Government Awaits Proposal for Protective Barriers in Reykjanes

Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir

During an informal session of Parliament yesterday, the Chairman of the Centre party inquired as to the government’s progress on protective barriers against potential volcanic eruptions near Grindavík, Vísir reports. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir responded by noting that recommendations for such barriers were expected to be submitted to the government for review in the coming days. Recent earthquakes caused visible damage to infrastructure near Mt. Þorbjörn, prompting HS Orka to initiate preparatory work for barriers at the Svartsengi power plant.

Inquiry into the state of protective barriers

During an informal question session in Parliament, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Chairman of the Centre Party, raised concerns about the construction of protective barriers and other preventive measures in response to potential volcanic eruptions near Grindavík. He urged the government to heed expert advice and make decisions regarding the construction of these barriers to protect settlements and infrastructure.

“Isn’t it time to start heeding the advice of these experts and, at the very least, make some decision, preferably to begin construction to protect settlements and other infrastructure?”

Ongoing preparations since 2021

In response, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir outlined the ongoing efforts since the first disturbances on the Reykjanes peninsula. She highlighted the collaboration with local authorities, emergency responders, and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management in mapping the area and compiling data.

Katrín mentioned that proposals for protective barriers were under review and that recommendations to the government were expected soon: “These proposals have been under review by the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management who plans to make recommendations to the government in the coming days on the appropriate course of action.”

(As noted by RÚV yesterday, when the eruption began at Fagradalsfjall in 2021, a group of experts was established to focus on the protection of critical infrastructure on the Reykjanes Peninsula. This group has been considering possible scenarios based on existing data, with the greatest emphasis being placed on protecting the Svartsengi power plant and the Blue Lagoon.)

Accused the coalition of indecisiveness

Sigmundur Davíð criticised the government for its indecisiveness and the disarray in handling the information related to this issue. He referenced Víðir Reynisson, Head of the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, emphasising the urgency of a decision.

Katrín acknowledged the commencement of preliminary work for such projects but noted the current infeasibility of large-scale actions: “We have not yet reached the stage where a formal proposal from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management is in place. However, I expect it to be presented in the next few days, and I can then discuss it in more detail.”

Sigmundur Davíð further inquired if immediate action would follow the receipt of this proposal. Katrín assured that the proposal would undergo thorough examination and expert review before any decision. She concluded by expressing confidence in the coordinated efforts of all parties involved to manage the challenging situation.

“I want to take this opportunity to say that I believe all parties in the system are working in a coordinated manner to address this difficult situation,” Katrín concluded.

Visible damage to Svartsengi Power Plant

As reported by Vísir yesterday, a swarm of earthquakes in the early hours of Thursday, November 9, caused visible damage to roads and infrastructure near Mt. Þorbjörn on the Reykjanes peninsula. The Blue Lagoon was subsequently closed. Cracks formed in the asphalt of Grindarvíkurvegur, the road that leads to the town of Grindavík, and on the walls and floors of the Svartsengi power plant.

“Cracks have appeared widely in floors and walls, and it was clear upon arrival this morning that there was a considerable tremor last night. Monitors have fallen to the floor, and new cracks have appeared in many places,” Kristinn Harðarson, the production manager at HS Orka, told Vísir yesterday.

Prep work for protective barriers underway

Kristinn revealed that HS Orka had initiated preparatory work for the construction of protective barriers: “We are beginning preparations, bringing materials to the site so we can respond quickly if we need to set up protective barriers. We are trying to shorten the response time as much as possible,” Kristinn stated, adding that he hoped that this would ensure uninterrupted and ongoing operations at the power plant in case of an eruption.

Four to six trucks, carrying gravel from a nearby quarry to the power plant, drove into the area yesterday. As noted by Vísir, this gravel could be used for protective barriers or even to cover boreholes and pipelines in the event of an eruption.

Government Unveils ISK 17 Billion Cost-Saving Strategy

Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson

State-run institutions are poised to streamline operations through staff reductions and various optimizations, aiming to save approximately ISK 17 billion ($129 million / €119 million) next year, according to the latest fiscal strategies disclosed by the Minister of Finance in a press briefing last week. The Chair of the Centre Party maintains that labelling these actions “saving measures” is inaccurate, for they would be more accurately described as “fee increases,” Vísir reports.

