Iceland cached version 13/02/2019 07:44:58 en ‘The system is a reflection of who we are’: an interview with Birgitta Jónsdóttir <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p class="Default">“It's not only about us versus the system. The system is really us.” As Iceland’s radical Pirate party approaches the gates of power, we speak to its figurehead Birgitta Jónsdóttir.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p class="Default"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none caption-xlarge'><a href="// copy.jpg" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title="Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved."><img src="// copy.jpg" alt="lead " title="Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved." width="460" height="312" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload caption-xlarge imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.</span></span></span><strong>Ashish Ghadiali: </strong><em>What is happening in Iceland right now? It’s really weird, right? You’ve got a</em><em>&nbsp;prosperous nation, the economy has&nbsp;recovered&nbsp;out of a terrible collapse, and suddenly, led by the Pirate Party, you've got this most radical reformist government&nbsp;within&nbsp;an inch of power…&nbsp;</em><strong>&nbsp;</strong></p> <p class="Default"><strong>Birgitta Jónsdóttir:</strong> So, Icelanders are 333,000, and this means that you reach critical mass about things much quicker. Truth and lies become the norm much quicker. Xenophobia or tolerance become the norm much&nbsp;quicker&nbsp;in small communities. Anyone that's lived&nbsp;in a&nbsp;village knows what I'm talking about. So in the wake of the collapse, Icelanders realised that everything they had put their trust in had failed them. Not just politicians. Also media and academia and so forth, and there was this sort of tremendous shock, anger, grief.</p> <p class="Default">Then we went into the austerity that you would do in an IMF programme. We were the first prosperous country to go into that programme for a long time. And that meant that the left-wing government that was elected to clean up the mess was under tremendous pressure and they did lots of things right, but they did a lot of things wrong, because they basically wanted to do everything.&nbsp;So people started to distrust them as well. Then Icelanders decided to vote again for the parties that were responsible for the mess. And we were lucky enough to get all the tourists and new fish that made us prosper in spite of the fact that we were coming out of a very heavy collapse.</p> <p class="mag-quote-center">One has to question the masters who calculate everything.</p> <p class="Default">It is important that people understand that because we are so few, our economy is like a little pond.&nbsp;When you throw a pebble in a little pond you see the ripples. It naturally has an impact on the surface and also below. When you&nbsp;throw a pebble into a big lake you don't see anything. That is like the bigger countries. So everything that happens here has much more visual impact than in other countries and when all of a sudden you get lots of tourists, even if it doesn’t compare to other countries in numbers, it’s a lot compared to how many would come before to Iceland. That’s what’s happening and it’s actually creating a bit of a bubble in property.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Default">Then we've got the mackerel coming in, and that is also making us more affluent, but at the same time, because of the way the tax havens are used by the so-called one percenters of&nbsp;Iceland, and the way we have allowed big corporations, like aluminium giant Alcoa, to abuse a loophole in the laws and not pay any taxes, it means we don't get&nbsp;our fair share from&nbsp;collective resources like fish and energy, and that means our healthcare&nbsp;and our education system and the roads are all crumbling even though we're&nbsp;prosperous. So one has to question the masters who calculate everything, that calculate what is a prosperous country and what is not, on which values that is being calculated.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Default"><strong>AG: </strong><em>So within that&nbsp;</em><em>context, </em><em>what has been the journey of the Pirates, from essentially a protest group to&nbsp;an organisation very close to forming government?</em></p><p class="Default"><strong>BJ:</strong> Well, it's so wild, all of it. None of us expected to be in a position of having so much trust from people in our society when we founded the party. Our main focus was to continue with the work, facilitating direct democracy and to really bring awareness about the importance of human rights and the cyber. We've just been lucky with the people that got into parliament. We were only 3. But we still managed to do lots of stuff. Eventually, people started to say we will vote for the Pirates because we can't trust any of the other parties.&nbsp;And then we started to get all these people that wanted to join us. All of a sudden we went from just having a few volunteers to, you&nbsp;know, hundreds of people that wanted to be part of it.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Default"><strong>AG: </strong><em>This was before the Panama Papers?</em></p> <p class="Default"><strong>BJ: </strong>Yes.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Default"><strong>AG: </strong><em>So what was driving that?</em></p> <p class="Default"><strong>BJ: </strong>Okay, that was really interesting. You can see if you look at the curves where we started to go up in the polls. We were usually around 10% in the polls, and then all of a sudden we started to go up and it just goes up and up and up and up until like 30-something, and that was the day the foreign affairs minister decided to bypass not only the nation, but also the parliament. The governmental parties had promised a national referendum to find out whether the nation wanted to carry on with the EU application or not. He [the Foreign Affairs minister] had tried to take it into the parliament, but his attempt was not very successful. He felt that he would draw too much attention to the issue, I don't know. It was just very weird, the behaviour of the government and how they tried to justify this bypass of parliament and the nation, so he just went on his own to Brussels to say we are no longer applying. And that created a lot of fury. And that also raised people's awareness to the fact that if we had actually had our new, crowd-sourced constitution, he could not have done this without consulting with the nation.</p><p class="mag-quote-center">We want to draw on the wisdom of the masses.</p> <p class="Default">The Pirate Party doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. We have been very clear that we want to draw on the wisdom of the masses. And we want to make sure the general public has access to information, so that they are better equipped to make informed decisions. I think this is critical. If you campaign for direct democracy, then you have to make sure that you have an independent institution that actually provides non-biased information, that drafts the questions. There is so much we can learn from Brexit because that entire campaign was allowed to run its course with all this false information&nbsp;and there seemed to be no way to provide a factual critical mass awareness about what the EU was. It was scary. You were reading the news the day after and there were all these people going to Google to search for ‘What is the EU?’. So people were not making an informed decision.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Default"><strong>AG: </strong><em>Can you talk me through the&nbsp;proposed new&nbsp;constitution? What is this new constitution that the pirates are going to bring into effect?</em></p> <p class="Default"><strong>BJ: </strong>In the wake of the crisis, there were four demands, and everybody knows about three of them. One was that the government would resign. One was that the central bank managers would resign. The third was that the financial regulatory board would resign, and the fourth one was that we would get a new constitution. The current constitution is a draft that the Danish king gave Icelanders when we got independence from Denmark in1944, and it was always a draft, and based on the Danish Kingdom. That 's why we have a president that is like a monarch rather than like the US president. The parliament has tried to change this for 70 years but it's not been capable of doing it, because when you have people in power taking and making decisions about diminishing their power, of course it's impossible.</p> <p class="Default">So there was this demand that the nation would get to write it's own constitution. This of course had been in the debate for many years but it came very strong to the surface in the wake of the crisis. And so the newly elected government put it into process. First, there was actually an NGO that had a meeting where a thousand people were invited to come and talk about the values that they wanted to have in a constitution. Then there was another meeting where people were randomly selected from our national registry. One thousand people from all over&nbsp;Iceland came and had a cafe-style debate about what they felt had to be in the new constitution. And then all of this data was taken to the other special committee, and they put together two different scenarios that were later handed to the constitutional parliament.</p> <p class="Default">Anybody could run to become a member of the constitutional parliament. We had 5012 people running, so many normal people that were just passionate about our constitutional rights. Everybody thought that it would just be academics but it wasn’t. And so, in four months, they drafted this new constitution that was then handed over to the parliament. Parliament took it to a referendum that was similar to Brexit, a non-binding referendum because we don't have binding referendums yet. (We will once we have this new constitution.)&nbsp;The majority of Icelanders said yes, we want this draft to be the backbone of our new&nbsp;constitution. Then we had it for a year in the parliament and in the last days it was obvious that the government did not have the majority to take it through and they caved in, and we still don't have it.</p> <p class="Default">In March last year, when we started to go up in the polls, I said in a widely broadcasted news hour that I wanted to challenge other parties, that we would put this as the first bill of a new parliament and the parties that would be willing to do this should form some sort of coalition. I said that we should start to work together on a plan so that people could know what they're getting in the next elections. Because I really think it is important whenever you are trying to normalise something that you have to start to talk about it at times when it still seems weird. I had already gotten answers from all the&nbsp;party leaders and they had said they are willing to look into it and now we are having negotiations before the elections about putting this as the first bill.</p> <p class="mag-quote-center">This is a massively inclusive new approach to running Iceland.</p> <p class="Default">There are so many brilliant new things in this new constitution. If 2% of Icelanders put forward a request to put an item into process in the parliament, they can. It will be a constitutional right. If 10% of Icelanders request or put forward a demand to put a bill on the agenda, the parliament has to do it. Parliament could put their own bill up against it, but then it would have to go to a referendum. This is a massively inclusive new approach to running Iceland and of course there are provisions in it about net neutrality, freedom of information, the constitutional right of a nation to benefit from the profit of our natural resources.&nbsp;It's probably not perfect, nothing's perfect. But if there are errors in it, then fine. they can be fixed later.