox methods to change the course in Icelandic politics and promote democracy. The first attempt to create a public voice in order to influence policy systematically was made by an independent group of people who formed an NGO called “The Anthill”. The Anthill organized a so-called National Assembly (Icel. Þjóðfundur) whose purpose was to articulate basic values and general policy goals for Icelandic society (Gunnar Hersveinn 2010). The National Assembly consisted of over one thousand people, a random sample from the general population, who were asked to participate in a meeting held in one day, 14 November 2009. The Anthill then planned to have the government accept the results of the assembly as guiding principles in the political renewal ahead.[2] Although it turned out to be problematic to simply adopt the results of the National Assembly and include them in the various tasks of the government, these results were taken seriously. The government adopted the methodology used in organizing National assemblies for public consultation regionally and nationally. In 2010 the Constitutional commission, whose task was to prepare for the Constitutional assembly, held a second National assembly elected in 2010 in order to revise or rewrite the Icelandic constitution.

There were several problems in the selection of participants for the National assemblies, which strictly speaking make it difficult to talk of participants as random samples of the population. Some other organizational problems have also reduced value of the results, but here I will focus on something else.

The task of the first National assembly was to articulate core values to guide governmental policy. The task of the second was to identify the core values to guide the revision of the constitution.[3] In both cases a number of general policy statements were also generated by participants to further identify policy goals. The problem with these results was their generality. The meetings neither provided priority rankings for goals nor any interpretation of value commitments and therefore policy-makers could hardly use them to plan policy. Therefore, even if the meetings were admirable exercises of public participation and engaged all kinds of people in thinking and talking about political issues—many had perhaps never been consulted except by occasional opinion polls—their overall usefulness was difficult to see. These meetings may have carried some meaning for participants who saw certain general value commitments articulated in a dramatic way as a result of the one-day meeting. They could however hardly have seen it as an opportunity for inquiry since the meeting was not deliberative. Its purpose was to express rather than critically engage the views of the participants. The assembly also fails both the efficiency and the integrity condition. The lack of systematic discussion created a gap between whatever was said during the meeting and the results published after the meeting. No problem was dealt with during the meeting and therefore nothing can be said about efficiency in doing so. Worse since the results were overly vague, it was difficult to see how the integrity condition could be fulfilled either. The relation between these results and eventual decision-making could not be spelled out. From the perspective of Deweyan democracy one could then say that the meetings were democratically meaningless, since while it allowed symbolic participation, it could not effect policy- or decision-making in any meaningful way.

Elections to the Constitutional assembly were held 25 November 2010. A large number of candidates ran for a place in the assembly – 525 competed for 25 seats. The elections were unusual in many ways. The government was criticized during and after the elections for many flaws in how the elections were conducted. There were certain problems with the design of the ballot, the ballot boxes, the voting booths and some of the procedures used. After the elections a group of citizens complained to the Supreme Court who then reviewed the elections and found it to be flawed in six respects. Although the flaws were technical and gave no reason to conclude that the elections had been rigged or the vote misrepresented, the Supreme court used its authority to annul the elections.

One might argue that a decision, made by a judicial body such as the Supreme Court, should not be evaluated in terms of democracy since it is based on the law and on judicial authority. It was clear however, that having pointed out certain flaws in the way the elections were conducted, the Supreme Court had a choice to annul or not annul the elections. Since the results were not in dispute, the Court had no democratic reason to annul, i.e. doing so did not serve to ensure that the democratic will of the electorate was protected, in fact the will of the voters was in this respect not considered to be the most important issue. The decision was thus undemocratic and one could even argue that it was anti-democratic, or, in other words, an attempt to put an end to a democratic process, rather than facilitate it.

From the point of view of Deweyan democracy one should argue that the Supreme Court had a duty to point out the flaws in the elections but also to base its decision on a commitment to serve democracy. As was later pointed out by critics of the decision, it is not in accordance with the rule of law that a judicial body may decide to annul a democratic election conducted legally, without significant failures and whose results clearly express the will of the electorate.[4] Here a commitment to democracy should have guided the Supreme Court. It is an epistemic commitment in the sense that the will of the people was known, it is also a moral commitment since serving democracy will then be seen as a more important value than technical perfection in the conduct of elections.

One of the bitterest issues debated in Iceland after the collapse of Iceland’s international banks, was the so-called Icesave case. Landsbankinn, one of the three big banks that collapsed in October 2008, had in 2007 started individual savings accounts in Britain and Holland that were quite lucrative for private savers. When Landsbankinn’s foreign operations were separated from its Icelandic operations and declared bankrupt, thousands of people lost their savings but were partially compensated by the British and Dutch governments in accordance with the European banking insurance policy. The British and the Dutch claimed that the Icelandic government was liable to pay the compensation and so they demanded to get back the amount paid to the individual savers. The Icelandic government to begin with accepted its responsibility and an agreement was negotiated. When the agreement was put to the parliament for ratification, a huge controversy ensued. Although the agreement was passed in the parliament it was clear that it created much anger among voters, who felt the Icelandic nation was being forced to pay debts created by irresponsible bank managers. The Icelandic president intervened by refusing to sign into law the bill on the agreement passed by the parliament, after having received petitions to do so from thousands of Icelandic citizens.

The Icelandic constitution stipulates that if the president refuses to sign a law, it must be put to a national referendum. As the referendum was being prepared, however, the government entered into new negotiations with the British and the Dutch. When the referendum on whether to accept the agreement passed by the parliament or reject it was conducted, the agreement was no longer relevant. It made therefore no difference whether the voters accepted or rejected the agreement since the government already had an offer that was clearly better for the Icelanders than the one they were voting on, even if not a formal signed offer or agreement. The referendum was therefore meaningless, and no democratic purpose in conducting it. One might argue that from some formalistic perspective it was unavoidable to conduct the referendum since it had already been scheduled. Parliament could however also have revoked the bill. The question here should be what would be more democratic to hold the referendum or abandon it. From the perspective of Deweyan democracy a referendum that fails to give a meaningful result—whatever the result—is not democratic. Other approaches might yield positions such as that holding the referendum is harmless; anyone who fails to see the point in participating could refrain from doing so, and so on. But it seems to me that if there is no problem–solving purpose in holding the referendum, and the whole point of doing it has become secondary, i.e. declaring support for (or opposition to) the government it has lost its democratic legitimacy. Whatever purpose there may be in participating (or not participating) it is different from the question being voted on.

