Parliamentary Resolution Reignites EU Membership Debate

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

A parliamentary resolution that proposes a referendum be held to determine whether Iceland should continue membership negotiations with the European Union has the full support of every MP in the Social Democratic Alliance, Reform Party, and Pirate Party, but has been met with staunch opposition from members of the People’s Party, RÚV reports.

See Also: Foreign Minister: Iceland’s EU Membership Off the Table (March 2015)

On July 16, 2009, Alþingi passed a parliamentary resolution instructing the government to submit an application for Iceland’s membership in the EU, after which it was supposed to hold a referendum on the resulting membership agreement. In March 2015, however, then-Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson sent a letter to the European Union stating that Iceland was no longer interested in membership.

See Also: Icelandic Government’s Letter to EU Gets a Reply (April 2015)

Proponents of the current resolution say the 2009 resolution still stands and should be honoured. They submitted their resolution, proposing a referendum on continued EU membership negotiations, to Alþingi on Thursday. The undersigning MPs want a vote to be held on the issue before the end of 2023.

In the event of such a referendum, Icelandic voters would be asked to vote yes or no on the following question: “Do you want Iceland to pick up negotiations with the European Union with the goal of developing a membership agreement that would be submitted to the nation for approval or rejection?”

Says number of Icelanders opposed to EU membership has only grown since Brexit

People’s Party chair Guðmundur Ingi Kristinsson pushed back against the resolution immediately, saying that the majority of the nation does not want Iceland to join the EU. He said that Iceland’s anti-EU contingent has only grown in the wake of Brexit.

Within days of the new resolution’s submission, the People’s Party had submitted a resolution of their own, namely that Iceland should withdraw its application for membership to the EU entirely. The proponents of the counter-resolution are all People’s Party MPs. They have submitted the same resolution for the last three legislative sessions.

People With Disabilities Will Receive Additional Financial Support

Why is Iceland so expensive?

People with disabilities will receive additional financial support from the government in December, the Budget Committee has decided. The support is a tax-free one-time payment of 53,000 ISK [€357, $403]. The total cost of the measures is 1,2 billion ISK [€ 8 million, $9.1 million].

The proposal came from the opposition, whose members argued that disabled people were still experiencing financial hardship due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, disabled people received additional financial support for the same reasons.

The proposal met some opposition from the leaders of the government. Bjarni Benediktsson, Iceland’s Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs said in an interview with RÚV that he believed that bonuses and other “pleasant surprises” should not be embedded in the benefits system in Iceland.

However, Þuríður Harpa Sigurðardóttir, the Chairperson of the Icelandic Disability Alliance, had stressed that the state of the pandemic had not improved and was still impacting disabled people in much the same way as last year. It would therefore be imperative to improve the financial situation of these people.

Kristrún Frostadóttir, an MP for Samfylkingin and a member of the Budget Committee said in an interview with RÚV that she was very pleased with the proposal being accepted.

“This group of people is very susceptible to changes in society. Tougher economic conditions and higher prices will affect these people.”

Two Politicians Call for Revote After Recount Shuffles MPs

Two politicians will file charges against election proceedings in the northwest constituency during last Saturday’s Parliamentary election, RÚV reports. Votes in the constituency were not sealed after the initial count as required by law and were left at Hotel Borgarnes after election staff went home. Other breaches of regulation occurred during the recount, which redistributed five of the Parliament’s 63 seats and invalidated what would have been Europe’s first female-majority Parliament.

Election officials in the northwest constituency decided to do a recount of votes on Sunday as the ballot numbers were very close between MPs. The recount did not change the distribution of seats between parties, but ousted one MP each from the Social-Democratic Alliance, Left-Green Movement, Reform Party, Pirate Party, and Centre Party for another of their fellow-party members. The original count also had female candidates in 33 of 63 seats, which would have been Europe’s first female-majority Parliament. Female MPs were reduced to 30 in the recount, meaning women occupy 48% of the total seats, still a European record.

Demands revote in northwest constituency

Magnús Davíð Norðdahl, Pirate Party district chairman in the northwest constituency, told RÚV he plans to file an official charge against the election proceedings in the constituency. Magnús’ fellow party member Lenya Run Taha Karim, who would have been Iceland’s youngest-ever MP, was ousted from Parliament following the recount. Magnús says he will also file charges with the police due to the election proceedings in the constituency.