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Default"><strong>AG: </strong><em>Can you tell me more&nbsp;about&nbsp;what you mean by direct&nbsp;democracy?</em></p><p class="Default"><strong>BJ: </strong>Direct democracy is just accessibility of the general public to have influence on bills, to draft policies, to have the ability to, for example, recall representatives who are shown to have been unethical, or done something that people are outraged with. They have that in California, in Canada I think. We still have two ministers in Iceland that had accounts in the Cayman Islands: the tax minister and the interior minister, the minister for justice. There was no way for us to fire them.</p> <p class="Default">There are many different forms of direct democracy. You can have direct democracy in your community which I think is very important, and I often say to people, when we're talking about democracy, do you know your neighbour? If you don’t, all direct democracy and community&nbsp;building starts in your neighbourhood, so why don't you go over and say hi, and introduce yourself, as an exercise in direct democracy – because it's not only about us versus the system. The system is really us. They system is a reflection of who we are.</p> <p class="mag-quote-center">Democracy is work. It's sort of insane to think that 63 people can fix everything.</p> <p class="Default">John Lennon was talking about this in an interview a long, long time ago, around the campaign, “War is over”<em>. </em>He basically said, war is over, if you want it, not if they want it. If I want it, the war is over. He was talking about this tendency of looking at governments, you know, big daddy, and you can blame father if everything goes wrong instead of starting to take on the responsibility that comes with living in a democracy. Democracy is work. It's sort of insane to think that 63 people can fix everything.</p> <p class="Default"><strong>AG: </strong><em>You've outlined that actually it was the government U-turn on EU membership coupled with the work that you had been doing on the new constitution that led to&nbsp;your rise. Actually once the&nbsp;Panama Papers revelations were out there and that protest&nbsp;movement was mobilised,&nbsp;actually your popularity began to drop. As of one or two weeks ago, the ruling In</em><em>depend</em><em>ence party pulled back against you in the polls. It's still very much in the balance. In terms of the narrative that I think is out there, I think many people think that the Panama Papers revelation was synonymous with the rise of the Pirate&nbsp;Party. What happened actually?</em></p> <p class="Default"><strong>BJ: </strong>We don't know. We actually started to go down in the polls around the Panama Papers and I think that's when people realised&nbsp;that there might have to be elections soon and maybe they feel&nbsp;uncomfortable that we are inexperienced, that we don't have friends in high places. I’ve told people that exactly because we are inexperienced, it gives us the ability to recognise that ourselves, so that we are better prepared. I don't think any party has put as much effort into preparing itself for service at a governance level, and no other party has as many international connections with experts in modernising society and dealing with corruption. Iceland has a lot of friends from all over because&nbsp;many people think of us as a kind of&nbsp;democracy laboratorium. You know, it is difficult, we have not been able to get any clear answers about either our popularity’s rise or fall. I don't know.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Default"><strong>AG: </strong><em>I've heard 2 main charges.&nbsp;One is on the economy, nobody knows what you're going to do on the&nbsp;</em><em>economy.</em><em>&nbsp;And obviously most elections, in most&nbsp;democracies, are ultimately decided on that one issue. The other is that I mean there's kind of a mixed picture. On the one hand you talk about&nbsp;the extreme activity of the three MPs but I also hear from, albeit from members of the Independence Party, that actually in the parliament, when it came to most things, you didn't vote.&nbsp;</em></p> <p class="Default"><strong>BJ: </strong>That's complete bollocks. The fact is that the parliament is constructed around bigger parties and this is something I have tried to change in the parliament in the nearly 8 years that I've been there. But they have never been willing, and particularly this government, to take into account that we are only 3 and that means that we can't cover all committees.</p> <p class="Default">So on the issues that we were elected to look after, we have really gone all in, and we managed to stop a very dangerous law&nbsp;on student&nbsp;loans because our MP just really dug into it and got all the data and made the data available to the general public. Eventually it made all the others who were fighting against it more confident in their speeches, and she had just entered the parliament. There is no way we can make ourselves informed about everything. We have had to prioritise. I totally trust the left-greens when it comes to environmental issues. I trust both them and the social democrats when it comes to welfare issues. When it came to the bill on agricultural change, we didn't know who to trust and we didn't have a policy. It was being made, but we didn't know who to trust and we couldn't put a person into the committee because that person was working&nbsp;on the immigration bill which we felt was more important because we had done a lot of work on it and we knew it.</p> <p class="Default">So when they say this, if you look at the record of their MPs and how many times they come and show up or vote then you notice that most of them are hardly there. They're just like the MPs and Lords that never show up in your palace, you know, what is it called... the Westminster.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Default"><strong>AG: </strong><em>Westminster Palace.&nbsp;</em></p> <p class="Default"><strong>BJ: </strong>Exactly. (laughs) When it comes to the finance stuff I mean it's like, we're very clear, we don't want to be messing too much with moving taxes up and down yet again because it is really bad for small and medium sized companies when you are constantly shifting and changing taxes with VAT. This is something that they are always doing. You have the left-coalition and then you have the right-coalitions and they're always messing with basic little things that are very heavy on people with little companies, so we rather want to go and change the fisheries system, so that we can get more money for the fish so that we can actually resurrect the health-care sector.</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/rebuilding-democracy-in-iceland-interview-with-birgitta-jonsdottir">Rebuilding democracy in Iceland: an interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/phil-england/iceland-pirate-party-birgitta-jonsdottir">Preparing for power: Can Iceland&#039;s Pirate Party change system from the inside? </a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/changing-way-politics-works-interview-with-katrin-oddsdottir">Changing the way politics works: an interview with Katrin Oddsdottir</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Iceland Civil society Democracy and government Team Syntegrity Birgitta Jónsdóttir Ashish Ghadiali Fri, 28 Oct 2016 23:03:14 +0000 Ashish Ghadiali and Birgitta Jónsdóttir 106320 at Iceland: portrait of the pirate as a young politician <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Halldór Auðar Svansson, 34, is the first Pirate Party member to be part of a majority coalition, in Reykjavik. He talks about the Pirate Party movement, e-democracy and the necessary generational shift among professional politicians.&nbsp;</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><em>Editor's note: This article was originally published on 20 August 2014.</em></p><p><span>In 2007, Halldór Auðar Svansson, 27, was working as a programmer in one of the main Icelandic banks, Kaupthing Bank. As a young professional, he was seduced by Kaupthing’s stated ambition to become one of the world’s top ten banks. Seven years later, Kaupthing Bank has collapsed and Svansson is the first Pirate to sit in a majority coalition, in the Icelandic capital city Reykjavik. I met him a few weeks after he took office.</span></p> <p> Among the consequences of the <a href="">2008 Icelandic financial crisis</a>, two were particularly instrumental in Halldor's decision to get involved in politics. The first one started with a joke. In 2010, the Best Party (a “joke party”) <span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_left caption-small'><img src="//" alt="" title="" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload caption-small imagecache imagecache-article_small" style="" /> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Halldór Auðar Svansson. Creative Commons-PPIS.</span></span></span> and its self-declared “anarcho-surrealist” leader, Jón Gnarr, <a href="">won the Reykjavik municipality</a>, a key position in the country's political life. For Svansson, “2008 movements did actually change the way politics was done. The Best Party was a direct response to how people were disillusioned with the political system. It was a ‘parodic rebellion’, which turned out to be probably the best thing that could have happened to Reykjavik at that point.” The second development that cemented Svansson’s decision to enter politics occurred three years later, in 2013, when three members of the <a href="">Pirate Party</a> <a href="">were elected to the National Parliament</a> only a few months after the Party was established. In the Pirates, Svansson found a party to which he could commit fully. He got involved at the grassroots level before running in the primary organised by the party ahead of the 2014 Reykjavik City Council elections.</p> <p>He now intends to use his seat in the majority coalition of Reykjavik and his chairing of the municipal Committee on Administration and Democracy to instigate the changes he and his party have been calling for, especially regarding governance. “This is,” Svansson acknowledges, “a very interesting challenge for me and the Pirates in Iceland as well as for the Pirates as an international movement because we are pretty rebellious and we are trying very actively to change the system itself, to be critical of the establishment. Now we're trying to do this from within the system.”<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>Of course, joining a majority coalition (with the Social Democrats,&nbsp;Bright Future and the Left-Greens) didn't happen without debate in the Icelandic Pirate movement: “Some people were a bit sceptical, but after the discussion and after the coalition had drafted an agreement, people in the Pirate Party were generally pretty happy with it. Of course it's very good to have differing opinions, some people who monitor what you're doing and tell you if they're not happy. I think I would have a hard time functioning as a politician if I had to go it alone and only have my own viewpoint to guide my decisions. The Pirates are all about involving as many people as possible and being democratic. I think that this is a good opportunity to see how this works in practice.”</p> <p>As part of settling into his new job as city councillor, he has spent most of his first weeks meeting with people “interested in democratic reform and transparency” and listening to various stakeholders. He has no problem admitting when he lacks knowledge about a certain topic, or that he needs to get input from others. That is a lesson Icelandic politicians have learnt since the crisis he says: “it used to be that the people in charge believed that if they admitted there were some things they didn't know enough about, or that they wanted other people to help them take decisions, they would be seen as weak or not doing their job. I think that people like Jón Gnarr and other unconventional politicians have helped to change that a bit.” Svansson’s own political involvement exemplifies this change: he is one of the people who entered politics not wanting to become a professional politician. “Two years ago,” he says, “I wouldn't have imagined that I’d be sitting in the majority in Reykjavik today.”