Treasury outperforms forecasts

At a press conference last Friday, Bjarni Benediktsson, Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, revealed that the state treasury is projected to post a primary surplus roughly ISK 100 billion ($760 million / €703 million) higher than initially estimated when the 2023 budget was ratified last year.

Consequently, the treasury is expected to show a positive balance of ISK 50 billion ($380 million / €351 million), rather than slipping into a deficit. This performance also underscores a significant improvement in the state treasury’s debt position compared to the pandemic period’s forecasts, Vísir reports.

Health sector and public services gain traction

Bjarni also maintained that Iceland had rebounded from the pandemic faster than most nations; economic activity was thriving and the unemployment rate had hit a five-year low. Even as the treasury rides high on its current fiscal performance, the Minister stressed the government’s intent to further solidify its financial standing, while reinforcing robust public services.

A focus point of this endeavour will be the health sector. A dedicated fund of ISK 25 billion ($190 million / €176 million) will be earmarked for the new hospital this year and the next. Bjarni also highlighted imminent contributions to health insurance, nursery homes, law enforcement, higher education, innovation initiatives, the energy exchange, and housing projects, alongside a revamped child benefit system.

Strategic reorganisation to save ISK 5 billion on labour

As part of the ISK 17 billion ($129 million / €119 million) fiscal discipline package for the next year, the Minister indicated that labour costs across state institutions will be reduced by an estimated ISK 5 billion ($38 million / €35 million). Bjarni met with directors of state-run institutions last week to explore the effective implementation of these measures.

In addition, operating costs like travel will be pared down, with greater emphasis on value-driven public procurement. Bjarni also stated that he foresaw great potential in simplifying the government’s institutional framework, digitising operations for optimal fund utilisation, reducing housing costs through shared workspaces, and leveraging joint ventures and competitive tendering.

Revenue-boosting measures: taxes and fees

Matching the scale of the cost-saving efforts, the government also plans to raise additional revenues through several channels. One such measure will be increased user fees for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Fees for tourism services, including cruise ships, are also set to rise, along with a tax hike on fish farming companies commencing in 2024. Additionally, a temporary 1% increase in corporate income tax has been announced for the next year.

“In the corporate sector, the quest to do more with less is perpetual. The same principle should naturally apply to the public sector,” Bjarni remarked. “Even though our financial health is better than we had ever anticipated, there’s no room for complacency. Through digital innovations and efficient operations, I’m confident we’ll successfully implement these planned measures while continually enhancing services to our citizens.”

In the ensuing weeks, ministries and state institutions will commence work on actualizing these measures to achieve the set objectives outlined in the government’s performance plan. More details are expected to be revealed when the budget proposal for the next year is officially presented on September 12.

Not “savings proposals” but “fee increases”

In a post-press conference interview with Stöð 2, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the Chair of the Centre Party, expressed scepticism towards the measures of the government, which had recently announced a spending hike of ISK 193 billion ($1.45 billion / €1.36 billion).

“What captured my attention, again, is the disingenuous labelling of what they’re calling a ‘savings proposal,’ when in reality, it’s a ‘fee increase.’ This choice of words could be indicative of the government’s mindset; if they aren’t taking all the money from the citizens, then they’re making concessions with it,” Sigmundur noted.

In his assessment, the government’s fiscal strategy would not effectively mitigate the inflation issue. Moreover, he accused the administration of taking counterproductive steps in the wake of the pandemic by ramping up spending, instead of focusing on savings. According to Sigmundur, the current government had surpassed all previous administrations in terms of the rapidity and scale of its spending increases.

When queried about what he considered to be the government’s most pressing duty in the face of rising inflation, Sigmundur articulated his views as follows: “It was openly acknowledged, even by the ministers themselves, that curtailing value creation and production within the country, largely due to the impacts of Covid, while simultaneously printing more money, would inevitably fuel inflation. Therefore, the logical next step, once circumstances permit, is to apply fiscal restraint, focus on savings, and work on reducing debts,” he stated.

“Contrary to this, the government chose the inverse path,” he continued. “After the pandemic subsided, instead of curbing their expenditure and focusing on generating value, they shattered all existing records for hikes in government spending. No previous administration has been as extravagant or has escalated its spending as precipitously.”

“They then hastily convene a meeting, raising expectations for some significant announcement. But no, all we get are discussions about open workspaces and statements implying that combating inflation isn’t the government’s responsibility.”