Finally I want to discuss the national referendum on the constitutional bill submitted by the Constitutional Council.[5] The bill was submitted in the summer of 2011 and was meant to be passed before the end of the term in the spring of 2013. In October 2012 a consultatory referendum was held on the bill and at the same time participants were asked to express their view on six key questions on the content of the new constitution. While expressing support or opposition to the bill itself was relatively straightforward and yielded clear results (around two thirds were in favor of the bill, 50% of the electorate participated), the questions were vague and the results therefore begged the question. I will not go into detail in describing the various questions or the problems the evoked. It will suffice to take one example. One of the questions had to do with the national church. Iceland has not taken the step to separate the national church from the state. The current Icelandic constitution says that the state must “support and protect” the Evangelical Lutheran Church.[6] The question in the referendum was whether the voter thought that the new constitution should have a clause dealing with the national church. It did not ask what (if anything) the voter thought the constitution should say about the National church. Since (to many people’s surprise) the result was that the majority wanted there to be something on the church in the constitution, it was unclear how to interpret the will of the voters in that respect.

Again, from the point of view of some democratic theories this flaw in the referendum might not be taken to mean that it was undemocratic, but from a Deweyan perspective one would be able to conclude that since the result was democratically meaningless the referendum did not fulfill the epistemic conditions of democracy. The answer to the question made problem-solving more, rather than less, difficult, and the referendum therefore was meaningless for democratic problem solving.


Dewey’s discussion of democracy and the framework referred to as Deweyan democracy makes sense of a democratic commitment according to which we can assess democratic initiatives and results from an epistemic and moral point of view. The epistemic commitment is prior to the moral commitment since in many cases the moral commitment is a result of the epistemic commitment. Once democracy as a way of life is understood in this context, there is no need to fear that a democratic commitment amounts to committing oneself to a comprehensive doctrine such as an ideology or a religious belief. It is simply to make demands not only about democratic procedure, participation or deliberation but also in regard to the results of democratic decision- and policy-making.


Anderson, Elizabeth. “The Epistemology of Democracy.” Episteme (2006).

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1966.

—. Reconstruction in Philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

—. The Public and Its Problems. Athens: Swallow Press – Ohio University Press, 1954.

Festenstein, Matthew. “Pragmatism, Inquiry and Political Liberalism.” Contemporary Political Theory 9.1 (2010): 25–44.

MacGilvray, Eric A. Reconstructing Public Reason. Harvard University Press, 2004.

Misak, Cheryl J. Truth, Politics, Morality. Routledge, 2000.

Talisse, Robert B. “Can Democracy Be a Way of Life? Deweyan Democracy and the Problem of Pluralism.” Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society XXXIX.1-21 (2003).

—. Pluralism and Liberal Politics. New York: Routledge, 2012.


1 The terms democracy and governance are sometimes conflated. In his introduction to a collection of papers on democracy, Giorgio Agamben maintains that “the word democracy is used in most cases to refer to a technique of governing” (Agamben 2011, p. 1). While it is probably true that the term democracy is often used inaccurately, the distinction between governance and democracy is quite clear. Agamben probably overstates the confusion. There is however a tendency to describe administrative restrictions of democracy as part of a democratic framework.

2 The website created for the 2009 National assembly only has information in Icelandic. See thjodfundur2009.is. In the Q and A section of the page it is stated that the goal of the assembly is to create “a strong common vision” for the nation which will help “solve difficult and complicated problems”. In another section the intention to present them to the government with, as well as to institutions and associations whose role it will be to contribute to the recovery of the country after the crisis.

3 The National assembly (also referred to as National forum and National gathering) is described on its website, also available in English. See http://www.thjodfundur2010.is/english/ n.d.)

4 Reynir Axelsson, Athugasemdir við ákvörðun Hæstaréttar um ógildingu kosningar til stjórnlagaþings. Published 23 February 2011 at stjornarskrarfelagid.is.

5 The Constitutional Council was appointed by parliament after the nullification of the elections to the Constitutional Assembly. All 25 elected Assembly members were appointed except on who decided not to participate in the appointed body.

6 Constitution of the Republic of Iceland, Article 62. See: http://www.government.is/constitution/.

Brian Lucey, Charles Larkin and Constantin Gurdgiev (eds.) What if Ireland defaults? (Dublin: Orpen Press, 2012)



There is a story to be told about this turn of events; both a general story about crises in the capitalist system, including this particular crisis, and also about how the crises have unfolded in particular countries. When I talk about crisis in this review I am not referring to the Euro crisis but to the banking crisis.


It is worth pointing out at the beginning of this review that it is a significant fact that a number of countries have avoided this crisis even though they have been affected by it as, I guess, every country in Europe at least has been. The Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland have been able to avoid this crisis and the same applies to Canada. Finland has adopted the Euro and is having problems because of it, but all the four Scandinavian countries had learnt their lesson from their banking crisis in the early 1990s and managed to avoid all the pitfalls in the time leading up to the banking collapse in the autumn 2008. The key issue seems to have been a close monitoring of their banking systems and a tough management of the system by the state. It seems to me that the role of the state is probably the most important issue in this crisis. In the decade leading up to 2008 it seems to have become an accepted orthodoxy that somehow the market system needed only a minimum of regulation and was self-perpetuating. If there is any fairly clear lesson to be learnt from this crisis it is that this orthodoxy is a myth. The state is the most important institution for a well-functioning market, not because the state should regulate every minute detail of the market, but because the state must put in place a good legal framework, close monitoring and the willingness of the institutions to use those powers supplied by the state to control the financial market.