</p> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_right caption-small'><img src="//íratar.png" alt="" title="" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload caption-small imagecache imagecache-article_small" style="" /> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>The Icelandic Pirate party. CC-PPIS.</span></span></span>But novice as he may be, Svansson does not intend to be a figurehead on the city council. He is set to chair Rekjavik’s Committee on Administration and Democracy, which deals with issues relating to transparency and the democratic functioning of the municipality. “This Committee,” he says, “did already exist but didn’t have a formalised status and it held meetings pretty sporadically. So it is being elevated so to speak. It's really going to do something.” Although the Committee's agenda hadn't been fully adopted when I met him, Svansson had some ideas on what it could do. He showed, for example, a keen interest in the issue of transparency. Svansson intends to use the committee to tackle this issue, notably by streamlining existing data, making it standardised and ensuring the public can use it.</p> <p>Iceland, according to Svansson, has much progress to make on the issue of transparency. While it is often presented as a “laboratory” or an “example” to follow, Svansson says, “Iceland has this tendency to overlook things that have worked in other countries and to always go full steam ahead trying to reinvent the wheel.” He wants to avoid this, for he is aware of the “good work done in the UK, Finland and Germany and in some areas of the USA” on the issue and thinks it “worthwhile” to go over these experiences before launching Reykjavik’s new transparency policy.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>If transparency is a crucial issue on the Pirates' agenda, they are also expected to address topics such as digital literacy, surveillance and e-democracy. But while the party does pay attention to these issues, being a Pirate doesn't automatically make you a self-satisfied technophile with a digital solution to any political or societal problem. It is in fact the opposite: the more you know about a topic, the more you’ll understand the need for a pragmatic and measured approach.</p> <p>On the idea of teaching programming in school, a trending political topic in several European countries, Svansson – who is himself a programmer – adopts a stance more balanced than that of many European politicians who want to show off their modernising credentials: “That's one issue that many Pirates are interested in. I myself think it's not a high priority. Programming is a specialised topic, a specialised field. I think it's very healthy for kids to get a bit of a feel for it but I think teaching IT in general should be a higher priority because it is a big part of people's lives. Computer and Internet literacy is the new literacy, and being digitally literate is a key aspect of being an actively participating citizen today.”</p> <p>Iceland has an Internet penetration rate that is <a href="">among the highest</a> in the world and smartphones are very popular. The Icelanders, as Svansson puts it, “are not exactly technophobes.” According to him, “smartphones are a huge revolution. They are definitely, I think, the next information technology that we'll be using. They offer a lot of new opportunities, for instance for people to participate in democratic discussions and debate. It's a pretty awesome thing but people also have to realise the consequences of carrying around something that always keeps them connected.” Digital literacy is thus crucial to make citizens active, but it should also make smartphone owners smart. “The more you're connected to others,” Svansson continues, “the more others are connected to you. So we have to be very well aware of the data we're putting out, who can access it and how it can and will be used.” But if surveillance is an issue for the Icelandic Pirates, Svensson thinks that the authorities have yet to take it seriously. The widespread use of smartphones creates a whole new set of issues that underline the inherent complexity of growingly connected societies. The political class - in Iceland and elsewhere - has proved unable to address let alone fully comprehend these issues.</p> <p>I then ask Svansson about e-democracy and the use of IT in the political sphere and in decision-making. Svansson says: “I think e-democracy is both a mere tool and a shift in the way we make politics. Some tools are powerful enough to fundamentally change how we do things, and I think that Internet in general has done this but that doesn't mean it's the answer to everything and that we can fully move away from the methods we used before. They complement each other. Democracy does not function unless people are interested in taking part. And of course e-democracy can provide the tools for people to take part easily but I don't think that on its own e-democracy can get people interested. There has to be something more and I think the initiative in large part has to come from the establishment and the politicians themselves. They have to send out the message, ‘We want you to get involved, we are listening to you, we don't want to rule on our own.’ But as long as IT is seen as some sort of ‘cosmetic’ that is not actively integrated into the system that is already there, it will not become more relevant, just some add-on that doesn't really have any effect.”<span>&nbsp;</span></p><p><span><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none caption-xlarge'><img src="//" alt="" title="" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload caption-xlarge imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Reykjavik. Wikimedia Commons/Nic Lehoux. Creative Commons.</span></span></span></span></p> <p>I ask the young politician what can be done to convince the establishment of the importance of e-democracy. According to Svansson, the options are twofold: “It's best to present it as an augmentation of what we have already, which is true. It's not like the people who currently have the power will lose it by opening up the decision-making process. E-democracy helps them to integrate more opinions into the decision-making process, and makes it easier for them to know how people are feeling about policy decisions.” But what if this argument doesn’t work? Here Svansson’s advice is to “be patient”. He is confident that old-fashioned, unconnected leaders (such as Jean-Claude Juncker, the President-elect of the European Commission, who <a href="">barely knows</a> how to send an e-mail) will be “a thing of the past fairly soon”. If their understanding and approach to technology can't be changed, then “we’ll just have to keep our momentum going”.</p> <p>I still wonder whether this approach is timorous or politically realistic. What is clear though is that digital tools will play an important role in democratic practices in the future. Yet, and as for any highly complex topic, e-democracy won't be instituted overnight. We also shouldn’t see it as a miracle solution to all of our democratic challenges. In fact, and interestingly at a time when the role of civil society is at best overlooked by the ruling elite and at worst fought against, Svansson insists on the importance for people to be involved in organisations: “It doesn't have to be political but I think it's a very maturing process for a person to learn how to function as a member of some organisation in terms of goals and of rules. And I don't think that the Internet or IT are necessarily the best platform for that... It does bring people together to discuss things but I think traditional real life meetings are something that won't be obsolete for quite a while yet.”</p> <p>Svansson is probably part of the first generation of elected representatives who understand both the promises and pitfalls of IT. Most probably this generation will spend most of its energy and time groping for democratic innovation and will have quite a problem aligning their views with those of other professional politicians. Indeed, when we talk about the use of digital tools, transparency, national or European politics, the young politician seems torn between his genuine will to believe that democratic reform is within reach, and his awareness that it is the current establishment - whose will to see such change happen is questioned by Svansson - that needs to make the first move. The Icelandic Pirates, and other young, connected political movements emerging around the globe, are now trying to trigger change from within dysfunctional systems. In other words, they stand for e-reform rather than e-revolution.</p> <p>It will require some years before we can assess this strategy. At this stage there are more questions that clear-cut answers regarding the political situation in Iceland, and more generally regarding the tension between global changes and political inertia. Will a single Piratical novice manage to open decision-making to Reykjavik's citizens and instigate a culture of transparency? Can the Pirate Party actually be in charge or is it condemned to be in the opposition? Can “normalised politics” be progressive and bold? Are citizens-based movements on the verge of getting rid of professional politicians? The Icelandic Pirates hope to show that asking the right questions is the first step to finding the right answers. An appointment has already been booked in with Halldór Svansson at the end of his first term, in 2018, to see how well they've done. </p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/thorvaldur-gylfason/democracy-on-ice-post-mortem-of-icelandic-constitution">Democracy on ice: a post-mortem of the Icelandic constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/jogi-poikola-markus-laine-james-mckinney-scott-hubli-jared-ford-greg-brown/toward">Towards a standard open decisions API </a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/participation-now/deirdre-lee-hilde-c-stephansen/engaging-eu-citizens-in-policy-making">Engaging EU citizens in policy making </a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-still-missing">Real democracy still missing</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/when-politics-strike-back-end-of-icelandic-constitutional-experiment">When politics strike back: the end of the Icelandic constitutional experiment?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/donald-holbrook/cold-reception-rise-of-antiislamic-sentiments-in-iceland">A cold reception: the rise of anti-Islamic sentiments in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/john-keane/short-history-of-banks-and-democracy">A short history of banks and democracy</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/participation-now/mikey-weinkove-hilde-c-stephansen/creating-culture-of-participation">Creating a culture of participation</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? westminster Iceland Anne-Charlotte Oriol Europe 2.0 Tue, 13 Sep 2016 07:56:08 +0000 Anne-Charlotte Oriol 85321 at World Forum for Democracy 2015: A report from the democracy incubator hackathon <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>We are at the start of a digital democratic revolution that will revitalize democracy and help restore trust between governments and citizens.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><a href=""><img width="460px" alt="wfd" src="//" /></a></p> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none caption-xlarge'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title="Flickr/optick. Some rights reserved."