A Fisherman by Any Other Name: Terminology in New Law Sparks Debate

overfishing iceland

A new law regarding ships’ crews that went into effect at the beginning of the month is sparking considerable debate throughout Iceland, but not because of the content of the law. Rather, critics have taken issue with the choice of wording in it, namely the use of the word fiskari, most easily translatable as ‘fisher,’ in lieu of the term fiskimaður, which literally means ‘fisher+man.’, RÚV, and Vísir have all reported.

Critics, including some in the industry and current or former politicians, have called the word choice an example of the sterilization of Icelandic, or even an example of the language’s slide into nýlenska, or Orwellian Newspeak. Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor emeritus in Icelandic Language and Linguistics at the University of Iceland, takes a different view, however, noting that the word fiskari is actually a centuries-old Icelandic word and one that was in use long before modern debates about gender neutrality in language.

Law aims to ‘promote equal access of the sexes to education, training, and jobs aboard Icelandic ships’

According to the text of the “Law concerning ships’ crews,” 2022 nr. 82, its aim is to “ensure the safety of crews, passengers, and ships, and increase protections against the pollution of the seas. These goals will be achieved by making certain mandates about the education and training, age, sailing time, health, vision, and hearing of those who work onboard and in so doing ensure the professional competence of crews based on the size of the ship, its role, and its area of operation.”

This overview goes on to say that the law “is intended to promote equal access of the sexes to education, training, and jobs aboard Icelandic ships.” It then includes an extensive  definition of terms, in which it defines a fiskari as “he or she who works or is hired to work on a fishing vessel…harbour pilots, law enforcement officers, other parties in staff positions working with the public, employees on land who perform work onboard fishing vessels, or fishing inspectors are not considered to be fishers.”

It is worth noting that while the word fiskari is being interpreted by critics as inherently gender-neutral because it does not make use of the suffix –maður, meaning ‘man’ (-menn in the plural), fiskari is still a masculine-gendered word in Icelandic. [Note: Icelandic has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.] It is also worth noting that in the Icelandic, the above-quoted definition also includes the use of three additional masculine-gendered terms for different roles/jobs: hafnsögumenn (harbour pilots); starfsmenn (employees); eftirlitsmenn (inspectors).

‘The most ‘woke’ government in the history of Iceland’

Critics, some of whom work within the industry, were quick to voice their dissatisfaction with the word choice.

Fiskari is a malaprop in my opinion,” said Valmundur Valmundsson, the chair of the Icelandic Seamen’s Association. “Sjómannadagurinn [Fishermen’s Day] is never going to be called Fiskaradagurinn [Fishers’ Day].” Eiríkur Óli Dagbjartsson, fishing manager of the Grindavík-based fishing company Þorbjörn hf. felt similarly, telling Morgunblaðið that he thought the shift to the word fiskari was “preposterous.”

Current and former politicians have also taken to social media to voice their dissatisfaction. Former Prime Minister and chair of the Centre Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson wrote a Facebook post in which he said the use of the word fiskari was part of the “PC-powers’ ongoing attempt to turn Icelandic into Newspeak, in the manner of Orwell” and fretted that “the most ‘woke’ government in the history of Iceland will hardly stop with this.”

“It used to be common knowledge that women were also -menn [the plural form of maður, men],” Sigmundur Davíð continued. “That knowledge seems to be getting lost now, as can be observed from the strange explanations of those who think the change [i.e. removing the suffix -maður] is an important step in equality issues.” Sigmundur Davíð then concluded his post by listing off a number of job titles that incorporate the suffix -maður [-man] and which he said were at risk of falling victim next, i.e. that talsmaður [spokesman] might be converted to talari [speaker/spokesperson].

‘It is important to respect their origin and traditional usage’

In a post on Facebook, former Social Democratic Alliance MP, now a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Bifröst University, Ólina Kjerúlf Þorvarðardóttir said she could hardly formulate a response.

“The words that we use are something other, something more, than just sterile units of meaning, cut and dried,” she wrote. “If that were the case, we couldn’t talk about a living language, about creative manners of expression. Our words are laden with feeling, the way we see life, our circumstances, our history and culture.

“The word ‘sjómaður’ has deep-seated emotional implications for many Icelanders, who are familiar with our nation’s struggle for survival over the centuries. Some job titles are compound words using the word ‘maður’ [-man]—flugmaður [pilot], hermaður [soldier], etc—and others aren’t—kennari [teacher], læknir [doctor], prestur [pastor]. It’s well and good that words aren’t all formed in the same way. It is more important, I think, to respect their origin and traditional usage, instead of bending and buckling…the language [according to] some puritanical policy about how words should be created.”

