Disappointed in Icelandic Government’s Response to Gaza

Icelandic government Palestine protest

Locals in Iceland have held regular protests outside the Icelandic government’s cabinet meetings since the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas began on October 7. Protesters are calling on the government to condemn Israeli authorities for their actions and use its influence to call for a ceasefire in the conflict. Iceland abstained from voting on a ceasefire in an emergency meeting of the UN last month.

Call on government to condemn Israel’s actions

“We are here to tell the government of Iceland that it has not done its job in these matters, because it has only condemned Hamas. It has not yet gotten around to condemning Israel and the atrocities that are currently being committed. And the performance at the UN is of course shameful,” Hjálmtýr Heiðdal, chairman of the Iceland-Palestine Association, told RÚV reporters at this morning’s protest. A sizeable group gathered to wave flags, chant in support of Palestine, and express their disappointment towards cabinet ministers.

Iceland was the first Western country to officially recognise Palestine’s independence and support for the Palestinian cause is fairly strong among the Icelandic public. The Iceland-Palestine Association chaired by Hjálmtýr was founded in 1987.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson, who recently took on the position after resigning as Minister of Finance stated that he was not consulted on the UN General Assembly ceasefire vote. In a recent press conference, he refused to call Israel’s bombing of refugee camp Jabalia as an “attack on a refugee camp,” insisting it was “a matter of how you approach it.”

Ambiguity on If, When, and How Ministers Will Be Shuffled

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

When Icleand’s current government took power in November 2021, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson stated that Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir would take over the Ministry of Justice from Jón Gunnarsson within 18 months. More than 21 months later, however, Jón Gunnarsson remains in the post. Bjarni recently told RÚV that Guðrún would be appointed minister within the coming days, but not necessarily over the Ministry of Justice.

Bjarni Benediktsson is the chairman of the Independence Party, of which both Jón and Guðrún are members. The constituency council of South Iceland, Guðrún’s constituency, sent Bjarni a letter last week encouraging him to fulfill his promise of making their representative minister. “I am grateful to feel the broad support there is for me in the constituency and it shows that the South Iceland constituency has become very impatient,” Guðrún stated at the end of last week. She added, however, that she had not discussed the issue with Bjarni recently and that she had not heard anything about the potential ministerial assignment.

RÚV reported yesterday that some Independence Party members from Guðrún’s constituency, as well as others from East Iceland, had encouraged Bjarni to keep Jón in the cabinet.

Sweeping decisions marked by controversy

Jón’s tenure as Minister of Justice been marked by large-scale decisions regarding both law enforcement and immigration, many of them controversial. He unilaterally passed a regulation to arm Icelandic police with electroshock weapons, a move the Parliamentary Ombudsman later concluded was a breach of procedure. A bill on increased police powers introduced by Jón and since made law by Alþingi, was criticised by the Icelandic Bar Association for granting police the authority to surveil those who had not been suspected of criminal activity.

Under Jón’s direction, the Directorate of Immigration withheld data from Parliament, delaying the processing of citizenship applications. In April, the Minister promised additional tightening of asylum seeker regulations and introduced a bill that would increase financial incentives for asylum seekers who left Iceland voluntarily. Jón’s initial appointment was criticised by opposition MPs due to his record on women’s rights.

Minister Titles Finalised, Changes to Cost ISK 1.8 Billion

government cabinet

Is Jón Gunnarsson Iceland’s Minister of the Interior or Minister of Justice? It has been a difficult question to answer since Iceland’s newest government took power in November. The government has not only shuffled ministry appointments, but changed the number of ministries as well as their names and assignments, since last term. RÚV reports that the minsters’ titles have now been finalised by presidential ruling, and the changes are expected to cost the treasury ISK 1.8 billion [$14.1 million, €12.5 million] this term.

Six ministers have the same titles as those announced last November. Katrín Jakobsdóttir keeps the title of Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson the title of Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, and Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson the title of Minister of Infrastructure. Willum Þór Þórsson remains the Minister of Health, Ásmundur Einar Daðason the Minister of Education and Children, and Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson the Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate.