><img src="//" alt="Flickr/optick. Some rights reserved." title="Flickr/optick. Some rights reserved." width="460" height="345" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload caption-xlarge imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style=""/></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Flickr/optick. Some rights reserved.</span></span></span></p><p><span style="line-height: 1.5;">In November the Council of Europe organized the World Forum for Democracy for the fourth year in row. Despite its name, the Council of Europe is not a part of the European Union nor the European Council but a regional intergovernmental organisation whose stated goal is to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in its 47 member states, covering over 820 million citizens.</span></p> <p>The <a href="">World Forum for Democracy</a> is a gathering of leaders, opinion-makers, civil society activists, representatives of business, academia, media and professional groups to debate key challenges for democracies worldwide. The forum invites people from all over the world, with over 1.000 attending this year. This event is one of the most important forums we have today to create a worldwide network of democratic researchers and practitioners.</p> <p>The main subject of this year’s Forum was security versus liberty. This was highly pertinent as the event took place in the week after the shocking Paris terrorist attack. How can we maintain a balance between security and freedom in a democratic society under threat? Can democracies resist the escalation of fear and formulate responses based on civic responsibility and active citizenship?</p> <p>One of the main events on the last day of the forum was a <a href="">hackathon</a> event; co-organized by <a href="">Démocratie Ouverte</a>, a french non-profit promoting and experimenting with transparency, participation and collaboration for democracy. The main mission of the hackathon was <em>“to develop a democracy innovation incubator with the purpose of implementing democracy innovations at the local level in order to accelerate their growth and success. The hackathon gathers Forum alumni and local political decision-makers to develop the framework of the incubator, while brainstorming on concrete solutions for increasing the impact and reach of democracy innovations, in order to improve citizen participation at the local level.”</em></p> <h2><strong>The hackathon</strong></h2> <p>We at the Citizens Foundation in Iceland took part in the hackathon, along with almost 30 participants comprising democratic innovators and representatives of 15 cities around Europe. We started the morning with inspiring presentations from several democracy innovators and researchers and then split into smaller groups, each of these comprising both representatives from cities and democratic innovators.</p> <p>Shortly before the hackathon we published a blog outlining our contribution for the democratic incubator, suggesting that a key part of the incubator could be a <a href="">Digital Commons for Open Government.</a><span style="line-height: 1.5;">&nbsp;</span></p> <p><em>“We propose creating a Digital Commons for Open Government and invite you to join us in its design. The plan is to create a highly automated marketplace for open source tools, open knowledge and relevant support services. We will connect governments and civil society with open source developers and commercial support companies. This single borderless market will automate and speed up deployment of citizen participation and open data solutions on all official levels while saving participating governments money.”</em><span style="line-height: 1.5;">&nbsp;</span></p> <p>In each group we went through a brainstorming process, spending an hour on the Why, an hour on the How and an hour on the What of what we wanted to build. This proved a useful exercise. Here are some of the main points that came out of our group when we presented our ideas about Digital Commons for Open Government, a digital marketplace.</p> <h2><strong>Why a Digital Commons for Open Government?</strong><span style="line-height: 1.5;">&nbsp;<br />&nbsp;</span></h2> <p>To help citizens regain trust in government by giving them the power to have direct influence and the knowledge to understand information which is open and transparent. The commons need to be bottom-up and citizen driven, not imposed through a top down structure of governments and corporations. It is important to share responsibility between citizens, public institutions, private institutions and civil society.</p> <p>To help citizens and government trust democratic applications of technology. Using reviews and rankings, enable cities to see what other cities are experimenting with. This mechanism should be crowd-sourced and citizen driven. There is a strong demand for open government from citizens around the world.</p> <p>We need to always be evolving and improving and reflective on what works and doesn’t work, and to learn from each other. To make better decisions is the ultimate goal both for governments and citizens, with more inclusivity and in everyone's interest. We need more long term efficiency and better informed citizens.</p> <h2><strong>How will we build it?</strong><span style="line-height: 1.5;">&nbsp;</span></h2> <p>By collaboratively reinventing and developing democracy. We’ll need to build a knowledge exchange with questions and answers, user groups and collaboration and competition. This should include information about what works best for marketing and user takeups.<span style="line-height: 1.5;">&nbsp;</span></p> <p>We should consider this as an Airbnb/Songkick for democracy tools and services. It should be as easy to use for cities as popular mass market online services, and it should enable cities to share feature development costs between themselves.</p> <h2><strong>What will we create?</strong></h2> <p>A transnational app store, an online meeting- and marketplace for democracy advocates, applications and services. In our hackathon group we came up with the working name for this part of the incubator: “<strong>Democracy Source”.</strong></p> <p>We will build the commons in cooperation with organizations like the Council of Europe, Open Government Partnership, civil society, cities and citizens.</p> <p>We have setup a working group to discuss the ideas around the digital commons at <a href=""></a></p> <p>In the final hours of the Hackathon we and four other brainstorming groups also presented interesting ideas including setting up a human run information democracy exchange within the Council of Europe and a Social Github where cities and democratic innovators could work together, in many ways similar ideas as the Digital Commons for Open Government. Bruno Kaufmann, a respected democratic innovator who took part in the Hackathon, wrote a blog post about the Forum and the Hackathon and published it on his <a href="">SwissInfo blog</a>.</p> <h2><strong>What next?</strong></h2> <p>There is clearly strong political and administrative will towards more open governments.&nbsp; We would like to see cooperation with the Open Government Partnership, which is another important forum on democracy innovation.</p> <p>We have high hopes for the Council of Europe as a democratic incubator. The Council has a great reputation with its mission to promote democracy and human rights and is uniquely placed to bring together democratic innovators and cities through their extensive network created with the World Forum for Democracy over the past four years. But this project is also the responsibility of citizens, democratic innovators, representatives, civil servants and civic start-ups. They will have to cooperate and be willing to experiment with new tools, methodologies and roles for everyone in democracy. We are at the start of a democratic revolution that will revitalize democracy and help restore trust between governments and citizens. We all need to work together to make this a reality.</p> <div style="background-color: #f9f3ff; width: 100%; float: right; margin-left: 14px; border-top: solid 3px #DAC2EA;"> <div style="margin-bottom: 8px; padding: 14px;"><span style="font-size: 1.2em; margin-bottom: 8px;">There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the <a href="">World Forum for Democracy</a> partnership.</span></div></div><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href=""><img src="//" alt="wfd" /></a></p><p>More from the <a href="">World Forum for Democracy</a> partnership.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/priorities-of-people-interview-with-citizens-foundation">Priorities of the people: an interview with Iceland&#039;s Citizens Foundation</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/wfd/cathleen-berger/human-rights-aren-t-enough-any-more-we-need-new-strategy">Human rights aren’t enough any more - we need a new strategy </a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/annecharlotte-oriol/iceland-portrait-of-pirate-as-young-politician">Iceland: portrait of the pirate as a young politician</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> digitaLiberties Iceland World Forum for Democracy Robert Bjarnason Mon, 21 Dec 2015 18:46:23 +0000 Robert Bjarnason 98686 at A “velvet Grexit” is a trick. Argentina, Ecuador and Iceland prove default can work. <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Temporary Eurozone exit plan is a smokescreen for shock doctrine tactics that would condemn the Greeks to perpetual austerity. Argentina, Ecuador or Iceland show there is an alternative<em>. <strong><a href="" target="_blank">Español</a></strong></em></p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="//[2]_0.jpg" alt="" height="240" width="460" /></p> <p>In the midst of Friday’s Bundestag vote to approve a third €86bn (£60bn) bailout deal for Greece, its humiliating and impossible Versailles-style debt repayment terms are igniting <a href="">increasingly vociferous opposition</a> from several quarters. This peculiar alliance of bedfellows, including the International Monetary Fund, the White House, the European Central Bank as well as taxpayers and campaign groups across Europe warn that the latest austerity plan will categorically fail without substantial debt relief. Yet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and several Eurozone governments stubbornly refuse to entertain such a possibility.</p> <p>Ironically, it seems to be Thursday’s <a href="">renewed call from Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble</a> for Greece’s “temporary” exit from the Eurozone that is rapidly gaining traction as the only compromise solution that can break the impasse by reconciling the disparate interests of all parties. Indeed, advocates argue that the return of the notion of this so-called “velvet Grexit” (first mooted in 2012) to the negotiating table has changed everything by offering the shattered Greek people a way out of their despair and a <a href="">chance to regain competitiveness at a stroke, whilst also clearing the way for meaningful debt relief</a>.</p> <p>Yet as one of the key architects of five years of failed austerity and contraction that has reaped misery on the Greek people, shouldn’t Schäuble’s apparent act of benevolence be greeted with more than a mild dose of cynicism?