Ólina continued: “Sterlization in linguistics is, at best, indifference and incomprehension, and at worst, hostility: to creation, history, and emotion.”

The word fiskari dates back to the 16th century

What the overriding criticism belies, however, is the word fiskari enjoys a long history and centuries-old usage in Iceland. “This word dates back to the 16th century at least,” says Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor emeritus in Icelandic Language and Linguistics at the University of Iceland. “It was in the first book that was printed in Iceland, Oddur Gottskálksson’s translation of the New Testament.”

“According to the sources I’ve looked at, it seems that from the 16th century to the 19th century, this was the primary word used for [people who fish], much more common than the word fiskimaður.” Eiríkur points out that in the census from 1845, which recorded Icelanders’ occupations, around 150 people called themselves a fiskari, while only seven called themselves a fiskimaður.

Fiskari is used up until the 20th century,” says Eiríkur. After that, the word fell out of common use and the word fiskimaður became more prevalent. The most common useage, however, is the word sjómaður [seaman].”

(As an interesting corollary to Eiríkur’s points, one might consider these words’ frequency in the work of Halldór Laxness, the country’s sole Nobel Prize winner and a passionate advocate for the Icelandic language who is still considered one of its preeminent stylists and practitioners. Per data compiled in the comprehensive online Icelandic dictionary Snara, fiskari appears 20 times in his writings and fiskimaður appears with the exact same frequency: 20 times. The word sjómaður, on the other hand, appears some 65 times.)

Returning to the text of the law itself, Eiríkur points to the section where various terms are defined. “A number of words that are used in the law are clarified. In legal texts, it’s important that the meaning of words are clear. It is clear [in the text] that fiskari is a word for people who work on fishing vessels. This is to say, it’s a special term. It is common for legal texts and regulations to use words that have specific and set meanings, where other words are frequently used in everyday speech.”

Speaking to concerns related to the fate of other Icelandic words that end in –maður [-man], Eiríkur continues:

“Words that end in –maður have an undeniably strong connection to men in many people’s minds. In old rural society, there was a clear difference between male and female laborers,” he explains, giving the examples of the gender-specific words vinnumaður [working man] and vinnukona [working woman] and kaupamaður [merchant-man] and kaupakona [merchant-woman].

“For people who want to demasculinize the language, these words that end in –maður are much more masculine than other words that are grammatically masculine. People ask: why just this one? Why won’t other words that end in –maður be taken? The answer to this is maybe, first and foremost, that this word, fiskari, already existed. In this instance, there was an existing word that could be utilized, a synonym. There is no similar word for sjómaður [seaman] and farmaður [merchant sailor]. We have the word sjóari [seafarer, grammatically masculine but formed in the same way that fiskari is formed; more implicitly gender-neutral], but it’s completely different [in meaning] than the word sjómaður.” [Note: the word sjóari implies that the individual in question is a very experienced sailor, comparable to ‘old salt’ in English.]

By using the word fiskari in the text of the new law, lawmakers are reviving an old, existing Icelandic word, says Eiríkur, something that can’t fairly be considered malapropism or ‘incorrect’ language. Language necessarily changes and morphs over time, he says, through common use. “Isn’t that the very definition of ‘correct’ language?” he asks. “That it’s the language people speak?”

Over 60 Prison Sentences Expired Due to Lack of Cell Space

Roughly sixty prison sentences have expired over the past three years owing to shortage of prison cells, RÚV reports. At a session before Parliament yesterday, members of the opposition expressed concern over the state of the country’s prison system.

Deterrance rendered ineffective

Yesterday, Helga Vala Helgadóttir, MP for the Social Democratic Alliance, opened the discussion on prison affairs before Parliament. Roughly 300 people, of which 279 men, are on prison wait lists. According to Helga Vala, the state of affairs is unacceptable, both for victims and perpetrators:

“The aim of legislation on the enforcement of sentences is that sentences be served safely and efficiently in order to deter, whether by particular or general means, criminal offences; however, such a thing can hardly be effective when prisoners cannot begin serving their sentences and when victims must watch perpetrators walk the streets as if they had done nothing wrong. Furthermore, convicted individuals cannot begin to rebuild their lives or must simply trust that their prison sentences expire so that they don’t need to serve time. These are terrible messages to send to society,” Helga Vala stated.