Ruling Changed Titles of Six Ministers

The other six ministers received a new title with the presidential rulings. Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, originally announced as the Minister of Science, Industry, and Innovation, will now be the Minister of Higher Education, Industry, and Innovation. Svandís Svavarsdóttir will no longer be known as the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, rather the Minister of Food. Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, originally the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation, will simply be known as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir’s title will also be shortened from Minister of Tourism, Trade, and Culture, to Minister of Trade and Culture. The same goes for Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, who will no longer be the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market, rather simply the Social and Labour Market Minister. Jón Gunnarson, who was initially announced as Interior Minister, will be known as the Minister of Justice.

According to a recent response in Parliament, the cost of shuffling the ministries and changing the titles could cost up to ISK 1.8 billion [$14.1 million, €12.5 million] this term.

Iceland to Receive Additional Refugees from Afghanistan

Iceland’s cabinet approved a motion this morning to receive an additional 35-70 people from Afghanistan due to the current situation in the country following its takeover by the Taliban. Iceland received a group of refugees from the country last autumn. A notice from the government states that living conditions in the Middle Eastern country have been deteriorating rapidly in recent months and the government considers it urgent to take further action. Single women in a vulnerable position who have close ties to Iceland, as well as their children, will be prioritised.

“Due to unrest and disintegration following the Taliban’s takeover, the government agreed at its meeting on August 24, 2021 to assistant and receive a specified group of Afghans with ties to Iceland,” the notice reads. “At the suggestion of the Refugee Committee, special emphasis was placed on individuals who worked with or for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, former students at the International School for Gender Equality in Iceland (GRÓ-GEST) and individuals who were entitled to family reunification or whose residence permit had already been approved.” 

The government estimated this first group would amount to between 90 and 120 people, but a total of 78 came to the country last autumn via the initiative. One family of five did not accept the invitation to move to Iceland, while 40 others received permits to stay in other countries. The exact number of refugees that is to be received in this new initiative will depend on family composition.

Never More Ministers than in New Government

Bjarni Benediktsson, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson

The Cabinet that took power yesterday is Iceland’s biggest for over a decade. The three-party coalition that is now beginning its second term has carried out a significant reorganisation of ministries and increased them from 11 to 12. Iceland has never had more ministers, though it also had 12 between the years 1999-2010.

When Iceland was granted home rule by Denmark in 1904, it had just one minister. That number did not increase until the first government was formed in 1917, when the cabinet was increased to three ministers. That number grew again 1939 to five ministers, and to six in 1944. Over the following decades, though their number fluctuated, the number of ministers increased overall reaching a record 12 in 1999. In 2009 the ministries were streamlined and only 8 ministers remained. Over the past 12 years the number of ministers has increased or stayed the same between terms.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of the ministries in Iceland’s last cabinet and the newly-minted one:

2017-2021 Cabinet Cabinet November 28, 2021 –
Prime Minister: 

Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Prime Minister: 

Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs: 

Bjarni Benediktsson

Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs: 

Bjarni Benediktsson

Minister of Transport and Local Government: 

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson

Minister of Infrastructure: 

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson

Minister of Health: 

Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Minister of Health: 

Willum Þór Þórsson

Minister of Justice: 

Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir

Minister of the Interior: 

Jón Gunnarsson

Minister of Education, Science, and Culture: 

Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir

Minister of Tourism, Trade, and Culture: 

Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir

Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources: 

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson

Minister for the Environment, Energy, and Climate: 

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson

Minister for Foreign Affairs: 

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation: 

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

Minister of Social Affairs and Children: 

Ásmundur Einar Daðason

Minister of Education and Children’s Affairs: 

Ásmundur Einar Daðason

Minister of Tourism, Industry, and Innovation: 

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

Minister of Science, Industry, and Innovation: 

Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture: 

Kristján Þór Júlíusson

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture: 

Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market: 

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson

The Government of Iceland website has published an overview of the new ministries in English and how they will be restructured. They are expected to commence work around the end of the year.