</p> <p>Indeed some analysts allege that the 72-year old’s proposal of a Greek “time-out” from the Eurozone <a href="">is a veiled attempt to push it out of the 19-member currency union for good</a>, by couching it in temporary terms to make it sound both less onerous and more compliant with the legal complexities that a Grexit would entail. </p> <p>However, in reality, the Minister’s proposition represents a far more sinister attempt at a slow-burn state coup against the Greek people. </p> <p>Should such an offer be formally put to them, Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza-led government must be in no doubt that the plan is in fact concocted straight from the shock doctrine recipe book as decoded by Naomi Klein. If enacted, the true four-fold motivations of this plan will reveal themselves about a year from now, when a temporary Grexit would offset a chain of events that will spell catastrophe for Greek society. </p> <p>These objectives are; first, (and contrary to the proposals’ declared aims), the rapid re-integration of Greece into the Euro in order to save the single currency’s ailing legitimacy; secondly, the silencing of international condemnation of Greece’s treatment by the troika and the German government overseas; thirdly, to urgently extinguish the “threat of a good example” that Syriza presents in term of its potential to proliferate a broad, anti-austerity project in Europe which could spread to Spain and Ireland (where there are elections in 2016) and then beyond; fourth, the further deepening of austerity measures in Greece as part of the neoliberal project.</p> <p>If you think the prospect of the above sounds both frightening and alarmist, it is actually based on real events in the global economy from the last ten years.</p> <p>Here is why.</p> <p><strong>An iron fist in a velvet glove</strong></p> <p>Although the global economy is once again teetering on the brink of <a href="">a major debt crisis</a>, recent history is littered with examples of countries that suffer dramatic economic collapse, but soon bounce back to experience unprecedented growth and prosperity. </p> <p>The policy formula always combines the following; unilateral declaration of debt default, negotiating significant “haircuts” of remaining debt and the implementation of Keynesian or even socialist economic programmes and wealth redistribution in order to both stimulate domestic demand and protect the vulnerable. Crucial to this is also either withdrawal from hard-currency pegs or massive devaluation of their national currencies so as to induce an export and investment-led recovery that stimulates foreign revenues to once again flow into state coffers. Increased export tariffs and corporate tax avoidance clampdowns also feature to aid the creation of twin trade and fiscal surpluses which then fuels rapid economic expansion.</p> <p>For instance, Argentina defaulted on US$ 93 billion of debt in 2002 and devalued its currency by 70 percent after removing the peso from the US-dollar peg. It also negotiated the write down of two thirds of its public debt and became <a href="">the fastest-growing economy in the western hemisphere</a> in 2003-2007 under the stewardship of the avowedly anti-neoliberal Nestor Kirchner government.</p> <p>Meanwhile in Ecuador, in 2008 President Correa declared 70 percent of its debt to be “illegitimate”, part-defaulting on it then buying back bonds at a third of their value which wiped billions of dollars off its liabilities. In pursuing the socialist reconstruction of society, Ecuador has since achieved a spectacular <a href="">“economic miracle”</a> which has ridden the waves of the global crisis. </p> <p>Closer to home in Europe, in 2009, faced with one of the worst financial crises in history, Iceland’s government overcame its banking collapse by devaluing the Krona by 50 percent, refusing to implement austerity measures and instead letting the banks fail. It also paid off consumer loans and permitted <a href="">forgiveness on all household debts exceeding 110 percent of home values.</a> The economy is booming once again and unemployment is just 4 percent.</p> <p>Sounds great right? But here is the thing. </p> <p>In all three cases these miraculous economic success stories came at a high immediate price; an <em>incredibly painful</em> initial post-default year for their citizens. In each scenario, as the currency value fell through the floor, inflation rose, industry ground to a halt due to the imported capital goods needed to produce becoming prohibitively expensive for businesses and unemployment went into ascent. Many imported necessities such as medicines were also priced out of the financial reach of the average consumer. For instance in Argentina in twelve months following default and exit from the US-dollar peg, capital controls remained in place, growth slumped by a fifth and millions were plunged into poverty, which rose to 54 percent.</p> <p>Imagine if this scenario were repeated in Greece.</p> <p>Yet all of the key factors that permitted Argentina, Ecuador and Iceland to experience socio-economic renaissance are already in place. The potential for the country to benefit from a permanent Grexit in the same way are enormous, were it to return to a weak currency like the Drachma. This would allow its small but potentially lucrative infant industries (cheese, cotton, fish) to thrive, whilst presenting windfalls for their predominant tourism, petrol-based product and shipping sectors. China and Russia stand ready to invest billions to help expand their productive capacity and given that these two economic powerhouses currently only account for <a href="">3 percent of all Greek exports</a>, the potential for demand to receive an enormous boost is unimaginable. Further, Greece benefits from the fact that in Syriza, they also have a government that (as in our three case studies), will manage the economic recovery in a way that prioritises the needs of its population over the interests of capital.</p> <p>However, a <em>velvet</em> Grexit (as opposed to a permanent one alongside declaring unilateral default which would emancipate the country from its debt burden whilst restoring economic sovereignty), would be the worst of all possible worlds for Greece, precisely because after this agonising first year, the Greek people would be on their collective knees, begging to return to the Euro <em>at any price</em>. Lacking that one essential ingredient –allowing <em>time</em> for the economic recovery to play out in 2017– the Greeks, soaked by the proverbial storm, would understandably rush for shelter rather than hold out to enjoy witnessing the rainbow that follows.</p> <p>Cue the troika offering them an early-entry back into the single currency in mid-2016 as “salvation,” in exchange for an austerity programme “on acid”. </p> <p>The Greek government of the day will have no choice but to cede to the popular will, even though the offer to return to the Eurozone will likely lead to a scenario that makes Greece’s humanitarian crisis of the last five years look like a walk in the Pedion Areos Park. </p> <p>Nevertheless, in doing so, the outcome will be that the detractors of the Troika will have been silenced, and most importantly any hope of an alternative anti-austerity model being articulated in the heart of Europe will have been decisively crushed.</p> <p><strong>A shock doctrine for Greece </strong></p> <p>In <a href="">The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism</a>, Naomi Klein argues that libertarian&nbsp;free market&nbsp;policies have risen to prominence in some developed countries because of a deliberate strategy in which political and corporate leaders exploit crises to execute controversial exploitative neoliberal policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance. Could it be that Schäuble’s tantalising offer of a temporary Eurozone exit is in fact a ruse for the extension of this masterplan?</p> <p>Compelling evidence suggests that Greece’s shock doctrine strategy is occurring in three stages and which involve the country being dishonestly maintained in a permanent state of crisis.</p> <p>In the first stage (2010-2015) it is important to recognise that Greece’s economy did not fail on its own.&nbsp;<em>It was made to fail. </em>In summary, the financial institutions sabotaged the Greek government and deliberately pushed it into unsustainable debt so that oligarchs and global corporations could profit from the ensuing chaos and misery. For instance now <a href="">well-cited analysis</a> from British NGO, Jubilee Debt Campaign revealed that at least 90 percent of the Greek bailout has paid off reckless lenders, with only a fraction actually reaching the Greek people. The European Central Bank alone <a href="">stands to make between €10 and €22 billion profit out of loans to Greece</a> and has acted exactly like a vulture fund, buying up debts cheaply during the crisis, refusing to take part in a necessary restructuring of the debt, and demanding to be repaid at exorbitant profit. More obvious an example of racketeering only exists on the set of <em>The Godfather.</em></p> <p>Greece’s shock doctrine’s second stage occurred only last week. When Merkel appeared to be incensed by her Finance Minister’s temporary Grexit proposal, the fact that she latched on to it rather quickly as a useful negotiating ploy seems all too convenient. In the reigning confusion and amidst media scaremongering of financial armageddon if Greece were to refuse to agree to the memorandum, the trick worked. The prospect of a permanent ejection from the Eurozone <a href="">terrified Mr Tsipras into submission</a> and to signing the deal for more austerity.</p> <p>The third and final stage would be the proposed “time-out” from the Eurozone that may still await in coming months. A dazed and despairing Greek population would soon dispose itself to any austerity measures demanded of them as Klein’s prophecy becomes a reality once again. The prospect of a “velvet Grexit” which has been rekindled this week as a means to bring a fairer and more agreeable ending to this Greek tragedy is a Trojan horse. We must have the courage to tell the Greek people that. But we must go further still and insist - until they believe it - that if the bailout plan to keep them in the monetary union represents what Greece’s ex-Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis describes as <a href="">“the greatest disaster of macroeconomic management ever”</a>, a Euro time-out will be even worse. Only default, together with repudiation of what is an <a href="">illegitimate, illegal and odious debt</a> by the Greek government and <em>permanent</em> Grexit with the restoration of the Drachma will provide Greece a lifeline to resurrection. A “velvet Grexit” may be a trick. Argentine, Ecuador and Iceland’s proves default can work. </p> <hr /> <p><em>Mural painting in Buenos Aires. Image rights: Francesc Badia i Dalmases, all rights reserved</em></p> <p>&nbsp;</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/democraciaabierta/francesc-badia-i-dalmases/athens-from-buenos-aires">Athens from Buenos Aires</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Greece </div> <div class="field-item even"> Argentina </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ecuador </div> <div class="field-item even"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> DemocraciaAbierta Can Europe make it? Iceland Ecuador Argentina Greece Democracy and government Economics Ideas Daniel Ozarow Thu, 23 Jul 2015 15:05:15 +0000 Daniel Ozarow 94696 at El default de Argentina, Ecuador o Islandia demuestra que el Grexit temporal es una trampa <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <P>La salida temporal de Grecia de la zona euro es una cortina de humo que oculta la doctrina de schock que condenaría a los griegos a una austeridad perpetua. Los casos de Argentina, Ecuador o Islandia demuestran que el default es posible.<STRONG> <EM><A href="" target=_blank>English.</a></em></strong></p> </div> </div> </div> <P><IMG alt="" src="//[2].jpg" width="460" height="240" /></p> <P>Coincidiendo con la votación del Bundestag para aprobar el tercer rescate de Grecia (86.000 millones de €), sus humillantes e imposibles plazos de amortización de la deuda, de reminiscencias versallescas, &nbsp;están encendiendo <A href="">una oposición cada vez más clamorosa</a> desde varios sectores. Esta alianza de compañeros de viaje poco habituales, como el Fondo Monetario Internacional, la Casa Blanca, el Banco Central Europeo, así como contribuyentes y activistas en toda Europa advierten que el último plan de austeridad fracasará rotundamente sin una reducción sustancial de la deuda. Sin embargo, la canciller alemana Angela Merkel y varios gobiernos de la eurozona se niegan obstinadamente a considerar tal posibilidad.