Coalition’s Strength to Be Tested by Vote of No Confidence

Inga Sæland, leader of the People's Party

Inga Sæland, leader of the People’s Party, will submit a motion of no confidence directed at the coalition government next week. The cabinet of the Independence Party, the Progressive Party, and the Left-Green Movement was reshuffled last week following Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s announcement that she would resign as prime minister and leader of the Left-Green Movement to run for president.

“We’re planning a motion of no confidence against the government as a whole,” Inga told Mbl.is. “There are three ministers in this cabinet who are particularly skilled at evading the law in this country.”

Motion against Svandís on hold

Inga has discussed the matter with the other opposition parties in Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament. Following meetings of the parliamentary groups on Monday afternoon it should become clearer whether Inga’s motion will have broader support.

Inga had pledged to submit such a motion against Svandís Svavarsdóttir before a reshuffling of the cabinet last week that saw Svandís move from the ministry of food, agriculture and fisheries to the ministry of infrastructure. The Parliamentary Ombudsman had found that Svandís had not acted in accordance with law when she temporarily stopped the whaling season last summer. Inga said it was unclear if she could refile the motion with Svandís now at a different ministry.

Bjarni under fire

The other two ministers Inga mentioned are Bjarni Benediktsson, the new prime minister and leader of the Independence Party, and Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, minister of social affairs and labour and interim leader of the Left-Green Movement. The Parliamentary Ombudsman concluded last year that Bjarni had not confirmed to guidelines as minister of finance during the privatisation process of Íslandsbanki bank. Nearly 40,000 people have signed an online petition expressing their lack of support for Bjarni’s leadership of the coalition government.

In Inga’s opinion, Guðmundur Ingi has broken his promise of establishing an office of an ombudsman for the elderly. “No opposition MP I’ve talked to has confidence in this coalition government,” Inga added.

Coalition Government in Flux After PM Decision

government coalition

The future of the coalition government is uncertain following yesterday’s announcement by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir that she would leave her post to run for the office of president.

Katrín’s Left-Green Movement, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party make up the coalition, but it is unclear if it will continue until the elections set for next year. It has not been announced who will take over from Katrín as prime minister or if new elections will be called ahead of schedule.

Unclear who will be prime minister

According to Morgunblaðið, the leaders of the coalition parties are in talks about the next steps, with both the Independence Party and the Progressive Party laying claim to the office of prime minister. If talks break down, a new coalition could be formed to serve until next year’s elections.

Opposition MPs have called for a new election immediately. The Left-Green Movement will also need to choose a successor for Katrín, who resigned as leader yesterday after 11 years at the helm. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, minister of social affairs and the labour market, has taken Katrín’s place until party members make their decision.

Dozens of candidates for president

Katrín is leaving parliamentary politics to campaign for the largely ceremonial office of president. This is the first time in Iceland’s history that the reigning prime minister runs for president. Current president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, announced on January 1 that he would leave the office this summer after having served two terms.

Other candidates for president include Jón Gnarr, comedian and former mayor of Reykjavík, Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO of B Team, Baldur Þórhallsson, professor of political science, and dozens of others. The election takes place in one round on June 1. Therefore, the next president could be elected with a significant minority of the total vote.

Icelandic Language Strengthened in “Landmark” Initiative

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, Katrín Jakobsdóttir

The Icelandic government has announced what it is calling a “landmark” initiative to strengthen the Icelandic language. The initiative includes 19 measures to support the preservation and development of Icelandic, many aimed at supporting immigrants’ language learning. Expected to cost at least ISK 1.4 billion [$9.9 million; €9.1 million], the initiative will receive additional funding over the coming years.

The initiative was announced at a press conference yesterday by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Culture and Trade Minister Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and Social Affairs and Labour Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. It is a collaborative project between five ministries and was developed in a cross-ministerial committee on the Icelandic language established last November. The initiative will be introduced to Parliament as a parliamentary resolution in the coming days.

Icelandic as a second language support

The 19 measures of the initiative include work-related Icelandic lessons for immigrants alongside work, improving the quality of Icelandic education for immigrants, and establishing online studies in Icelandic and Icelandic as a second language. One of the measures is supporting Icelandic language education for staff of preschools and after-school centres. The initiative also aims to provide additional support for Icelandic language technology as well as Icelandic subtitling and dubbing.