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Chair of the Centre Party, echoed Helga’s sentiments:

“Although we sometimes use the phrase human-rights violation rather freely, I would categorise it in these terms: that someone has been sentenced – with all the subsequent consequences on the individual – but must wait in uncertainty as to when that sentence begins,” Sigmundur remarked.

Sixty-four prison sentences expired since beginning of 2020

As noted by RÚV, since the start of 2020, 64 prison sentences have expired owing to a shortage of cell space. The COVID pandemic played a significant role but also a lack of government funding. The prison system will receive an increase of ISK 250 million ($1.8 million / €1.7 million) according to a bill to amend next year’s budget as proposed by the Minister of Finance.

Just Minister Jón Gunnar states that this will completely alter the state of affairs:

“One must also consider what the prison authorities are dealing with, namely longer sentences, a greater number of sentences, and a significant increase in the number of individuals being kept in police custody, which wasn’t entirely expected, and which has served to complicate matters. A working group was appointed to review operations and to offer proposals on how to shorten waiting lists. They’re working on it, and once that work is finished, we’ll have a foundation from which to increase the budget and the number of prison guards, and also to operate our prisons more efficiently. This will, of course, be of great help,” Jón stated.

Former PM Says BLM “Revives Racism,” Will Destroy Capitalism and the Nuclear Family

Earlier this week, former Prime Minister and founder of the Centre Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson wrote an article in which he suggests that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement is a “revival of racism” and in which he claims that this “Western Cultural Revolution […] has all the hallmarks of extremism, including religious rites which people are supposed to undergo in order to prove their subservience to the orthodoxy.” The article has been roundly criticised and inspired a spirited response from BLM supporters in Iceland, who believe Sigmundur Davíð’s beliefs “pose a threat to our Icelandic society, equality, and democracy.”

“A revival of some of the most insane ideas that have ever arisen in the course of human history”

In his article, Sigmundur Davíð characterises BLM as a marketing ploy compelling famous figures, from (unnamed) British actresses to Formula 1 race car drivers, to pledge their allegiance or else lose their job opportunities and/or endorsement deals. He laments that “police officers – white and black – have been shot during ‘mostly peaceful protests’ as most media outlets have chosen to call them,” and takes exception to athletes taking a knee to protest police violence or to show solidarity with the BLM movement and honour the memory of George Floyd, feigning confusion at what “English football has to do with policing issues in Minneapolis.”

He also repeats a characterisation of BLM that he says he’s drawn from “British journalists who’ve bothered to familiarise themselves with the organisation’s policy,” which he says is “to break the back of Western culture and capitalism, the nuclear family, the governmental system, and especially to dismantle the police and the judiciary.”

Sigmundur Davíð continues, likening ‘cancel culture’ with execution, lamenting the criticism that, for instance, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has drawn for her staunchly transphobic viewpoints. “Now in some places, it’s a hate crime to quote the dictionary and its definition of the word ‘woman.’”

“Little by little, it’s become clear that the Western Cultural Revolution revolves around a hatred of Western civilisation, just as the Chinese [Cultural Revolution] revolved around both a hatred of ancient Chinese values and Western culture,” he writes. Or, in conclusion, “The cultural revolution is not just about racism, but also a revival of some of the most insane ideas that have ever arisen in the course of human history.”

‘These notions will only create more separation and deeper injustice.’

The former Prime Minister’s article has drawn swift criticism for its misrepresentations of the BLM movement and its goals, not least from a group collectively identifying themselves simply as “Supporters of BLM,” who wrote a response article in Vísir on Thursday. The article, which was simultaneously published in Icelandic, English, Polish, and Portuguese, says that the ideas put forth by Sigmundur Davíð “pose a threat to our Icelandic society, equality, and democracy” and aims to correct “several misconceptions about the Black Lives Matter movement as well as other human rights battles” in his piece.

“Black Lives Matter addresses the need to end State-sanctioned violence and liberate black people from oppression. Black Lives Matter raises awareness of the structural inequality of the systems Sigmundur Davíð mentions,” states the editorial. “The movement demands that the government, courts of justice, and policing uphold equality and liberty for all regardless of colour, sexual orientation, gender, class or position in society. These are just demands that generally most people agree with.”