</p> <P>Irónicamente, parece que <A href="">la nueva propuesta del ministro de finanzas alemán Wolfgang Schäuble</a> de una salida "temporal" de Grecia de la zona euro está ganando rápidamente terreno como única solución de compromiso que puede romper el <EM>impasse</em> y conciliar los intereses dispares de todas las partes. De hecho, sus defensores argumentan que el retorno de la noción de este "Grexit de terciopelo" (que ya fue objeto de debate en 2012) a la mesa de negociaciones lo cambia todo al ofrecer al desgarrado pueblo griego una vía para salir de su desesperación y <A href="///F:/Dan/Middlesex/Media%20-%20Written,%20TV%20and%20Radio%20Interviews/It%20would%20allow%20the%20country%20to%20regain%20competitiveness%20at%20a%20stroke%20without%20a%20disastrous%20over-shoot%20or%20the%20risk%20that%20events%20might%20spin%20out%20of%20control.%20It%20would%20clear%20the%20way%20for%20proper%20debt%20relief%20–%20or%20a%20standard%20IMF-style%20package.">la oportunidad de recobrar su competitividad de golpe, así como de despejar el camino para una reducción significativa de la deuda. </a></p> <P>Pero siendo él uno de los principales arquitectos de los cinco años fracasados de austeridad y contracción que han sembrado sufrimiento en el pueblo griego, ¿no debería este aparente acto de benevolencia de Schäuble ser recibido con una dosis mínima de cinismo?</p> <P>Algunos analistas sostienen que la propuesta del ministro de un tiempo muerto para Grecia fuera de la zona euro es en realidad <A href="">un intento encubierto de echar al país fuera de la unión monetaria de 19 miembros</a> expresado en términos temporales, para que suene menos oneroso y más compatible con las complejidades legales que un Grexit supondría.</p> <P>Sin embargo, la propuesta del ministro alemán representa de hecho un intento mucho más siniestro de dar un “golpe de estado” a fuego lento contra el pueblo griego.</p> <P>En el caso que dicha oferta se hiciera de manera formal, Alexis Tsipras y el gobierno liderado por Syriza no deberían albergar ninguna duda de que el plan sale directamente del libro de recetas de la doctrina de choque, decodificado por Naomi Klein. Si se aprobara, la cuádruple motivación de este plan se revelaría de un año aproximadamente, cuando un Grexit temporal desencadenaría una serie de sucesos que resultarían en una catástrofe para la sociedad griega.</p> <P>Estos cuatro objetivos son: primero (y contrariamente a los objetivos declarados de la propuesta), la rápida reinserción de Grecia en el euro con el fin de salvar la maltrecha legitimidad de la moneda única; en segundo lugar, silenciar la condena internacional ante el trato recibido por Grecia por parte de la Troika y el gobierno alemán; en tercer lugar, neutralizar rápidamente la amenaza del “buen ejemplo" que Syriza representa en términos de la posible articulación de un amplio proyecto anti-austeridad en Europa que podría extenderse a España, Portugal e Irlanda (donde hay elecciones entre octubre 2015 y abril 2016) y más allá; cuarto, la profundización de las medidas de austeridad en Grecia como parte del proyecto neoliberal.</p> <P>Si la perspectiva de lo que antecede se le antoja aterradora y alarmista, piense que se basa en hechos reales de la economía mundial de los últimos diez años. He aquí por qué.</p> <P>&nbsp;<STRONG>Un puño de hierro en un guante de seda</strong></p> <P>Aunque la economía mundial se tambalea una vez más al borde de <A href="">una gran crisis de deuda</a>, la historia reciente está llena de ejemplos de países que sufren colapsos económicos dramáticos, pero que se recuperan pronto y experimentan crecimiento y prosperidad sin precedentes.</p> <P>La fórmula siempre combina lo siguiente: declaración unilateral de impago de la deuda, negociación de recortes significativos del resto de la deuda y ejecución de programas económicos keynesianos o incluso socialistas, y redistribución de la riqueza con el fin de estimular la demanda interna y proteger a los más vulnerables. Es también crucial la retirada de ataduras con divisas fuertes o la devaluación masiva de la moneda nacional, con el fin de inducir una recuperación liderada por las exportaciones y las inversiones, que favorezca que los ingresos provenientes del extranjero fluyan de nuevo hacia las arcas estatales. El incremento de los aranceles a la exportación y la persecución de la evasión fiscal por parte de las empresas también cuentan para ayudar a crear un superávit comercial y fiscal que pueda impulsar una rápida expansión económica.</p> <P>Por ejemplo, Argentina dejó de pagar 93 millones de dólares de deuda en 2002 y devaluó un 70 por ciento su moneda tras cancelar la paridad del peso con el dólar. También negoció la reducción de dos tercios de su deuda pública y se convirtió en <A href="">la economía de más rápido crecimiento del hemisferio occidental</a> en 2003-2007 bajo la dirección de un gobierno, el de Néstor Kirchner, declaradamente anti-neoliberal.</p> <P>Mientras, en 2008, el presidente Correa declaró “ilegítimo” un 70 por ciento de su deuda, no haciendo frente a una parte de esta deuda y luego recomprando bonos a un tercio de su valor, lo que borró miles de millones de dólares de su pasivo. Buscando una reconstrucción socialista de la sociedad, Ecuador ha logrado desde entonces un espectacular "milagro económico" que le ha permitido sortear las olas de la crisis mundial.</p> <P>En Europa, en 2009, ante una de las peores crisis financieras de la historia, el gobierno de Islandia superó su colapso bancario devaluando la corona un 50 por ciento, negándose a aplicar las medidas de austeridad y dejando que los bancos quebrasen. También amortizó los créditos al consumo y condonó <A href="">el endeudamiento de los hogares superior al 110 por ciento del valor de la vivienda. </a>La economía está en auge otra vez y el desempleo ha bajado al 4 por ciento.</p> <P>Suena bien ¿verdad? Pero aquí está la cosa.</p> <P>En los tres casos, estas milagrosas historias de éxito económico tuvieron unos costes muy altos a corto plazo: un primer año después del impago de la deuda <EM>increíblemente doloroso </em>para los ciudadanos. En cada caso, al precipitarse el valor de la moneda, se disparó la inflación, la industria se detuvo porque los bienes de capital de importación necesarios para la producción se volvieron prohibitivos para las empresas y el desempleo fue en ascenso. El precio de muchas importaciones necesarias, como los medicamentos, se situó fuera del alcance económico del consumidor medio. En Argentina, por ejemplo, en los doce meses siguientes al <EM>default </em>y al abandono de la paridad con el dólar, se mantuvieron los controles de capital, se desplomó el crecimiento en un 25 por ciento y millones de ciudadanos se hundieron en la pobreza, que llegó a 54 por ciento.</p> <P>Imagínense si este escenario se repitiera en Grecia.</p> <P>Todos los factores clave que permitieron a Argentina, Ecuador e Islandia experimentar un renacimiento socioeconómico están presentes. Las posibilidades de que el país se beneficiase de la misma manera de un Grexit permanente es enorme, si volviese a una moneda débil como el dracma. Esto permitiría que sus pequeñas pero potencialmente lucrativas industrias nacientes (queso, algodón, pesca) prosperasen, y que sus sectores predominantes (turismo, derivados del petróleo y transporte marítimo) presentasen ganancias extraordinarias. China y Rusia están dispuestas a invertir miles de millones para ayudar a ampliar su capacidad productiva y dado que las exportaciones griegas a estas dos potencias sólo representan actualmente el <A href="">3 por ciento del total</a>, el potencial de demanda es enorme. Por otra parte, Grecia se beneficia también del hecho de que tiene un gobierno, el de Syriza, que (como en los tres estudios de caso), gestionará la recuperación económica priorizando las necesidades de la población por encima de los intereses del capital.</p> <P>Pero un Grexit de terciopelo (en lugar de uno permanente junto con una declaración de <EM>default</em> unilateral que emanciparía al país de la carga de la deuda y restauraría su soberanía económica), sería el peor de los mundos posibles para Grecia, precisamente porque después de este angustioso primer año, el pueblo griego estaría de rodillas, pidiendo volver al euro <EM>a cualquier precio</em>. A falta de que este ingrediente esencial – dejándole <EM>tiempo </em>a la recuperación económica hasta 2017 – sería comprensible que los griegos, calados por la proverbial tormenta, se precipitasen a buscar refugio en lugar de aguantar para poder presenciar el arco iris al final.</p> <P>La Troika ofrecería entonces, como “salvación”, a mediados de 2016, una vuelta temprana a la moneda única, a cambio de un programa de austeridad tremendo. El gobierno griego no tendría más remedio que ceder a la voluntad popular, a pesar de que la oferta de volver a la zona euro probablemente conduciría a un escenario que haría que la crisis humanitaria en Grecia de los últimos cinco años pareciese un paseo por el tranquilo parque ateniense de<A href=""> Pedion Areos</a> .</p> <P>El resultado sería el silenciamiento de los detractores de la Troika y, lo más importante, elo aplastamiento decisivo de cualquier esperanza de articular un modelo alternativo anti-austeridad en el corazón de Europa.</p> <P><STRONG>Doctrina de choque para Grecia </strong></p> <P>En <A href="">La doctrina de Shock. El auge del capitalismo del desastre</a>, Naomi Klein argumenta que las políticas libertarias de libre mercado han adquirido importancia en algunos países desarrollados debido a una estrategia deliberada en la que los líderes políticos y empresariales han aprovechado las crisis para implementar controvertidas políticas neoliberales mientras los ciudadanos están demasiado distraídos emocional y físicamente por las catástrofes o convulsiones como para montar una resistencia efectiva. ¿Podría ser que la oferta tentadora de Schäuble de salir temporalmente de la zona euro fuese en realidad una artimaña para el desarrollo de este plan maestro?</p> <P>Las evidencias señalan contundentemente que la estrategia de la doctrina de choque para Grecia se está produciendo en tres etapas que implican mantener deshonestamente el país en un permanente estado de crisis.</p> <P>Es importante reconocer que durante la primera fase (2010-2015) la economía griega no fracasó por su cuenta. <EM>Se la hizo fracasar. </em>Resumiendo: las instituciones financieras sabotearon el gobierno griego y lo empujaron deliberadamente hacia deudas insostenibles para que los oligarcas y las corporaciones globales pudiesen aprovecharse del caso y la miseria consecuente. Por ejemplo un <A href="">análisis muy citado</a> de una ONG británica, Jubilee Debt Campaign, reveló que por el menos el 90% del rescate griego fue a parar a los acreedores, y sólo una mínima fracción alcanzó finalmente a la gente. Según esta misma ONG, el Banco Central Europeo pretende <A href="">obtener entre 10.000 y 22.000 millones de euros de beneficio</a> a partir de los préstamos a Grecia, y ha actuado exactamente como un fondo buitre, comprando deuda barata durante la crisis, negándose a participar en una reestructuración de la deuda, y exigiendo el pago de beneficios exorbitantes. Mejor ilustración de una actitud mafiosa que ésta sólo puede encontrarse en la serie de “El Padrino”.</p> <P>La segunda parte del tratamiento de shock a Grecia sólo se produjo a principios de Julio. Cuando ya Merkel parecía bendecida por su ministro de finanzas para autorizar una propuesta de Grexit temporal, el hecho de que se echara atrás tan rápidamente parece una argucia negociadora útil, pero demasiado sospechosa. En medio de la confusión reinante y ante unos medios amenazando con el fin del mundo en el caso de que Grecia no aceptara finalmente el memorándum,&nbsp; el truco funcionó. La perspectiva de una expulsión permanente de la Eurozona aterrorizó al señor Tsipras hasta la sumisión y la firma del trato que impone más autoridad.