Iceland Review has regular coverage of the latest in Icelandic language programs and policies. For more on the government policy surrounding Icelandic language education for immigrants, read Nothing to Speak Of.

Minister to Introduce Relief Bill for Grindavík Workers

Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources

A bill for temporary support for wage earners in Grindavík will be presented by Iceland’s Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. The bill, inspired by COVID-19 relief measures, aims to secure the livelihood of those impacted by the town’s evacuation.

Process expedited

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market, will introduce a bill on temporary support for wage earners in Grindavík at a government meeting today. The bill aims to ensure the livelihood of employees of those businesses in Grindavík that have had to close due to the town’s evacuation amid ongoing geological unrest.

As noted by RÚV, the bill is based on measures taken during the COVID-19 pandemic when the state financed the salary payments of those in quarantine. The payments will be capped at a certain maximum (during COVID, the maximum daily payments amounted to ISK 21,100 [$150/€138]). It is not yet clear whether the amount will be the same in the Social Affairs Minister’s bill.

“The objective of the bill is to ensure the livelihood of employees of those businesses in Grindavík that have had to close due to the situation. The goal is to reduce uncertainty among those facing loss of income and to protect the employment relationship,” Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market, stated in an interview with RÚV.

Having been introduced to the coalition government, the bill is expected to be presented to Parliament next week to ensure that measures can be implemented before the end of the month. Addressing Parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that it was important to process the bill quickly:

“It is of immense importance that we can clearly communicate to the people of Grindavík that their financial security will be ensured for the coming months and that this resolution will be available in good time by the end of the month,” Katrín Jakobsdóttir remarked.

Select residents allowed re-entry

In an ongoing effort to allow residents to retrieve valuables from the town, the authorities have contacted those residents of Grindavík who will be allowed to enter the town today, starting at 9 AM. Businesses will be permitted re-entry after 2 PM. As noted by RÚV, electricity was restored to the eastern part of Grindavík in the afternoon yesterday following repairs.

Kristín Jónsdóttir, Head of the Department of Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Deformation at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told reporters earlier this week that she believed an eruption would occur in the coming days; volcanic gas was detected within a borehole at the Svartsengi Power Plant yesterday. The end of the borehole extends close to a spot in the earth’s crust where the magma conduit is believed to be located. The gas is considered confirmation that magma is present north of Hagafell, as models have indicated.

Labour Minister to Disputing Parties: “You Must Try Harder”

The labour legislation needs to be revised in light of the current wage dispute between the Efling union and the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (SA), government ministers stated yesterday. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market, told RÚV that it was the responsibility of the disputing parties to resolve their conflict.

Government intervention an “emergency measure”

At a meeting yesterday, government ministers discussed the impact of strikes and lockouts in the ongoing wage dispute between the Efling union and SA. The ministers noted that the societal impact of a drawn-out dispute would be far-reaching – but that government intervention was an emergency measure. “We see it as our duty to be aware of what may lie ahead. I think it’s obvious to everyone that in the event of widespread strikes, not to mention lockouts, then that would have huge consequences for society as a whole,” Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson told RÚV.

Various memoranda on the impact of the strikes were submitted during the cabinet meeting, which ran longer than expected. Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Minister of Infrastructure, remarked that the government was not going to intervene at this time. “It’s obvious that the conflicting parties have reached an impasse, perhaps they’re expecting (an intervention), but in our opinion, resolving the dispute is their responsibility. We are, however, observing these developments closely, and if the dispute begins to have a serious and widespread impact on society in the coming days – we’re talking shortly, not even weeks – then, of course, we must be prepared.

“They must try harder”

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir told RÚV that the government had already presented measures to facilitate collective bargaining. “It’s clear that we will not bring these measures to bear in this dispute; it’s in their hands. It’s their duty to do everything they can to reach an agreement. But we are, of course, following the situation very closely. A lot can happen over the coming days.”

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market, stated that the wide-ranging effects of further strikes and lockouts on society were being closely monitored by the government. “This is a serious situation that has arisen and strong words have been spoken on both sides, which I don’t think is particularly helpful when it comes to resolving this dispute. I emphasise that it’s the responsibility of the disputing parties to sit down and try their best to reach an agreement.”

When asked if he believed an agreement could be reached, Guðmundur Ingi responded thusly: “I would say that it’s the duty of the negotiating parties to try to get together; they must try harder.”