“When Sigmundur Davíð attacks the Black Lives Matter movement he is therefore not protecting equality for all. Rather his notions build on safeguarding the current system that only offers up racist, homophobic, and sexist ideology. These notions will only create more separation and deeper injustice.”

The editorial goes on to critique Sigmundur Davíð for framing his criticism of the movement as being about justice, while really, the power structures that he seeks to uphold “cove[r] for and protec[t] men like himself at the cost of marginalised people.”

The editorial ends by calling for solidarity: “All the progress that has been made in the cause of human rights in the world is due to the collective power of the people who have pointed out and fought against inequality.”

Icelandic MP Unhappy With Appearance in Panama Papers Film

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson.

Being wrongfully implicated in the Panama Papers scandal in a recently-released Netflix film has been “painful and unbearable” according to Progressive Party Chairman Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson. A picture of the MP appears in the film The Laundromat, which was released on Netflix this past weekend, in connection with the Panama Papers. Sigurður Ingi himself did not appear in the Panama Papers. Then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð, however, did, and Sigurður Ingi took over as Prime Minister following Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s resignation in the wake of the scandal.

According to Vísir, The Laundromat features a screenshot of a Time article which reports that Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has resigned due to his name appearing in the Panama Papers. The article’s headline states that Sigurður Ingi has taken over the position and a picture of him appears with the article. No picture of Sigmundur Davíð appears in the film.

In a Facebook post about his unexpected appearance, Sigurður Ingi expresses his disappointment that his picture appears amid a discussion of “corrupt national leaders. As is undoubtedly fresh in people’s memory, the course of events was such that when then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð’s assets came to light in Mossack Fonseca’s tax havens, he was forced to resign. These were difficult times in Icelandic politics and Icelanders full of righteous anger and therefore a great challenge to sit in the Prime Minister’s chair,” Sigurður Ingi wrote. “Although I find it painful and unbearable to be connected to this corruption case in The Laundromat, the film will hardly be changed because of that.”

The MP thanked those who had written to him about the film, stating that some had even written to Netflix of their own accord to complain about Sigurður Ingi’s misrepresentation in the film.

Parliament Operations Changed to Eliminate Filibusters

Steingrímur J. Sigfússon

Speaker of Parliament Steingrímur J. Sigfússon introduced changes to parliament operations yesterday, intended to discourage filibusters, RÚV reports. Rebuttals won’t be allowed for repeated five-minute speeches and echoing, or rebuttals to speeches from members of the same party as the original orator will not be allowed. This is intended to discourage filibusters, following the record-breaking 150-hour filibuster in the discussion of the Adoption of the EU’s third energy package this spring.

Parliament will also last longer into the summer than before, based on earlier experience. The Speaker also requested that the Standing orders of Alþingi be reviewed and expects that a special committee will finish the review before the end of this term.

“Members of Parliament from the same party as the original orator will no longer be allowed to rebut or echo, unless special circumstances allow it, such as if it is clear that the members of parliament are on opposite sides of an issue or that votes will not fall along party lines,” Steingrímur stated in his first address to this parliamentary session.

This will make the form of rebuttals the same as it was in 1991 when Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament was made a unicameral legislature. At the beginning of the 21st century, changes were made to Alþingi’s standing orders, putting time restrictions on each speech in the second round of discussions but no restrictions were put on the number of speeches allowed. This meant that members of Parliament could make several shorter speeches instead of making long speeches and rebuttals could take longer than the original speeches. This will now be limited.

The discussion on the adoption of the EU’s third energy package into Icelandic law took an unprecedented 150 hours, with many meetings in parliament stretching into the wee hours of the morning as members of the Centre Party rebutted one another’s speeches over and over. The filibuster lead to a pile-up of issues, which had to wait to be processed. Speaker Steingrímur rebuked the Centre Party members at one point, saying Alþingi was in a sorry state of affairs and tried to appeal to their reasonableness, sense of responsibility and respect for the basic rules of parliamentary democracy. Centre Party Director Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has denied that the party’s takeover of the third energy package discussion was a filibuster, claiming that the discussion was topical.