</p> <P>La tercera y última fase será la propuesta “expulsión temporal” de la Eurozona que quizás esté esperando en los próximos meses. Una población griega mareada y desesperada se prepara enseguida para cualquier medida de austeridad que se le pida a medida que la profecía de Klein se convierte en realidad una vez más. La perspectiva de un “Grexit aterciopelado” que ha sido actualizada estos días como vía para facilitar un final de la tragedia Griega más justo y más aceptable no es sino un caballo de Troya. </p> <P>Tenemos que tener el coraje de decírselo al pueblo Griego. Pero debemos ir aún más allá e insistir –hasta que se lo crean–&nbsp; que si el rescate para mantenerlos dentro de la unión monetaria representa lo que el exministro de finanzas Yanis Varoufakis ha descrito como “<A href="">el mayor desastre de gestión macroeconómica nunca visto</a>”, una salida temporal del euro será aún peor. Sólo un default, junto con el rechazo por parte del gobierno griego de lo que es una deuda <A href="">ilegítima, ilegal y odiosa</a> y un Grexit<EM> permanente</em> con restauración del dracma puede proporcionar a Grecia una línea de vida hacia la resurrección. Es una posibilidad real. Las experiencias de default de Argentina, Ecuador o Islandia así lo demuestran. </p> <HR /> <P>&nbsp;</p> <P><EM>Pintura mural en Buenos Aires. Fotografía: Francesc Badia. Todos los derechos reservados.</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/democraciaabierta/francesc-badia-i-dalmases/atenas-desde-buenos-aires">Atenas desde Buenos Aires</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Greece </div> <div class="field-item even"> Argentina </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ecuador </div> <div class="field-item even"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item even"> International politics </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> DemocraciaAbierta DemocraciaAbierta Iceland Ecuador Argentina Greece Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Daniel Ozarow Thu, 23 Jul 2015 14:11:48 +0000 Daniel Ozarow 94691 at Iceland's unfinished revolution? An interview with Hordur Torfason <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The award-winning human rights activist credited with starting Iceland's 'pots and pans revolution', discusses with Phil England the prospects for 'unfreezing' the draft new constitution.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="// torfason.jpg" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="// torfason.jpg" alt="" title="" width="460" height="308" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span></p><p>(<em>Image: OddurBen, <span>Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported</span> </em><span><em>(<span>CC BY-SA 3.0</span>) </em></span><em>)</em></p><p><em><span><span>You’re credited as the person who started the “pots and pans revolution” in Iceland. How did the protests start?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I’m 70 years old this year. I started becoming an activist around 20 years old. Not that I wanted to become an activist, not at all. But I’m gay and it tells you a story that I’m the first gay man in the history of Iceland who steps forward. When I was 30 years old I was very famous. Everybody knew my song. I was on television, radio, doing concerts, LPs. I was doing everything that a young man can dream of. I was close to be a star or something like that in Iceland, in this small community. Except I was never happy because people were always trying to stop me being gay. I was not allowed to talk about it. It was like living in a dark cave.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>One day I just decided to step out and say, “I’m gay and that’s it.” And everything went upside down, I had to go into exile and so on. That made me more determined to start fighting using my talent. I’m educated as an actor in the national theatre. I could play, I could sing, I could dance, I could write songs, I could write stories. This was how I started to become an activist, mixing activism and art. My main thing for all these years was to create awareness. Not only with myself but also travelling around talking to people through songs and stories. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So in the crash in October 2008, I had already done things like this. I’ve learned a lot of what I would call facts or methods through my years of dealing with people. So what I simply did is what Socrates did in the old days, I went around asking people questions. I just placed myself in front of the parliament building and I asked people, ‘Can you tell me what has happened in this country?’ and ‘Do you have any idea what we can do?’ I stood there every day during the lunch-hour and it didn’t take me long to understand the seriousness of the situation, the anger among people and how scared people were.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So I decided to put up a big outdoor protest meeting. I just called friends, artists and intellectuals and asked them to clarify the situation with a speech, because the government wasn’t doing that. I thought what I will try to do is to inform people about what is happening. The first meeting was like a week later, the 17</span><span>th</span><span> October and that’s how it started. And I remember looking over those thousands of people who were there. I had been talking to many of them. That’s what I do usually, I go among people I know and I don’t know, I just ask them questions, have a conversation with them about the situation. But what struck me there was the anger and the confusion. Nobody seemed to know what had happened and the government, the prime minister was telling us we should just relax he would take care of it. And in my heart I would never believe that. A person who has led us into this confusion, this terrible situation, I didn’t trust him to lead us out of it. Not at all. And it’s my constitutional right to stand up and protest so I simply asked people to stick together, talk together. We were all in this together. And I simply asked them, ‘do you want another meeting in the same time, the same place next week?’ And thousands said ‘yes’ and that was enough for me. And I simply started working on this very seriously.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>And those weekly protests continued for about five months?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yes. I didn’t know how long it would take of course, but my experience is you do the same things, repeat things systematically. It saves us a lot of money, advertising and things like that. I did the meetings like no more than 45 minutes as it was cold. Same place, same time. What I also did, reaching out to people, saying ‘look, I cannot do this alone, I need your help.’ But then again I had problems with that because you can never trust people. You can never know who’s in disguise for police or whatever people want. So I had to be very careful and I had my own methods in working. Let’s put it this way: I use everyone, trust no-one. That’s the only way to do things like this. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And this went on, of course, for five months, and in 1st December I found a person who I wouldn’t say I could trust 100% but he promised to be my right-hand and assist me in every possible way whenever I needed. And he did – like many other people – and he was with me for three months and he was really a saviour for my work.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>What I usually do – because I’ve done this before on a smaller scale – is go around talking to the scholars, the intellectuals, the artists, I seek their opinion and know-how on matters. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Were people feeling the direct impacts of the crash at this time or were they just worried – seeing the banks fail and being nationalised, seeing the stock market crash – about what might happen to the country? </span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yes. We did not know what was going to happen. We heard all kinds of stories. We began to see the stores lacked some types of food and we were fed with rumours that we were bankrupt and within a few days or months we wouldn’t even have food in our stores. People were very scared, yes.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>As a knock-on were companies affected? I understand there was quite a rise in unemployment as well.</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well that was hard to trust. I was more concerned more about how people felt. Unemployment – I don’t recall looking into that. I found that maybe more as a natural result it would come. I wasn’t worried about that. I remember there was a story about the minister of finance trying to save some money and save some food. There was a lot of confusion and stories that made people scared. My main concern in the first months in October and November was trying to inform people with something the government did not. [Editor's note: Hordor Torfason wrote on March 8 2016 to make this correction</span></span><span>: "T</span><span>housands of people lost their jobs. Even my husband and that changed everything for us and thousands of other people. I just want to say I am sorry of this mistake. And please note the unemployment was quite high here in Iceland right after the crash."]</span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>I’m very interested that you had a set of clear demands. How important do you think that is to the success of a protest movement?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>That is the clue. That is the glue. I went around for the first three weeks and asked people ‘what we do we want?’ From the very first week I kept a diary and I noticed what people were demanding. And my conclusion was that they wanted the government to resign, they wanted the board of the national bank to resign and they wanted the board of the money supervisory authority to resign. Of course the list was endless but my experience told me that social changes happen very slowly and three things would be sufficient. So I think it was on the third big meeting when I asked the crowd ‘do you want this?’ and I mentioned those three demands. And thousands of people said ‘yes.’ This was the glue that kept us together. This was the aim and I read this aloud every meeting. And in a way this made our meetings legal. This is simply what we are asking for. At the same of course we were totally ignored by the government, the ministers. So what I did in December was to start writing letters to the ministers or people in power asking for a meeting so that they knew what they were doing out there because we only got silence from their side. They pretended we didn’t exist and they called us names. So what I did was to ask for meetings. I went there. I read the letter out loud, which was in a way ‘I want you to resign for these reasons.’ I asked them ‘do you understand the letter’ and they said ‘yes’. Sometimes the meetings were up to one or two hours, very interesting meetings with some of them. Others were very blunt, very short and polite. They accepted the letter and that was it. I did my best to make these people aware of the situation. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>I’ve read in a different account, that one of the demands was for a new constitution, but you didn’t mention that.</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>We spoke of it all the time. Many of the people who were making speeches spoke about a new constitution because that’s been a promise of the political elite since 1944 but I could not put it forward as demand number four because of the nature of it. That’s going to take years to do. But the underlying demand of all these protests was and still is ‘we want a new constitution.’ We haven’t given up. I haven’t given up. I’m on the sideline following what’s happening in this country. And we will get a new constitution. That’s what I aim for.