Magnús asserts there were serious flaws in the counting of votes in the northwest. Ballots were not sealed after the end of the first count, as required by law, but were left in a locked room at Hotel Borgarnes after counters went home. He also points out that the recount began without Pirate Party candidates being notified, and the chairman of the electoral commission did not approve a request to delay the recount until candidates arrived at the scene.

The recount resulted in a different number of blank and spoiled ballots as well as the number of votes for individual candidates. “Such working methods in the democratic process of elections and counting are completely unacceptable,” Magnús stated. He believes the only remedy is to redo voting in the constituency.

Wonders if votes were tampered with

Centre Party politician Karl Gauti Hjaltason, who was ousted by the recount for his fellow party member Bergþór Ólason, has also stated he will file charges with police against the election proceedings in the northwest constituency. “What happened there, how was this decision made? Where were the ballots while the election supervision committee was away? Did anyone have access to them. Was it possible that someone could have reached them? The police are the best-positioned to bring this to light in a neutral way,” Karl Gauti told RÚV. If there is any evidence votes could have been tampered with, the only appropriate measure would be a revote, he added.

In Focus: Upcoming Parliamentary Elections

Photo by Golli

Icelanders will head to the voting booths on September 25, where individuals from the country’s various parties will vie for 63 seats from the country’s six constituencies: the Northwest (8), Northeast (10), South (10), Southwest (13), Reykjavík South (11), and Reykjavík North (11). The elections could mark the first time that women gain a majority […]

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Iceland’s Parliament Reschedules Sessions, Opens Nursery To Be a More Family-friendly Workplace

Parliament nursery

A nursery, complete with a diaper change facility, has been opened at the first floor of Iceland’s Parliament building. Secretary-General of Alþingi Ragna Árnadóttir told Vísir that this is a good step towards making Parliament a more family-friendly workplace. Parliamentary sessions have also recently been rescheduled in order to shorten workweek and increase predictability for parliament staff.

The Nest

Ragna states that the nursery was opened in order to better meet the needs of staff and members of Parliament who have small children, as well as new parents. “It’s a step to meet people’s needs and a natural development,” Ragna states. Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna ævarsdóttir posted photos of the room on Facebook today. The room is on the Parliament building’s ground floor and is called The Nest. Þórhildur thanked parliament staff for their efforts, stating that she looked forward to spending time with your young one there, as soon as they were born.

Þórhildur is not the only MP who will be able to use the room, as Pirate Party MP Halldóra Mogensen had a child in November and is now on parental leave. Both of them intend to stand for election next September so the nursery might prove useful when they return to work.

Shortened workweek for parliament staff

The nursery is not the only effort Parliament is making to become a more family-friendly workplace as recent changes to parliamentary session schedules are intended to shorten the workweek and make the work easier on family life. Parliamentary sessions that used to start Wednesdays at three pm will now begin at 1 pm. Committee meetings will take place on Mondays to increase the predictability of parliamentary sessions. This will alleviate strain on staff and make it possible to end parliamentary sessions before eight pm.

The Speaker of Parliament Steingrímur J. Sigfússon told RÚV that they’re making an effort so that a shortened workweek will become reality. “The goal is of course that the shortened workweek will result in an actual shorter workweek without losing productivity.” He hopes that this will make Parliament a more family-friendly workplace, although there will always be a certain unpredictability concerning the workdays. “It’s inevitable. It’s how legislative work works but we see parliaments in countries around us making similar changes, concentrating the workload in the middle of the workweek so that people are more likely to get the weekends off, and so on.” He added that the success of the changes will be estimated around easter.

Parliament staff working conditions attracted attention during the Centre Party’s filibuster in November 2019. Staff worked around 3,000 hours of overtime as parliamentary sessions stretched into the night.

Bill Would Reduce Governmental Involvement in National Church

A new parliamentary bill aims to reduce government involvement in the national church as well as change the terms for membership in the congregation, RÚV reports.