Speaker of Alþingi Urges Centre Party to End Week-Long Filibuster

Alþingi Speaker Steingrímur J. Sigfússon called a close to Friday’s parliamentary session amid the ongoing Centre Party filibuster, asking MPs to limit or reconsider any further speeches so that other parliamentary business can be attended to before the end of the spring session. RÚV reports that the 17-hour parliamentary session, which came to a close at 9.04am after starting on Thursday at 4.00pm, had been entirely dedicated to Centre Party MPs’ speeches on the Third Energy Package. Centre Party MPs have filibustered all week long to prevent voting on this issue; a parliamentary session that began at 1.30pm on Wednesday, for instance, didn’t end for over 19 hours, with Centre Party MPs having exclusively held the podium from around 3.00pm.

Read More: Third Energy Package

The main goal of the European Union’s Third Energy Package is to strengthen the internal energy market for gas and electricity in the EU in order to decrease the cost of energy. The First Energy Package and Second Energy Package have already been agreed upon and adopted by members of the EU and EEA, including Iceland. The Third Energy Package correlates directly with Europe 2020, a strategy proposed by the European Commission intended to promote “smart, sustainable, inclusive growth” in the European Union. The strategy aims to ensure renewable energy sources supply 20% of all energy in Europe by 2020, and the release of greenhouse gases should decrease by 20%. The Third Energy Package was passed within the EU in 2009.  A decade later, Iceland is the only country that has not agreed to the package.

Centre Party MPs have monopolised the podium throughout the week in order to delay votes on the initiative, which enjoys majority support in Parliament. The first filibuster took place earlier in the month, however, on May 15, when parliament convened from 3.48pm to 6.18am the next morning, with Centre Party MPs prominent in the debate.

Testing patience

This week’s filibuster has been such that Centre Party MPs have often found themselves addressing their comments to an empty parliament in the middle of the night. It has, not unexpectedly, tried the patience of MPs from other parties across the political spectrum. Saying that Centre Party members have used their time “to congratulate each other and ask questions that they then answer in the same words,” Independence Party chair Birgir Ármannsson said that any substantive discussion of the issue ended before the filibuster began and acceded that “it isn’t very exciting to take part in this kind of debate.”

Responses from other MPs has been more pointed. Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir, chair of the Left-Greens has urged for a change to parliamentary procedures and rules, while Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, the chair of the Reform Party has said that the filibuster is damaging Alþingi’s public image. Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, the alternate chair of the Social Democratic Alliance, called the filibuster an “artificial debate” and while Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, MP for the Pirate Party admitted that while filibusters can be fun, this one is not at all.

Although he has characterized the current debate as “unusual,” noting that it has consisted of the “…MPs of one party discussing the issue, only to then rebut themselves and doing this for around 18 hours,” Steingrímur has been explicit that he does not want to prevent Centre Party MPs from exercising their right to filibuster. Indeed, in order to protect this right, he has twice rescheduled the parliamentary schedule, delaying, for instance, committee meetings that were supposed to take place on Thursday and Friday.

Unfinished business

“Despite another long session about this issue, it doesn’t look like the discussion will end with this session, much to the disappointment of the Speaker,” remarked Steingrímur at the close of Friday’s session. There were still six Centre Party MPs on the list of scheduled speakers, three of whom—Centre Party chair Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Þorsteinn Sæmundsson, and alternate MP Jón Þór Þorvaldsson—have held the podium 24 different times to discuss the Third Energy Package.

Steingrímur noted that debate on the Third Energy Package has been ongoing for over 70 hours, with MPs from the Centre Party speaking for over 60 of those hours. And because so much time has been given over to this issue, Alþingi has not been able to address any other matters all week.

The rights of the few

“The Speaker has a duty to many things, among them to protect MP rights, to see that these aren’t broken in any way,” said Steingrímur. He expressed concern, however, at his ability to do this with fairness, given the current standstill. Steingrímur continued that MPs’ rights and freedom is important, but that the freedom of some MPs could not be asserted at the cost of of all others’. He reminded the assembly of the sheer number of bills still waiting to be addressed before the end of Alþingi’s spring term, which is scheduled to end on June 5. Namely, 71 bills await their first reading in the chamber, and ten await their second. Another 105 bills are in the committee stage. In addition to these bills, 113 parliamentary resolutions await parliamentary vote, and ministers have 142 pending questions from MPs to address. Not having enough time to discuss and address these pending matters would do a great deal of damage, Steingrímur said.

Steingrímur urged the Centre Party MPs to carefully consider how they will proceed, and requested that they keep any future speeches on the Third Energy Package brief so that the discussion can finally be brought to a close.