Court of Appeal Overturns Verdict, Mediator Steps Aside

Héraðsdómur Reykjavíkur Reykjavík District Court

The Court of Appeal (Landsréttur) has ruled that the Efling union does not need to hand over its membership registry to the state mediator, RÚV reports. Following the ruling, the state mediator requested permission from the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market to step aside. The Director General of the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (SA) has stated that he regrets the mediator’s decision.

Court of Appeal overturns ruling

Yesterday, the Court of Appeal overturned the Reykjavík District Court’s ruling in the labour dispute between the Efling union and SA: the Efling union is not legally obliged to hand over its membership registry prior to voting on the mediator’s mediation proposal, RÚV reports.

The court ruled that the state mediator is allowed to take the initiative to hold a vote; however, nowhere does the law state that a party in a labour dispute is obliged to hand over its membership registry to the state mediator prior to voting takes place.

The mediator’s authority to demand membership registries was enshrined in a law on mediation in labour disputes – which was abolished in 1978. The verdict of the Appeal Court quoted a speech by the  then Chairperson of the Social Affairs Committee who advocated the change. In the speech, the Chairperson stated that the purpose of the repeal was to reduce the power or position of the mediator.

RÚV notes that Efling and the state mediator struck an agreement last week to accept the court’s decision and abstain from appealing the decision of the Court of the Appeal to the Supreme Court.

In a statement from Efling sent to the media yesterday, the union demanded that state mediator Aðalsteinn Leifsson resign from the dispute immediately. “This is the worst imaginable verdict on the working methods of the state mediator,” Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, the Chair of the Efling union, was quoted as saying.

Guðmundur accepts Aðalstein’s request

After the ruling by the Court of Appeal yesterday, Aðalsteinn Leifsson told the media that he would be requesting permission from the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, to step down from his role as mediator between Efling and SA.

“My opinion is that, under the circumstances,” Aðalsteinn Leifsson told Vísir yesterday, “the character should always give way to the issue, which is why I suggested to the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Market that appointing a special mediator in this dispute, or a mediating committee, might prove wise. I would then step aside in this particular dispute and pass the baton over to others, in hopes that they find a solution. The minister is currently mulling my suggestion over.”

Yesterday evening, Vísir reported that Guðmundur Ingi had accepted Aðalsteinn’s request and that an assistant mediator would be appointed to resolve the dispute.

Expects further developments over the coming days

In an interview with RÚV yesterday evening, Halldór Benjamín Þorbergsson, Director General of SA, said that he regretted the state mediator’s decision to withdraw from the wage dispute – but that he supported his decision. Halldór Benjamín added that yesterday’s ruling did not change the fact that the mediating proposal was valid and legitimate in all respects.

“There are indeed a lot of twists and turns in this dispute,” Halldór Benjamín told RÚV, “and I think that there will be even more twists and turns in the coming days.”

Efling Chair Demands Labour Market MP Intercede, Withdraw State Mediator’s Proposal  

Anna Sólveig Jónsdóttir Efling Union

Efling Chair Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir is urging Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market, to intercede in the labour union’s ongoing dispute with the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (SA) and withdraw the mediation proposal that state mediator Aðalsteinn Leifsson issued at the end of last week. Sólveig Anna also wants Aðalsteinn to withdraw from the negotiation process entirely. RÚV reports.

See Also: State Mediator’s Proposal Meets with Criticism from Efling and SA

The proposal, which was issued in the wake of an “unprecedented” and extremely contentious round of negotiations, essentially consists of the same terms that SA has agreed upon with other unions.

Under normal circumstances, this proposal would be put to a vote among Efling’s members. Sólveig Anna has repeatedly described it as bad for workers, however, and as such has withheld the union’s electoral roll as a way of stalling the process and preventing a vote from taking place.

Aðalsteinn demanded that the electoral roll be handed over and referred the matter to the Reykjavík District Court, which will review the case on Monday morning.

In the meantime, Efling members have voted on whether the employees of Íslandshótel will strike. The results of this vote will be announced on Monday evening.

‘The situation the state mediator has created is intolerable’

In a post on her Facebook page on Saturday afternoon, Sólveig Anna said “the situation the state mediator has created with his conduct is intolerable,” and “will not be borne.” She then published the letter she sent to Guðmundur Ingi that same day, in which she pointed out that it is the Labour Minister who is responsible for appointing the state mediator and demanded a meeting to discuss the Minister’s intercession in the dispute prior to both the court hearing and Efling’s strike announcement.