The other option is to leave the financial system to its fate in the market, so that the banks and other financial institutions can collapse and become bankrupt like any other business. It is an interesting fact that no government in Europe or North-America was willing to do this. There are various reasons for this but the two most important ones seem to me to be:


(a) First, the risk of contagion, meaning that when one financial institution falls the confidence in the others falls sharply, so that a bank that is in no way insolvent can suddenly become so because people do not trust it any longer. This does not happen in other markets: If a building firm collapses other building firms are not in danger of collapsing and the same does seem to apply generally to the manufacturing industry. What is so special about banks? The reason why financial businesses are not in this position is because they rely so heavily on trust in their operations. A bank is not like a library where money is stacked on every shelf, because the money that you put into your account the bank lends to somebody else, who is willing to pay the interest the bank asks for. So at any time there is only a tiny portion in the bank of the money people have put into it. If there is a run on the bank, it cannot pay all the owners of current accounts their money, even if it is in perfect order. That is the basic reason why we need central banks, banks that lend to other banks, when for some reason or other their own money does not suffice.


(b) The second one seems to me to be the fact that banks have become so important for the everyday life of ordinary members of the public that no government can leave the bank system alone. The smooth running of the banking system has become a matter of security for the public and government is responsible for public security. If government is found wanting in public security this can easily lead to public unrest. This fact, that is, the centrality of the banking system in the life of the members of the modern public is usually overlooked when examining the financial crisis and its importance. 


This book explores what would happen if Ireland defaulted, did not pay any of its debts, only paid some, or paid most of them but not all. It seems to be the case that it will in all probability be impossible for the Irish state to pay all of its debt, because the Irish state decided to underwrite all of the debts of its banking system when it was grinding to a halt. This has had the consequence that public debt in Ireland is so large that it prevents the growth of the economy. Also, since Ireland decided to take up the Euro, it does not have the option of devaluing its own currency. So all roads to renewed profitability are paved with serious difficulties. This does not mean that it is impossible, but it will take a long time. The default of a sovereign state is not the same as the bankruptcy of a large business. It is much more complicated and serious, especially for the citizens of that state. All this is examined in this book.


The book is in four parts. The first part is general, where the authors explore research done on crises and contagion and there is a description of the problems facing Ireland and the possibilities the state has in its public finances. The second part consists of four essays on various aspects of the Irish financial crisis. It will probably have to restructure its debt and this will have to be selectively done; the public debt is analysed and it is discussed if the Irish state will be able to finance its public debt on the market when it returns there or whether the interest rate that the market requires will be unsustainable. One essay explores how Ireland´s problems are connected to the problems of the Euro. The third part collects five reflections on financial crises in other countries: Russia, Iceland, Argentina and New York. The fourth part is a collection of essays from various Irish perspectives on the debt and possible default of the Irish state.


This is an important book that deserves to be widely read. Every essay adds something to the panorama and at the end the reader is in a better position to evaluate the possibilities. The viewpoints are clearly expressed and well argued and even though acronyms are to be expected in this field of research they are kept to a minimum and should not prevent understanding of the issues. The arguments expressed here have relevance for many states in Europe at present.





Páll Björnsson, Jón forseti allur? Táknmyndir þjóðhetju frá andláti til samtíðar (Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 2011)

When taking into consideration the warm reception the book has received, as well as the prestigious awards, one ponders upon whether the nation is relieved by the loss of its leading political patron? Or whether this acceptance unveils tolerance towards anyone who tries to tarnish the president’s image. Páll Björnsson deconstructs the very icon that was consciously constructed of Jón Sigurðsson for a political purpose.

The story begins in a society of inequality. The funeral procession in Reykjavík in the spring of 1880 when President Jón Sigurðsson (hereafter “President Jón”) and his wife Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir (1804 -1879) were reburied, was deliberately divided by class and gender. In the very farewell of the nation to President Jón, the occasion token was used for reproducing the existing social inequalities. Women were assigned a lower status in the celebrations to commemorate President Jón. Also, there was lack of consideration towards President Jón’s widow during the preparations for President Jón’s funeral in Copenhagen in December 1879, which was organised in such a way as to promote political consolidation. Páll Björnsson writes the book from a gender point of view, thus making it an uncomfortable reminder of the national patron’s lack of stand when it came to the one of the most controversial issues in political debate of the age.


Páll Björnsson analyses how the political icon of President Jón was cultivated by the new media (newspapers) by appealing to emotions, whereby sorrow was converted into national mourning, remembrance into national commemoration, and funerals into national festivities. This analysis is welcomed by the reader who interprets the political presence of President Jón in modern politics after his death as a key-factor in a nation-building process. where the inhabitants of a country have been transformed into a political nation that is able to have a state of its own. Páll Björnsson does not specifically mention this, but President Jón himself lead actual Icelandic politics, which for decades prevented the parliament of Iceland (Alþingi) from acquiring a treasury under its own power for the sake of implementing a nation-building policy.


The publication of the book has not resulted in the loss of the overnight loss of the icon of Presidet Jón as regards the legitimisation of political authority in modern society. On Iceland’s national day of 2010, the Icelandic Minister of Education referred to his ideas on educational matters in a speech held at President Jón’s birthplace in Hrafnseyri. Páll Björnsson questions, in a footnote, whether President Jón was a prime mover in educating the nation as hitherto believed. His school-policy did not gain ground in his lifetime. Quite the opposite, the focus on independence politics made it impossible for Icelanders to establish a comprehensive school-system as other nations did in that period.


Páll Björnsson‘s book is not about President Jón himself, his life and actions. The book is about diverse exploitation of him as an icon, from souvenir production to image creation of big companies. The book is about Icelanders and how an image has been utilised for political purposes. In the beginning, this was done to preserve a society divided by class, gender, age groups and regions, characterised by the authorities’ fear of common people’s political organisation. The endeavor was to create a single opinion in a disparate society. Páll Björnsson infers how powerful a political weapon the image of President Jón was for those who wanted him in their camp. All stakeholders wanted to have a share in him as their icon of choice.


Páll Björnsson also concludes how difficult it has been for state authorities to honour their duty to pay respect to the “the legacy of President Jón” (pp. 183-211). We read about the problematic realisation of the objectification of the icon in such a way that it can be more than just that. For one, the difficulties in finding an objective for the rebuilding of President Jón’s birthplace at Hrafnseyri in a remote and depopulated area, or in justifying what kind of function it would have. However, the couple’s sepulcher in Reykjavík found its function, while the real success story is the statue standing opposite Alþingi. Páll Björnsson’s book is a contribution to the analysis of the original legend of the birth of a Republic. President Jón himself spent most of his life in Copenhagen, the capital of the Danish North-Western-Atlantic empire. The icon-creators realised the importance of an untainted image of the unequivocally Icelandic Jón Sigurðsson. This can be interpreted as the solution of the paradox for nationalistic thinking of a national -hero who chose to live amidst the claimed oppressors.