“According to current law, the President of Iceland appoints the Bishop of Iceland and the suffragan bishops, which makes them government officials.” Should the revised bill be passed, the bishops would no longer be appointed by the president, and therefore, would “no longer be government officials, but employees of the national church.” The president would also cease to be involved in appointing church complaints and appeal boards which, among other things, review and deal with disciplinary offenses within the church. The primary goal of these changes, reads the bill,  is to “reduce the government’s interference in the affairs of the national church, especially those that pertain to its internal affairs.”

Another significant change introduced by the bill is that membership in the national church would only be dependent on a person’s being baptized in the name of the holy trinity, rather than needing to both be baptized and registered as a member in Iceland’s national register.

The bill is currently available for review on the government’s feedback portal and will be open to public comment until October 14.

Landmark Bill Includes Psychotherapy Under Icelandic Health Insurance

Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, chairman of Viðreisn party

Iceland’s Parliament passed a bill yesterday ensuring psychotherapy will be covered by public health insurance on the same grounds as other health services. Reform Party Chairperson Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir was the primary proponent of the bill, which was introduced by 23 MPs from all sitting parties and unanimously approved. It will take effect in 2021.

In Iceland, one session of psychotherapy can cost around ISK 17,500 ($126/€113). According to Statistics Iceland, around one third of the country’s residents say they cannot afford mental health services. The bill stated that including these services within the public health insurance system would eliminate “unnecessary suffering” while also providing savings for the country in the long term.

The Icelandic Psychological Association celebrated the bill’s passing. “The association has fought for improved access to psychotherapy for decades,” read a statement from the group’s chairman Tryggi Ingason. “The Icelandic Psychological Association believes an important step is being taken to increase the public’s access, regardless of means, to applicable mental health services. With this we are investing in improved public mental health which will benefit the national economy in the long run.”

Icelandic Mental Health Alliance director Grímur Atlason called the new legislation “really important. In recent years it’s been acknowledged that a large part of the nation struggles with some kind of mental health challenge at some point in their life. According to health clinics, it’s about 30% of everyone who visits the clinics.” Grímur told RÚV the move would increase the likelihood that people seek out therapy when they need it.

Alþingi Will Only Convene For COVID-Related Business

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

Starting on Friday, Icelandic parliament will only convene to deal with issues that are directly related to the COVID-19 virus, RÚV reports. This precaution will be in place until at least April 20.

The decision to postpone all non-COVID-related business was made in the wake of news that three parliamentary employees are confirmed to have been infected by the virus and are now in isolation. The employees all work in Skúlahús, a building on Kirkjustræti which houses additional parliamentary offices. All other employees who work in Skúlahús have been quarantined.

The new dictate regarding limited parliamentary sessions is, therefore, a timely effort to curb the spread of the virus as much as possible. Reducing the number of parliamentary meetings reduces the risk of infection among MPs and should, therefore, allow Alþingi to continue to address important public health issues in a timely manner.

Friday’s parliamentary session is expected to focus on the passing of two new bills intended to reduce financial hardship on businesses and individuals whose livelihoods have been impacted by the pandemic. For one, the Welfare Committee and Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason are currently working on amendments to a bill regarding wage relief for workers whose hours have been cut or who are otherwise facing under-employment.

In its original form, the bill stated that the Icelandic government would pay up to half of the wages due to workers with whom an employer has signed a reduced employment rate contract. Combined with employer contributions and payments from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, this was intended to bring underemployed workers’ wages to 80% of their full salary. However, it’s likely that after Friday’s meeting, the government’s share of wage payments may well increase to 75%. With employer and Unemployment contributions, this would bring workers’ salaries up to as much as 90% of their full salary. The total amount received is not currently supposed to exceed ISK 650,000 a month ($4,617/€4,327), but it is possible that this cap will be raised as well.

The measure could cost the government up to ISK 20 billion ($1.42 million/€1.33) and would extend until June 1.

Parliament also intends to introduce new economic stimulus measures, as the economic situation in Iceland has deteriorated much faster than expected when the government rolled out its initial measures on March 10. Two possible measures being considered are the cancellation of payroll taxes for businesses and government guarantees on business loans. These measures would update the relief bill that was already approved by parliament which allowed businesses to defer payment on a portion of their withholding and payroll tax payments.