“I emphasize to you that this is a grave and precedential matter that revolves around the legitimacy of institutions of entities within the labour market, the fundamental rights of workers, and the trust that working people will have in the official framework of labour market issues in the future,” Sólveig Anna wrote in her letter.

“I ask you not to underestimate the weight that the Efling labour union will put on the response to this issue and, depending on the circumstances, will direct at those institutions in the public sector that are responsible for it. I therefore appeal to you in your responsibility as Minister of the Labour Market to comply with my request for a meeting without delay.”

As of Sunday morning, Sólveig Anna had not received a response from the Minister but told reporters that she wants Guðmundur Ingi to push for the state mediator’s proposal to be withdrawn.

Asked if she also wants the Minister to remove Aðalsteinn Leifsson from his role as state mediator, Sólveig Anna replied that Efling’s leadership has already expressed its lack of confidence in Aðalsteinn as a mediator.

“I think it’s obvious at this stage, given how he’s acted toward us, that he can’t be a party to the dispute we’re now in.”

Reykjavík Commits to Accepting 1,500 Refugees Next Year

iceland refugees

The City of Reykjavík has signed a resolution, committing the city to accept 1,500 refugees next year. Under the leadership of Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson and Minister of Social Affairs Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, the city has announced its hope that other municipalities make similar plans in cooperation with the state as soon as possible.

Such agreements between the state and municipalities were drafted earlier this fall concerning levels of state funding for the municipalities that will be accepting refugees. The funding was outlined in order for the municipalities to be better able to estimate the number of refugees they will be able to accept.

Read more: Arrest of Refugee Raises Critique

Minister of Social Affairs Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson is quoted in Vísir as saying: “We are in conversation with quite a few local authorities. I just want to encourage the municipalities, whatever their size, to get involved in this as well. I think that the kind of precedent that is being created by the country’s largest municipality getting involved now is very positive.”

The City of Reykjavík had previously committed to accepting 500 refugees. The new level represents a threefold increase over the previous figure. Despite the significant increase, Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson has stressed that this number is only half of what Iceland has so far received this year.

“This number is much higher than previously,” stated Dagur to Vísir. “Unfortunately, I think we have to assume that the War in Ukraine will not be resolved anytime soon and that this will be an ongoing project for some time.”

A pressing concern is to find housing for the incoming refugees. The capital region already faces difficulty in providing affordable housing, although recent initiatives have sought to incentivize further development. 

“This is of course a challenge,” stated Dagur. “There’s no point in hiding that. But the city has been in agreement since the first days of the invasion that we condemn the invasion of Ukraine, and we have shown ourselves ready to work together with both the state and other municipalities in order to accept these refugees.”

 

Contradicting Statements from Cabinet on Deportation of Asylum Seekers

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

Icelandic authorities are set to deport around 300 asylum seekers, some of whom have been living in the country for a long time and put down roots. Many of the deportations were delayed due to the COVID pandemic, but Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has opposed making exceptions that would allow any of the group to stay in Iceland due to extenuating circumstances. Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson has stated, however, that he is examining whether there are grounds for granting some of the individuals work permits that would allow them to stay in the country.

Exceptions for some groups

In a radio interview this morning, the Minister of Justice opposed making exceptions for some groups of asylum seekers over others. “What are we going to do with the people who come tomorrow then? Should the rules then apply to them or should we let the old rules apply? Just change the rules for these people and not others?” Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated, saying that such changes were not as simple as many people believed. In March of this year, Jón triggered a special article of Icelandic law to assist Ukrainian refugees arriving in Iceland by granting them international protection on the basis of a group assessment.

Most sent to Greece

The reason that the group of potential deportees is so high essentially boils down to restrictions that were in place during the height of the global COVID pandemic, the Minister of Justice has stated. The individuals facing deportation are from a number of different countries, and Iceland plans to send most of them back to Greece.

Reports from Amnesty International and statements from the Icelandic Red Cross and other human rights organisations in Iceland have condemned the living conditions faced by refugees in Greece, who often have difficult accessing housing and basic services, even in cases where they have been granted international protection. The Minister of Justice denied this was the case, stating that refugees who had received protection in Greece “have the same living conditions as Greek people do.”