The author uses in an original way the fact that the ship carrying the bodies of the couple for the funeral in Iceland had the name of the mythological Phoenix, the bird that in our culture symbolises renewal. President Jón was renewed. Here the reader calls for further analysis of the Jesus-like symbolism that can be found in the writings on President Jón in the first decades after his demise. There are many examples therein of religious symbols being replaced with political ones during a time of secularisation in Western societies. It is clear that the book rests on a theoretical analysis and that the discourse in Iceland on the ideological roots of the Republic calls for theoretical writings on this issue. Here, however, we merely have a description.


Páll Björnsson quizzes the nation on President Jón as a good teacher would do. This is done by using questionnaire (N 1363, response rate 70%). The answers are analysed by gender, age, region and schooling. The result is that image is superior to knowledge. Only a minority knows well the life and work of President Jón and why he was given the title “President”. Highly educated males in the prime of life know President Jón best, other groups less so. However, the majority regard President Jón as an important unifying symbol for the nation, consider it right to honour his memory and are proud of him.


The acceptance that characterises the response to the book Páll Björnsson has written is justifiable. Páll Björnsson enters a new field in the research on President Jón’s legacy. The book is an elaborate treatise. You can appreciate this elaboration even just by looking at the carefully chosen pictures. Some are in colour. Viewed as a whole, the pictures tell us as critical a story as the written text itself. Interestingly, President Jón is revealed as two different characters in two different paintings, as a bronze statue in fabrication, alongside gentlemen, protesters, extremists, women, students, commoners and in a teargas haze. The narrative is lively. The footnotes are quite many and often replicating the text of the sources, thus deepening the premises for the descriptions in the text. The book offers lists of people’s names, pictures and sources. No misspellings or grammatical errors could be found.


This review discussed whether the warm reception of a critical book on a national-hero at his bicentenary represents tolerance towards a new sentiment on President Jón or a liberation from his enduring authority. The book on President Jón written by Páll Björnsson offers the nation a chance to reunite with an ex-national -hero and finds it difficult to understand why he is still so politically massive in spite of his physical absence.


“Karlson” – A Stasi “Kontakt Person”. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy



Iceland’s geographical position gave this small nation a special strategic importance in the political and military chess game between east and west during the Cold War era. Placed in the mid Atlantic, Iceland constituted an important post for the NATO defence forces and surveillance activities. This importance can be seen in the presence of American troops at a NATO base in Keflavik from 1951 until 2004. The military base and the NATO alignment created stark divisions among the population and was one of two major cleavages that characterized Icelandic politics throughout the post- WWII era, especially during the Cold War. The other cleavage that marked Icelandic politics of the time was the left-right dimension. The four traditional parties of the Icelandic party system ranked in a different order on these two continuums, with the right wing Independence Party allying with the Social Democrats in its support for NATO and the military base, while the centre agrarian Progressive Party supported NATO membership but joined forces with the Socialist Party in the opposition to the military base. The Socialists however were stern opponents of both the base and NATO membership, while they expressed sympathetic views for the People’s Democratic Republics in the eastern bloc.[1] Left wing socialists held up ties with their sister parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, while bourgeois politicians cultivated their links with western or mainly American liberal democracy.  The political discussion was framed in terms of the Cold War and the press, which throughout most of the 20th century was a party press, continuously suggested that the political motives of their opponents were conspicuously linked to or derived from either the interests of Soviet or Eastern European communism or US capitalist imperialism.

It was in this circumstances that in the fifties and sixties young left wing people sought to undertake their university education in the Eastern block and more often than not the Socialist Party in Iceland (SEI) was in one way or another the go-between in arranging for such student positions. Many of these left wing students kept contact with each other even though they did not study in the same place or country. At a point in the late fifties these students had formed an organisation, SÍA, Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga Austantjalds (The Society of Socialist Icelanders in the Eastern Bloc) that had considerable influence within SEI, the Icelandic Socialist Party.[2] In 1962 members of the youth organisation of the conservative Independence Party managed to get hold of – in fact steal – some of the internal correspondence of the SÍA group and subsequently the correspondence was published letter by letter in the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið along with some political explanations from a right wing standpoint. The correspondence was also published by the Conservative youth organization, Heimdallur, in a special booklet labelled the “Red Book”. Remarkable as it may sound, the correspondence between the Icelandic students in SÍA shows a great deal of criticism of the socialist system as practiced in the Eastern bloc, though in general of course their views were very sympathetic to the People’s Democratic Republics. From the standpoint of the conservatives in Iceland the purpose of the publication of the SÍA correspondence was to show that the students in Eastern Europe, along with the Socialist Party of Iceland, were plotting a communist takeover in cooperation with their communist allies in the east, even though they knew that the system was not working well and had all sorts of flaws.[3] This whole affair exemplifies the frenzy and the tone of the political discussion in Iceland during the Cold War and the suspicion that was created around the students that studied in the Eastern Bloc.

The legacy of heated feelings of the Cold War has in many ways survived the Cold War itself. The demand for some sort of reckoning or historical rectification has frequently come up, particularly in relation to the publication of documents that have become accessible after the fall of communism. This has been felt in Iceland mainly at a general political level but its implications have also been personal – putting the spotlight on the individuals that supported communism and in particular those who studied in the Democratic People’s Republics, not the least the German Democratic Republic. This paper will examine to what extent demands for a historical reckoning are relevant by looking at a particular case that can be found in the Stasi archives. By conducting a case study of this kind, a light is shed on important factors that tend to be lost in the more ideological and normative public political discussion. The case examined is the one of a young student who became a Stasi informer in the early 1960s, know as “Kontakt Person Karlsson”.