Damon Albarn Interested in Icelandic Citizenship

British musician Damon Albarn is interested in obtaining Icelandic citizenship, RÚV reports. The former Blur and current Gorillaz frontman visited Alþingi on Wednesday, where he met Independence Party MP Páll Magnússon to discuss the process for applying for citizenship, particularly citizenship granted “by legislation,” or parliamentary approval.

Icelandic law gives Alþingi the power to grant citizenship directly in certain circumstances, thus circumventing the necessity of obtaining approval via the Directorate of Immigration. Damon’s visit to parliament was apparently arranged for him by some Icelandic friends so that he could learn more about this process.

Páll told reporters that Damon is now interested in obtaining Icelandic citizenship but said the musician had had a foothold in the country for 25 years, not least because he owns real estate in the Reykjavík suburb of Grafavogur. Damon has been staying in Iceland of late while rehearsals are underway for a musical work he’s recently composed that will be staged in Harpa music hall this summer. The work was apparently inspired by Iceland, particularly the views around Damon’s house.

New Bill Proposes Abolishment of Naming Committee

A current parliamentary bill under consideration would abolish Iceland’s Naming Committee, a move that not only has the public support of some Icelandic linguists, but also the former chairman of the Naming Committee itself. Visír reports that former Naming Committee chairman Halldór Ármann Sigurðsson is among the bill’s supporters, stating that in its current form, the bill represents “a welcome and significant step forward.”

The bill, which was introduced to parliament just before the end of February, “is intended to significantly increase freedom in naming and to abolish as much as possible the current restrictions on the registration of names, both given and surnames, and to increase permissions for name changes. In so doing, [the bill] seeks to align with prevailing public opinion about names.” Laws on naming, the bill continues, should “first and foremost have minimal requirements for the registration of names. Thus will it safeguard the people’s right to decide on their names and their children’s names and at the same time, minimize the interference of public authorities with consideration for the sanctity of private life.”

Current law constitutes a ‘human rights violation’

The bill was open to public comment until the end of the day on Thursday, and received feedback, both for and against, from some prominent public figures. Interestingly, former committee chairman Halldór Ármann, who wrote in support of the new bill, was also among those who authored the current naming bill, which went into effect in 1996. “It’s long since time that the law be completely overhauled, as is now proposed,” he wrote in his comment. “Those of us who were on the [naming] bill committee from 1994 – 1996 were opposed to family surnames; we thought they were a threat to the Icelandic naming tradition. But this was a mistake.”

Family surnames (i.e. ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’ or ‘Lilliendahl’ or ‘Ísberg’) have been banned in Iceland since 1925, except under rare circumstances where the individual’s family has borne the family name since before the law went into effect. Foreign nationals are also exempt from this provision.

Halldór also seconded Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor Emeritus in Icelandic Language and Linguistics, who commented that the current restrictions on the use of family names violates article 65 of the Icelandic constitution, which states that everyone should be equal before the law and enjoy the same human rights without regards to their ancestry, among other things. The proposed bill would then “abolish the discrimination in the current law,” Eiríkur wrote, “which is, in fact, a human rights violation.”

Increase in foreign names could have “unforeseen consequences” for the Icelandic language

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is in total agreement with the full scope of the bill. Professor of Icelandic and chairman of the Icelandic Language Committee Ármann Jakobsson also issued a public comment on its provisions, in which he stated that it is “an inarguable improvement over previous bills” on naming laws, for one by “allowing for more advice about names” and making provisions to maintain Icelandic spelling conventions.

“On the other hand,” Ármann wrote, “the bill reduces legal protection for Icelandic, which is the vernacular and official language of the country, in accordance with the law on the status of the Icelandic language.”

“Presumably,” Ármann continued, the new law would make it “permissible to register various foreign names as Icelandic and there is nothing that would prevent, for instance, English names from becoming commonplace here with unforeseen consequences for the [Icelandic] language itself.”

Ármann suggested therefore that the naming committee or another governmental agency be allowed to continue to provide naming “advice,” even in the event that the naming laws are changed. “Thus we’d be operating from the assumption that parents would prefer to choose good Icelandic names,” he wrote, and therefore would be able to do so with the assistance of the government and/or numerous experts who could provide linguistic guidance.