New Coalition Government Takes Power

Update November 29, 2:30 PM: The names of several ministries have been updated.

After lengthy talks following last September’s parliamentary election, the ruling parties of the last coalition (The Independence Party, the Progressive Party, and the Left-Green Movement) have reached an agreement on a new government coalition, introduced earlier today. Katrín Jakobsdóttir will remain the Prime Minister and Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson will continue in his role as Minister of Finance but other ministers take on new roles. The new cabinet has 12 ministers; five women and seven men.

At a State Council meeting at 3:00 PM Sunday afternoon at the Bessastaðir Presidential Residence, the President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson formally discharged Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s government coalition. A second State Council meeting began at 4:00 PM, where Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s new cabinet took office.

The Independence Party will take over the Environment Ministry, the Progressive Party takes the Ministry of Health, and education and culture, previously under one ministry, will now be split between a Ministry of Schools and Children, a Ministry for Innovation, Industry, and Universities, and a Ministry of Commerce and Culture.

Ministers in Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s new cabinet

From the Independence Party:

Bjarni Benediktsson, party chairman, will remain the Minister of Finance.

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, formerly the Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation, will become the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, formerly the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation, will be the Minister for the Environment and Climate Affairs.

Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, formerly the Minister of Justice, will be the Minister for Innovation, Industry, and Universities.

Jón Gunnarsson will be the Minister of Justice. He will be replaced by Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir halfway through the four-year term.

 

From the Progressive Party:

Willum Þór Þórsson will be the Minister of Health.

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, party chairman, formerly the Minister of Transport and Local Government, will be the Minister of the Interior.

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, formerly the Minister of Education, Science and Culture, will become the Minister of Commerce and Culture.

Ásmundur Einar Daðason, formerly the Minister of Social Affairs and Children, will become the Minister of Schools and Children.

 

From the Left-Green Movement:

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, party leader, will remain Prime Minister.

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, formerly the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources will become the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Market.

Svandís Svavarsdóttir, formerly the Minister of Health, will become the Minister of Food, Fisheries, and Agriculture.

Schools to Remain Open this Autumn, Says Icelandic Government

Borgarfjörður eystri

Icelandic schools will open for in-person teaching at the end of this month, according to Iceland’s Prime Minister and Health Minister. RÚV reports that the state council, which consists of cabinet ministers and the President of Iceland, will meet this week to review pandemic response. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir says the council will evaluate the success of the restrictions implemented over the past two weeks in response to the current wave of COVID-19 infection, Iceland’s largest since the start of the pandemic.

Teachers receiving booster shots

Primary schools and preschools have largely remained open in Iceland throughout the pandemic, though their operations have at times been subject to restrictions. The Prime Minister says this will remain the case.  “We will continue to prioritise school operations. Whether we need to keep things in mind in regards to their organisation, that’s something that we are going to discuss with those working in the field, and a part of preparing for school operations to proceed as normally as possible is, of course, the revaccination of teachers that begins today,” Katrín stated. School workers in Iceland received the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine but are now being offered a booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna, as are all residents of Iceland that received the single-dose J&J vaccine.

Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir underlined that current domestic restrictions due to COVID-19 do not restrict school activities in any way. The Icelandic Medicines Agency has approved the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for the 12-15 age group and Iceland health authorities are now reviewing whether to recommend the vaccination of this demographic before the school year begins.

Government reevaluating approach to pandemic

In recent days the cabinet has scheduled meetings with special interest groups, such as educators, artists, and athletes. One of the goals of the meetings is to evaluate the need for further economic measures in response to the pandemic. Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson has stated that the pandemic’s economic impact in 2021 is nothing compared to the blow it dealt last year. Current economic measures will remain in effect until the end of this year.

While vaccines are not proving as effective in preventing infection and spread of the Delta variant as Icelandic authorities had hoped, they are reducing the rates of hospitalisation and serious illness due to COVID-19 in the country. This changes the position we are in, according to the Prime Minister, and requires a reassessment of government response to the pandemic.