“Kontact Person (KP) Karlson”

According to the archives of East Germanys State security service (Stasi) one Icelandic student cooperated with the Stasi while studying in East Germany.[4] His name was Guðmundur Ágústsson, who after returning to Iceland became a bank manager. In 1959 he arrived as a young student via Vienna in East Germany, where he first attended a language course in Leipzig before taking up his studies at the University of Economics in Berlin-Karlshorst. Later his sister followed him to East Berlin.

On the 9 February 1963, four years after entering East Germany, a note is found in the Stasi files concerning “making contact with the person”.[5] Before this remark in the files, the Stasi had already gathered information about Guðmundur Ágústsson , since a report explains that he seemed to be “open towards our problems”.[6] In this first description of Guðmundur Ágústsson to be found in the files, his appearance is described as “modest and dutiful”, also his “perfect moral conduct” is underlined,[7] contrary to the one of his sister who, according to the report, is “in some cases very impulsive”.[8]

According to the minutes of the first meeting between the Lieutenant Koch as representative of the Stasi and Guðmundur Ágústsson, Koch explained to the Icelandic student that lately pubic disorder in East Germany was increasingly initiated through West Berlin and therefore it was necessary for GDR “to take measures against the enemy’s intentions. In order to do so we have to involve foreigners, and since we knew that he [Guðmundur Ágústsson] was a member of our brother party SEI, we have turned to his person”.[9] According to the minutes Guðmundur Ágústsson answered positively to the request of the Stasi; he agreed to visit West Berlin and establish contacts with students there as well as to report on activities at the University of Economics where he studied.

Guðmundur Ágústsson was, according to the Stasi files, one of 25 Icelandic students studying at the time in the GDR. All were members of the SEI. They all came to East Germany through the mediation of the SEI or the Federation of Icelandic Trade Unions. During their first meeting Lieutenant Koch asked Guðmundur Ágústsson not to talk with anyone about his contact to the Stasi and they agreed to use the codename “Karlson” for him. After this meeting the Stasi run “Karlson” as a “Kontakt Person” (KP) in its files. “Kontakt Persons” were individuals used by the Stasi, sometimes without their knowledge, but also, as in this case, people who knowingly cooperated with the Stasi. “Karlson” knew, as the documents indicate, that his interlocutors were working for the Stasi.

“Karlson’s” first job assignment consisted of establishing a contact with an Icelandic student in West Berlin, “with the aim of assessing if this contact could be further exploited”. In order to do so “Karlson” should find out, “with whom he [the friend] has contact”, and further, he should report about groups and “their participation in actions against the anti-fascist protective barrier” (meaning the Berlin Wall)[10] and evaluate the general mood in West Berlin. “Karlson”, according to the minutes, agreed to do so. But he did not agree to introduce his acquaintances in West Berlin to the Stasi.[11] The reason he gave was that in his opinion the friend “was politically not ready”.[12] However “Karlson” proposed approaching another Icelander in West Berlin who might be willing to cooperate with the Stasi. According to “Karlson” this was a friend who had gotten an invitation from the Free University of Berlin to become a lecturer. The minutes state that at this time it had not yet been decided whether the acquaintance would accept the job at the Free University or not, because in the words of “Karlson”, a “decision on this matter would be made by the SEI”.[13]

Five weeks later at the following meeting “Karlson” could not report much, because he had not traveled to West Berlin. However, he had by now learned that his friend would take the position at the Free University in West Berlin. Until the year 1962 the acquaintance had been working as a lecturer at the University of Greifswald. Both he and his wife were members of the SEI. “The KP estimated the [name blackened] as a very humorous and outgoing person, who sometimes because of his comical appearance, his physique and his facial expressions is viewed as ridiculous.”[14]

Furthermore, “Karlson” reported in this meeting that he had recently received another visit from an Icelander, but he was politically not organized and in “his political development not yet mature”. Therefore “Karlson” declined bringing him into contact with the Stasi. In addition the Stasi noted in the minutes of the meeting that the KP would “soon get his own flat on the basis of his collaboration and his political work.”[15]

In May 1963 Lieutenant Koch gave his first evaluation of his Icelandic spy:

The [Kontact Person] is honest in the cooperation, but had not yet been reviewed. He takes his tasks seriously, makes his own proposals and he is venturous. His [cooperation] is based on conviction.

Control: Regular meetings every 14 days in the CA [Conspiratorial Apartment].

Range of duty: Supply of suitable candidates for recruitment. Naming appropriate candidates, as well as being used on special occasions in West Berlin.”[16]

In the following meeting “Karlson” and his Stasi officer discussed mainly how to establish the actual contact with the Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in Berlin. First of all, it was agreed that there was “no need to pretend to be a member of the press, but the KP should just contact him as an employee of the Stasi”.[17] “Karlson” agreed to organize the meeting. During the meeting they discussed three more Icelandic students living in West Berlin, but the minutes state that “Karlson” did not want to be the person who “arranges the meeting”.[18] Therefore they agreed on a different approach: while “Karlson” would celebrate the moving into his new apartment with the Icelanders from West Berlin, he would contact the Stasi as soon as his Icelandic friends would leave. On the way back to West Berlin the Stasi would have then the possibility “to address” the Icelanders at the checkpoint in Friedrichstraße: “this way the (KP) would be kept out from the conversation and the staff can safely carry out their own conversation.”[19]

At this meeting it was further agreed that “Karlson” would participate at the upcoming regional Social Democratic Party Congress as a member of the media and report to the Stasi about it. Furthermore he should monitor the preparations for the rallies on May 1 in West Berlin. One day before the first of May “Karlson” received specific instructions. In particular, he should find out where the loudspeaker van with the “inflammatory agitation” was stationed that was supposed to “disturb the activities on May 1 in democratic Berlin”.[20]

During this meeting the status of the recruitment of the Icelandic lecturer was also discussed. According to “Karlson” the Icelandic lecturer wanted to find out whether the people whom he would meet were “really from the Stasi”.[21] Furthermore, the Icelandic lecturer informed “Karlson” that the Senate of the Free University of Berlin had told him that they were informed about his membership in the SEI. They also warned him not to get involved with “Russian agents”.[22]

At the next meeting, on the 1st of May, “the Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ had returned from his excursion to West Berlin and shared his observations about the deployment of the police, the position of the radio car, the tribune and more, which were then immediately submitted to the headquarter.”[23]

According to the minutes of the meetings “Karlson” reported about his intended trip to England, France and Italy. The minutes end with the note that the next meetings will be arranged by phone. Although there are no further minutes of meetings to be found in the archives, one can assume that the contact continued, since a receipt exists for the 28 January 1964 with the note: “The Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ was given 50 DM for costs.”[24]

On 20th of November 1964, Lieutenant Koch closed the file, since “Karlson” had returned to Iceland. The file contains also the exact statistics of the border crossings by “Karlson” to West Berlin, and thanks to the collection of data by the Stasi, we also know that “Karlson” for example, on the 4th of February 1964, brought “2 nylon shirts; 2 pairs of women’s stockings, 20 PCs. cigarillos (Intershop); 250 gr coffee and 1 kg bananas”[25] from West Berlin to East Berlin.

The Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin refused being recruited by the Stasi. On the 19 December 1963 one meeting had taken place between the lecturer and the Stasi at Café Sofia in East Berlin. At this meeting the Icelander stressed the “security of his person”. He said that “if the contact should become known it would have serious consequences for the party and him.” He also pointed out in this context the “unprofessional work of the security organs of the Soviet Union concerning the radar station in Iceland, where arrests had been made and which greatly damaged the reputation of the Soviet Union and caused great dismay for the comrades of the SEI.”[26] Lieutenant Koch was not very optimistic about a possible cooperation, since the Icelandic lecturer said that he “does not want to have anything to do with the secret service”.[27] But at least the reader of the files learns that the Icelander was very “sloppily dressed”, wore summer shoes in December and “a grey suit, a red shirt and a blue tie”.[28]


“Kontakt Person Karlson” revisited

In Iceland a discussion of the relations between Icelanders, Communist parties and secret service organizations in the eastern bloc have regularly surfaced – not only throughout the Cold War but also in the post Cold War era. Several times the issue has come up whether some Icelander had been working for Stasi.[29]

In early February 1995 a documentary film, “Í nafni sósíalismans”, (In the Name of Socialism) by the historian Valur Ingimundarsson and the journalist Árni Snævarr was shown by RÚV, the Icelandic State Broadcasting Television. The film was based on some documents that the authors had had access to after the opening of the Stasi archives in Germany and it spurred some discussion in the Icelandic media.[30] The name of the banker Guðmundur Ágústsson came up, as it appeared that he had been a Stasi agent in the period 1963-1964. The documentary claimed that Guðmundur Ágústsson had the codename “Karlson” in the Stasi files, and that one of his missions was to recruit Árni Björnsson, who at the time was a guest lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin. Árni acknowledges in the film that he had had some encounters with the Stasi, but that he had not answered indirect requests for him to become an informer for the secret organization. He does however mention an incident when his nice had been visiting him and had gone to a theatre show in East Berlin. When she did not return, Árni Björnsson became worried and went to a border control gate to ask about her. There Árni was detained for a while, until a Stasi officer came and asked if he had not received a message from them some while ago. Árni Björnsson acknowledged that and asked about his nice. There were no news of the girl, but in light of the circumstances Árni Björnsson thought it would be wise to agree to meet with the officer two weeks later. He says that he met with a Stasi officer two weeks later in a coffee shop and that was the end of it.

On the other hand, Guðmundur Ágústsson, alias “Karlson”, had refused to talk to the makers of the documentary, so his side of the story appeared in a newspaper only after the film had been shown on national TV. In an exclusive interview with the newspaper DV, Guðmundur Ágústsson explains that he had agreed to do some trivial exercises for Stasi in order to secure his own peace and eventually a safe passage home for him, his German wife and their child. Guðmundur Ágústsson refers to his contact person at Stasi (Lieutenant Koch) as the “young man with the cigarette”. He tells of a “spy mission” to West Berlin in the following way:

I met the young man with the cigarette and he asked me if I could go over to West Berlin and check if there was a military truck convoy in a certain boulevard in the southern part of the city. I was also supposed to stop by the Wall there in the neighborhood and see if a big hole was being dug in the ground behind a hill. I went to these places, but there were no army trucks, no digging and no hole. So I stood there like a fool. I went back and told the young man that nothing was there. That was the last I heard from Stasi. I probably did not pass the test or possibly Stasi was just training the young man in talking to somebody.[31] 

Later in the interview Guðmundur Ágústsson reflects on the documentary value of the Stasi files about himself. “I understand that there is a large folder on me in the Stasi archives. I do not think I want to see it. But the documents are there and people must then remember that the text that is written there is just what a man with a cigarette thought about me. He might even have been trying to look good in the eyes of his superiors. I never wrote a single letter for them.”

As it is apparent by now, two parallel stories have been told of the same course of actions involving  “Karlson”. On the one hand there are the files written by Lieutenant Koch, whilst on the other there are the stories and experiences as these are remembered by both Guðmundur Ágústsson, the student, and Árni Björnsson, the lecturer. Much of the factual evidence comes forth in both stories, but the interpretation and explanations of what actually happened and what it meant is very different.
Whose truth? – a discussion

After the Berlin wall came down and the Stasi archives were opened the news came to Iceland that Guðmundur Ágústsson had been a Stasi informer in 1963-1964. More than 30 years later, in 1995, Guðmundur Ágústsson had to explain to the Icelandic press that by cooperating with Stasi he had “secured himself peace and a safe passage home with his German wife and child”.[32] And still just over ten years after the explanations in the DV newspaper, Árni Björnsson, who was the friend of Guðmundur Ágústsson that worked and lived in West Berlin in 1963-1964, came forth in the scholarly magazine Þjóðmál to explain his involvement with Guðmundur Ágústsson and Stasi. Árni Björnsson was reacting to another article in the magazine where he was named as a likely Stasi informant.[33] The title of Árni Björnsson’s article is “Stasi and I. What is the truth?” He does not takes issue with the Stasi files themselves or even the reports by the Stasi officer that approached him, but points out that they are based on the officer´s personal interpretation, social conditions and circumstances. He therefore asks whether that interpretation is necessarily the whole truth.  In other words, Árni Björnsson is suggesting a cautious approach in interpreting the files and documents that can be found in the Stasi archives.