Children’s rights a factor

Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson was singing a different tune when he spoke to Vísir reporters following a cabinet meeting today, however. He stated that he was reviewing whether there was a basis to grant some of the individuals in the group work permits that would allow them to continue living in Iceland. Among the group are families with children who have been attending school in Iceland, and Guðmundur Ingi stated that the rights of those children were an important factor to consider.

Refugee rights organisations Solaris, Refugees in Iceland, and No Borders Iceland have organised a protest against the deportations this Saturday, May 28 in Austurvöllur square.

Environment Agency: Fox Hunting No Longer Serves Its Purpose

The Environment Agency of Iceland says that fox hunting in Iceland no longer serves its intended purpose—to protect sheep and birdlife—and is costing the state and local municipalities more and more every year. Fréttablaðið reports that 56,000 foxes have been hunted in Iceland in the past decade, with a cost of almost a billion krónur [$7.65 million; €6.65 million] to the state.

A ‘mythological battle’

The arctic fox lives in polar regions around the world and is currently listed as a species of least concern by the World Wildlife Fund. In 1979, there were only 1,200 of the animals in Iceland, but the population grew to just under 9,000 by 2007. Between the years of 2008 and 2010, there was a 30% drop in population, but it has been relatively stable in recent years, even as hunting has increased. As of this summer, it was estimated that there were roughly 9,000 – 10,000 Arctic foxes in Iceland. The species is protected within the confines of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords, but outside of these bounds, hunting the animal is allowed, and even encouraged monetarily.

“Icelanders have given the arctic fox many names which could be related to the ‘mythological battle’ between the humans and the foxes since the early decades of the settlement 1100 years ago,” explains the Arctic Fox Centre. “At first, foxes were trapped for the valuable fur but soon the competition for the few resources became too complicated and the foxes were killed to protect lambs and other stock animals. Nowadays the foxes are still hunted throughout the country, where it is believed that protection of livestock or eider farms is needed. Winter hunting is also conducted in all regions of the country and “den-hunting” (killing all the animals at a fox den), one of the oldest paid jobs in Iceland, is still performed. The fur, however, is not used anymore since it became [worthless] with the emergence of fur farms some decades ago.”

Hunters paid for every fox killed

The argument that foxes must be hunted in order to protect livestock and birdlife has also been strengthened by public perception of the fox as a vicious predator. “The fox is said to be cunning and cruel,” noted the 1961 short documentary Refurinn gerir greni í urð (‘The fox makes its den in the scree,’ watch here, in Icelandic). “So it is getting its just desserts. It is killed on sight wherever it is encountered.”

Screenshot from short documentary Refurinn gerir greni í urð (Ósvaldur Knudsen; 1961)

This way of thinking is quickly losing traction among experts and politicians alike, however. “Livestock doesn’t appear to be suffering,” says Steinar Rafn Beck Baldursson, a specialist in hunting management at the Environment Agency. He notes that the agency has put out calls for reports of foxes killing sheep and birds but has only received the occasional notification of foxes getting into eider nests. When asked why foxes don’t pose the same threat they once did to sheep, Steinar Rafn has a very simple supposition: sheep no longer give birth to their young in pastures. “In the past, foxes hunted newborn lambs or went after sheep when they were in labour.”

Last year, 7,227 foxes were hunted, marking a 40-year high. This creates a significant financial burden on the state, as local municipalities are obliged to pay hunters for every fox they kill between the fall and the spring. The annual cost of this has increased dramatically over the years. In 2011, ISK 67 million [$512,742; € 445,349] was paid out to fox hunters. This total ballooned to ISK 134 million [$1.03 million; €890,699] in 2020. The state has been paying a fifth of the cost since 2014, as a way of offsetting the financial burden on large, but sparsely populated municipalities.

See Also: This Season, Ptarmigan Shooting Confined to Afternoons

Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson recently submitted a bill to parliament that would have amended current hunting legislation and established a management and protection plan for the arctic fox in Iceland. The bill did not pass.

Steinar Rafn says that the Environment Agency had hoped the bill would pass but is currently considering similar proposals for changing the legislation on ptarmigan hunting—the fox will come later, he says. “What would make the most sense would be to review this whole system,” he says. “Maybe only winter hunting and no den hunting.”