Iceland & the EU: the democratic deficit of non-members

  Articoli (Articles)
  25 settembre 2023
  5 minuti, 22 secondi

By Floris Cooijmans

The democratic deficit of the EU is one of the favourite hobby horses of Eurosceptics. The image the term conjures, one of unelected ‘Eurocrats’ sitting in their ivory tower in Brussels, dictating what the member states can and cannot do, is a powerful one, and often abused by anti-EU outlets and politicians. But aside from the bad faith arguments, there is some substance to this critique. The democratic deficit is a real problem for the EU and the legitimacy of the European project. Examples of such deficits include the untransparency of trialogues, the meagre media attention the EU gets, which leads to an uninformed and uninterested electorate, the excessive power of lobbyists (estimates of the number of them active in Brussels range from 25.000 to 50.000) and bribery, as the recent Qatargate scandal has shown that such flagrant forms of corruption are also present in the EU.

All of these are valid criticisms of how insufficiently democratic the EU operates, but what if there was another form of democratic deficit, one which affects only countries who are not members of the EU? Enter Iceland, the remote island nation in the extreme northwest of Europe. With a population of not even 400.000, they are one of Europe’s smallest countries and although they are not a member state, they maintain extensive ties with the EU. They are part of the EU common market through their membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), they are members of the Schengen agreement, and also participate in a variety of other EU programmes, including Erasmus+.

To be allowed to participate in these schemes, Iceland has to pay into the EU budget, the spending of which they have no control over. In addition to this, there is also a programme called the ‘’European Economic Area/Norway grants’’, through which non-EU members directly provide funds to EU member states, with the aim ‘’to complement the EU cohesion policy’’. The cohesion fund promotes the economic development of poorer regions and these non-members contributing shows that they are willing to participate in the solidarity schemes that are fundamental to the EU. The way these grants are structured means the Icelandic government has direct control over where the money goes, but this is not the case for the other programmes they contribute to, such as Horizon Europe and Erasmus+, in which they are a paying participant, but have no voting rights.

Iceland is as integrated into the EU a country can be without being a fully-fledged member. This comes with the issue that Iceland has no formal power within the EU. On most topics which concern them, they are relegated to an advisory role, with no voting rights. They are norm takers, without the Icelandic people having any say over these rules. How would that change if Iceland were to become a member state?

While the number of MEPs a country can elect is proportional to the population, there is a lower limit: EU law stipulates that the minimum number of MEPs a member state can have is six. There are currently three EU countries with six MEPs: Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta. If Iceland were to join, they would thus also get six MEPs, directly chosen by their people. Germany, the country with the most MEPs (96) only has one per 867.000 inhabitants and the overall EU average is one MEP per 634.000 people. Iceland would have a vastly disproportionate amount of influence in the European Parliament with one MEP per ~62.000 inhabitants, by far the highest number of MEPs per capita, overtaking Malta who currently sits at one MEP per 90.000 inhabitants. Their MEP density would thus be more than 10 times that of the EU average. The total number of Icelandic MEPs would still be low, but the impact they would have comparatively could be enormous, definitely in comparison with Iceland’s current zero MEPs.

But the EP is not the only institution they would gain real influence over. Every member state is also able to nominate one member of the European Commission. While this is supposed to be a supranational institution, with Commissioners not representing their countries but rather doing what is best for the EU overall in their policy area, the introduction of an Icelandic perspective is not to be underestimated, least of all if their Commissioner is put on a portfolio which is of particular importance to Iceland, such as fisheries.

Lastly, with EU membership, Iceland would also be able to have a seat and a vote in both the European Council and the Council of the European Union. Even if in QMV the weight of their vote is marginal, when it comes to issues where simple majorities suffice, or which can be vetoed, they would theoretically wield as much power as France or Germany. Not too bad for a country with less inhabitants than the city of Florence. Joining the EU would thus transform Iceland from a norm-taker to a fellow norm-maker.

Opinion polls show that Icelandic attitudes towards EU membership has been relatively stable over time, with around 50% against membership, but also a large percentage undecided. Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, popular opinion has shifted however, with for the first time since 2011 more people in favour of joining then against, but with still a significant amount still unsure. Symbolic for this development is the recent founding of a new European movement, by Jon Steindor Valdimarsson, an Icelandic MP which aims to breathe new life into the Icelandic pro EU movement. The recent entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO shows that long held beliefs towards international institutions can shift quickly and dramatically as the situation in the world changes.

Ultimately, a democratic deficit only exists if it is perceived as such by the demos. As long as the Icelandic people are fine with the current arrangement, the democratic thing to do is to maintain it. If they change their mind however, and join the EU, Iceland has the potential to be very influential, despite its humble size.

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