At least two lessons can be derived from comparing the two different accounts at issue. Firstly, it seems clear that Stasi did not necessarily ask its Icelandic informers to collect sensitive or hidden information, but asked for all sorts of public information, such as reporting about public student meetings and the curriculum of the Free University. This could make the Stasi request for cooperation look almost trivial to the student in question, so much that it would seem irrational to refuse such a small favour and risk being considered uncooperative by such a powerful organization as Stasi was then.

Secondly, the Stasi files give us a fragmented and indeed limited view of what really was going on. This is due to three main factors:

a) The nature of the reports to be filled out gives limited space for accounting for different and sometimes complex situations.
b) The evaluation and interpretation of the writer of the report is subjective and coloured by Marxist ideological phrases. Furthermore the reports are written by officers for their superiors and it can be expected that things that might be thought interesting for the secret police are overemphasized.
c) The fact that some of the files and reports may be missing limits their comprehensiveness.

In light of the latter point, an important lesson can be learned about the way in which documents and reports of official agencies not meant for publication, be they secret agencies or ordinary embassies, should be interpreted. To be sure, uncovering such secret files can provide valuable and important information, as recent WikiLeaks documents on embassies have shown, for instance. However, such documents call for careful consideration of the circumstances in which they were written and of the values and motivations of those who wrote the files. The limitation of the files makes them useful for political polemics, since they leave so much space for interpretation, but not for careful, detailed historical accounts of the past. And last but not the least, one may also just be stunned by their banality.



Guðmundsson, Birgir and Meckl, Markus, 2008, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

Knabe, Hubertus,1999, West-Arbeit des MfS. Das Zusammenspiel von „Aufklärung“ und „Abwehr“Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin

Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík

Snævarr, Árni and Ingimundarson, Valur, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík


[1] Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (1977) The Icelandic Multilevel Coalition System. Expanded version of a chapter in E. Browne (ed) Cabinet Coalitions in Western Democracies. Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavík.

[2] Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík bls. 212-213

[3] Ibid pp. 214

[4] In the archives of the Stasi there are approximately 250 pages concerning Iceland. Among the material is one folder concerning the collaboration of an Icelander with the secret service. A complete overview over the material found is given in Icelandic in the article: Birgir Guðmundsson and Markus Meckl, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

[5] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 9.

[6] Investigation report, ibid. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 5

[9] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 10.

[10] Minutes of the Meeting, 20. 2. 1963, ibid. 13.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 14

[14] Minutes of the Meeting for the 15.3.1963, p. 15-16.

[15] Ibid p. 16.

[16] Assessment of “Carlsson”, dated on the 7.5. 1963, ibid p. 18. In the documents one can find different spellings for “Karlson”.

[17] Minutes of the Meeting for the 19. 4. 1963, ibid. 19.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 20.

[20] Minutes of the meeting, 30. 4.1963, p. 21.

[21]Ibid. 21.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Report from 6 May 1963, ibid, page 23.

[24] Recipt, 28.1.1964, ibid., page 27.

[25] BStU 12225/66

[26] Report of the 20 12 1963, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, p. 29 f. The matter the lecturer might be referring to here is an episode often called “The Hafravatns case” that came up in February 1963. Two deputies from the Soviet Embassy were expelled from Iceland for trying to recruit an Icelandic man as a spy. See: “Miklu fargi af mér létt”, Morgunblaðið 28th February, 1963 pp. 23-24

[27] Ibid. 33.

[28] Ibid.

[29] For a discussion of these connections between Icelanders and the Eastern Bloc see e.g.: Árni Snævarr and Valur Ingimundarson, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík; Jón Ólafsson, 1999, Kæru félagar, Mál og menning, reykjavík ; Rauða bókin :leyniskýrslur SÍA, 1984, Heimdallur, Reykjaví k; Helgi Hannesson, 1989, “Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga austantjalds og SÍA skjölin 1956-63”, Háskóli Íslands. Sagnfræðistofnun Ritröð sagnfræðinema, Reykjavík.

[30] See Morgunblaðið web page: http://www.mbl.is/mm/gagnasafn/grein.html?grein_id=176466 and DV, daily on the 6th and the 7th of February 1995.

[31] „Fékk frið og heimferð fyrir konu og barn“, DV 7th of February 1995

[32] DV, daily newspaper. 7.th of February, 1995 pp. 1-2

[33] Árni Björnsson, „Stasi og ég. Hvað er sannleikur“. Þjóðmál II:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 28

Aðalheiður Ámundadóttir & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Mannréttindi í þrengingum: Efnahagsleg og félagsleg réttindi í kreppunni (Akureyri-Reykjavík: Háskólinn á Akureyri og Mannréttindaskrifstofa Íslands, 2011)

Three of the biggest Icelandic banks, which had been privatized in the late 1990s and early 2000s, collapsed and were taken into public ownership. An economic collapse was a fact and the former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde asked God to bless the Icelandic nation at a press conference in October 2008. Certainly, the crisis (kreppa) was not a nightmare we would wake up from, but a reality that had to be dealt with. The next step was when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was called in to organize a crisis management program. Then the currency collapsed. The unemployment rate has since been on the increase; from 1.5% in September 2008 to 8.7% in May 2009 with others taking wage cuts and/or cuts in working hours.


Although the everyday life of the Icelandic general public was in some way perceivably paralyzed in the fall 2008, people began to revive themselves. It was at this time that “The Kitchenware Revolution? was conceived in Iceland. The general public started a massive protest against the government. Icelanders, who have no great tradition of political resistance, rallied in the streets with their pots and pans. In front of Althingi (the national Parliament) people knocked upon their household utensils. January 2009 witnessed masses of people who gathered everyday, aiming to disturb the operations of the parliament, demanding that the government resign. For the first time since 1949, when Iceland’s entry into NATO was objected to, the police used tear gas to keep protesters back from the Althingi. Icelandic society was experiencing formerly unknown turbulence.


The Kitchenware Revolution won its first victory on the 23rd of January 2009, as the government resigned. New elections were called for and took place on the 25th of April 2009. The new government elected confronted the great task of “saving? Iceland from bankruptcy without jeopardizing its rather strong welfare system. For that to be possible it is obvious that the prosperous population of Iceland has to adjust to a new way of living. During these times of kreppa and turbulence both the national government and the municipalities have been facing huge decline in their annual budgets and the undertaking of cutbacks in services has been the biggest task ever since.


It was, and still is, a huge project to restructure the welfare system during these times of great cuts in national budgets. During such difficult times a book like ‘Human rights in crisis: Economic and social rights during an economic crisis’ is greatly appreciated. Not only is it the first research conducted after the economic collapse focusing on human rights issues; it also provides valuable guidelines for those working in the public sector and raises the issue of the importance of awareness of human rights in it.


By outlining some of the main issues of the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, the authors provide valuable guidelines on how the national and the local governments can avoid infringing the human rights of the citizens when cutting down expenses. As the authors Aðalheiður Ámundadóttir and Dr. Rachael Lorna Johnstone point out, it is more important than ever to appraise human rights during financial decline.


The main aim of the book is twofold; firstly to serve as a guide for Icelandic politicians, officialdom and the general public on economic, social and cultural human rights during times of economic crisis, as it outlines what these rights are and how they can be secured and accomplished through laws and policy making. Secondly, to increase the nation’s general knowledge in the field of economic, social and cultural rights. As the authors of the book recognize clearly, it is during times of kreppa that the task of protecting human rights may very well be more important than ever. A primary reason is that during such difficult times the economic situation tends to overshadow every other aspect of society, and the commonly heard phrase “it is not the right time to focus on this now” tends to distract people from other pressing issues and important accomplishments such as first and foremost protecting the actual human rights of the citizens.


Although Iceland has been a country of prosperity, human rights issues can be argued to have rather been in the shadow of public discourse on citizen’s wellbeing. The focus has been on the ‘welfare’ of the citizens, which of course is deeply related to human rights, but does not coincide with it. Indeed, the book casts light on how one of the main issues of past Icelandic governments has been to protect the general public’s welfare, sometimes in conflict with human rights considerations. The book’s body is built around the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights and Ámundadóttir and Johnstone argue convincingly why they choose to build on this specific covenant rather then than theInternational Covenant on Civil and Political rights.


The aim of the book to increase knowledge and educate about the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights and human rights issues in general is well conceived. The book starts with very informative chapters on the Covenant; its geneses and its role within the nation states and the work of its UN committee. Iceland’s legal obligations are also extensively discussed, since the covenant has been long ratified. Also, there is a chapter that outlines the essence and intentions of the commitments undertaken by the member states.


Since the book is designed for people working in the public sector with very diverse backgrounds and knowledge of the existing laws, these chapters are very enlightening and essential for further understanding the foundations of the covenant and, no less importantly, how it can be applied to policy and planning during times of restructuring and retrenchments in public services. The authors manage to explain the ideology of and the key-concepts pertaining to economic, social and cultural human rights clearly and in a helpful way, also for persons with no legal background. The reader obtains a good overview of the central tenets of the covenant and is likely to be better informed on how retrenchment has to be considered with regard to protecting human rights during economic decline. Good examples of these are the clear explanation of ‘progressive realization of rights’ and ‘progressive-regressive measures’.


Chapters engaging with specific issues of the Covenant in the Icelandic perspective follow these first instructive chapters. Ámundadóttir and Johnstone explain their choice of using the examples of employment rights, social rights and rights to education to outline the implementation of the covenant in Iceland before and after the economic crises. It can be argued that they could have taken different examples from the Covenant, or that it would have been helpful to use more than just three specific fields. However, it can also be argued that the authors manage to give a very concrete representation through their choice of specific fields, especially concerning the aim of the book to serve as a guide for national and local government and officialdom.


As stated above, the unemployment rate in Iceland has risen enormously since the fall of 2008. The chapter on the right to employment gives important insights on how governmental policy and regulations impact human rights and what has to be taken into consideration to keep the commitments under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. The authors give examples about certain things that have worked out well despite decline in budgeting; and they very well advise on what has to be taken into improved consideration in respect of the economic, social and cultural rights. The standpoint of the book is very relevant for the public sector and easy to learn from as it is summarized in a very resoluted manner and without any preciosity.


A good example is when Ámundadóttir and Johnstone point out how changes in regulations concerning the rights of students to unemployment benefits greatly affect their possibilities to make a living during the summer months, since the Icelandic Student Loan Fund only lends funds to students during a nine-month period each year. Therefore these changes in regulation concerning unemployment benefits leave students that do not have a summer job out of their right to enjoy the benefits of the welfare system. This is just one example on how the authors provide constructive illustrations on the subject matters, which gives the reader an idea of what kind of problems they can expect to approach during cutbacks in the public sector and in what ways they might be solved without violating human rights.


The book is in general written in an approachable language suitable for any reader. My conclusion is that Ámundadóttir and Johnstone reach the aims of their book, which is very enlightening and informative and manages to clear the line between ‘welfare’ and ‘human rights’. But as the authors state in the book, the Icelandic focus on ‘welfare’ has somehow shrug off the great importance of respecting human rights. The difference between those two concepts has not been clear enough, neither in political nor in public discourse. The book does deepen the understanding of the importance that the people who participate in the decision-making process with regards to economic, social and cultural rights. As well as it underlines the importance that the citizens themselves be aware of their rights.


This book is also an important contribution to human rights education in Iceland, a field which has been neglected by the educational system. Therefore this book is treasured even more for politicians, public officials and the general public. As Ámundadóttir and Johnstone underline correctly, there is great need to increase human rights awareness in Icelandic society, not least during these times of crisis, in order to enable politicians and public officials to make decisions based on enlightened knowledge of human rights, thus avoiding violations of basic rights of the population. It is also in the interest of the citizens to be more knowledgeable about their human rights, as it helps them to experience themselves as rightful owners rather than receivers of charity and enjoy human rights with dignity.


Today’s demand is resting on open, transparent and trustworthy administration; this book can help to direct us toward that path. It has to be distributed widely among officials and politicians in national as well as municipal governments for the benefit of the wellbeing of all Icelandic citizens and in order to minimize the negative effects of the crisis during times of retrenchment.