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>In terms of the demands you were iterating at every meeting, you were successful in achieving those.</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The government stepped down and took the board of the financial supervisory authority with it. Then it took the head of the central bank another month to step down. But the board of the central bank refused to resign so that meant our protests took longer than needed. But I had a meeting with the new prime minister in February and said I would stay there with the protests until they resigned. And she said ‘don’t worry we are passing a law through the parliament to make them leave.’ And they did at the end of February 2009 or the middle of March.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>With the new government you had what I think was a unique situation in terms of the European financial crash context, where the government created a special commission to prosecute top bankers and senior officials. Presumably it was popular pressure which provided the incoming government with the political space to do that? And perhaps the Citizens Movement which had four MPs in the new government also played a role in this?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well the way I work is, at the end of February or the beginning of March 2009 I back out of the situation. People wanted me to go to the parliament and join a political party but I’ve never been involved in politics in a political party. I know from personal experience, when one person starts something, other people will follow. I’ve been going around for the past years with my speech. I’ve been invited to talk about my ideas and my speech is called “When I becomes we.” That is my purpose. I start things, I activate some people and they take off. I leave.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>That’s on the personal level. But there was a lot of activity. There was the Citizens Movement that was a political party. But I haven’t been involved in these activities. I started but the people will take over.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>You said you haven’t given up on getting a new constitution but the process is currently effectively frozen. The right-wing parties that caused the crash in the first place are back in power. At the same time the Pirate Party are now polling as the most popular party in Iceland. What do you think is the best hope for “unfreezing” the constitutional process?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>OK. I’ll tell you one thing. The Pirate Party is very popular today. Good. And I believe in that. I’ll tell you a personal experience. In 1975 when I was stepping out as the first gay man in my county, it was right by law to be gay. But the church and the attitude towards gay people in Iceland, if anyone found out you were gay you lost your job, you lost your house, you lost everything. It was very tough. There was no information about being gay. There were very few words and they were all very negative, humiliating. I stood up as a young man, everybody in this country knew who I was, people loved my music and overnight I became persona non grata and I had to go into exile to protect my life. People tried to kill me actually.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I moved to Denmark but I kept visiting Iceland, finding and talking to gay people. I managed on 9th May 1978 to establish a gay organisation to fight for our rights and that was a very tough job because people always thought I wanted to open a sex club, or something like that. That tells you how ignorant people were. We worked hard for the next decades. It took a lot of sacrifice through the AIDS epidemic and finally in 2006 there were new laws which secured every individual to be equal to law. It doesn’t matter your gender, sexuality, the colour of your skin or your religion, everyone has equal rights in this country. It took us 30 years. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So what I’m pointing out is that to change society takes time. But in modern times – and this was one of the first things I pointed out in the big meetings – today with the internet it takes seconds to reach people. Whereas in 1975 I had to write letters, try to follow people in the street, calling them and so on. It took a lot. Today it’s very easy. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So what happened after the cutlery revolution – people call it a revolution, personally I don’t – was that the nation, or at least one third of it, woke up. Now, six years later, the awareness among people of the political situation is fantastic. People are beginning to understand how desperately we need the new constitution. And we have seen young people coming into the parliament: the Pirate Party. And they are to most people very honest and frank. They are not trying to lie and use Machiavellian tricks. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>There was a protest last Tuesday here in Reykjavik. There were thousands of people downtown. I went there. I was just checking on things. I think the majority of people today are saying that now is our chance: we have to make the government we have today resign, get the pirates to go into the parliament, take the new constitution that is ready, give them six months to go through it and then have new elections based on the new constitution. This is our position today the way I see it.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>And the protest on Tuesday was about what specifically?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It wasn’t about anything. It was very confusing. It tells you a lot. There’s a lot of angry people out there. There have been protests again and again these past years. They are desperate. They are trying to improve the situation. But it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to run good protests. I am a professional actor and director. I have had 40 or 50 years battling for my rights as a human in this society. Like I told them last Tuesday when I had a short meeting with the Pirates and explained my attitude. I said, ‘This is our only hope today. Are you ready?’ ‘Ah we will be ready.’ Because now it’s May. The summer is starting in Iceland. You can’t get people to come out and protest. Finally we get out of our caves and we like to stay in the sun. September, October – yes, we will.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Is that where you step back in? It sounds like you need a clear set of demands again. For the constitution, for the government to resign and new elections maybe?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Like I said to Birgitta, the leader of the Pirate Party, I will be ready in September, October because we have to do this. This is our only chance that has been created today. It’s taken us six, seven years but that’s how it goes. We have to be ready when the opportunity arrives. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>And how important would you say the new constitution was? How radical a change could that bring about in the country?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well that’s a huge question. The new constitution was created by people we trusted. It’s a modern constitution. The constitution we have now was written in 1873 by the King of Denmark. We need a modern constitution and we need to restart our system. The system has become corrupt. And I believe we need to restart our system every 20 years. And I think our only hope today is to restart our system and do our best. We are, after all, dealing with human nature, which is interesting, as always.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Is Iceland unique or can these things happen elsewhere? What are the lessons people should be taking away from what’s happened in Iceland?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well, this slogan, ‘Act local, think global,’ that’s one of my mottos. You can learn from this of course. I’ve been visiting 15 countries, many of them more than once, </span><span><span>&nbsp;</span></span><span>talking to activists. I’ve been invited to make speeches and share my experience as a very successful activist because – it’s sounds very over the top, but this is a fact – every time I’ve stepped out and done my thing with protests it’s been 100% results. My theory is to simply use the system we live in. I work in the spirit of the society I want to live in. Many of the activists I speak to, especially those in the Spanish M15 movement, they were the first ones to call me, are telling me, ‘in many ways you were right and we started following your ideas.’ I don’t believe in violence for example, because that doesn’t lead us anywhere. Violence just creates more violence.</span></span></p><p><span><span>&nbsp;</span></span></p><p><span><span><em>See <a href=""><span><span>The Independent</span></span></a> for&nbsp;Phil England's&nbsp;accompanying overview of the current situation in Iceland.</em></span></span></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p><span> </span></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href=""><img src="// Charter Convention (1).jpg" alt="" width="140" /></a> </p><p><a href="">The Great Charter Convention</a> – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/rebuilding-democracy-in-iceland-interview-with-birgitta-jonsdottir">Rebuilding democracy in Iceland: an interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-shows-that-uk-constitutional-convention-should-involve-politi">Iceland shows that a UK constitutional convention should involve politicians as little as possible</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk Can Europe make it? uk Iceland A constitutional convention Building it: campaigns and movements Great Charter Convention Phil England Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Tue, 30 Jun 2015 04:25:53 +0000 Phil England 93958 at Connecting the Basque and Icelandic cases: an ethnographic chronicle about democratic regeneration <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Though they may seem like unlikely companions, both Iceland and the Basque Country undertook unique democratic regenerations following the 2008 global economic crisis.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="305" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Iceland - an unusual companion to the Basque Country? Flickr/Coldpix. All rights reserved.</span></span></span></p><h2><strong>Introduction</strong></h2> <p>Contemplating about Iceland from the Basque Country could be seen as a remote exercise, even more so when it refers to carrying out <a href="">ethnographic fieldwork</a>. This is exactly what I attempted doing my second visit to Reykjavik on the 23rd to the 29th of September 2013. I was already familiar with Iceland - its peculiarities, remarkable language, music, literature, filming, and even its celebrities. I have connected not only by my scientific curiosity, but also by my emotional - even spiritual - sensitivity. </p><p>Emotional landscapes can travel quickly from remote places: from the volcanic and resilient smallness of Iceland to another tiny complex and diverse corner between Spain and France, the Basque Country. I am Basque - yet I write my surname with a non-Basque letter ‘C’. I have been ‘touched’ by Iceland as a whole piece of outstanding isolated ‘whiteness’. Similarly, even though I have been in Iceland separately in the past – 2007 - having the same scientific purpose as in 2013, I was impressed and shared my hypothesis on how the language, landscapes, and the most charismatic asset of the island, its people, have something to do with my homeland, the Basque Country. </p> <p>Seemingly, we can dare to link Basques and Icelanders regarding the smallness of territory, the relationship between Basque whalers and Icelanders and even our ‘unique’ languages. However, despite the historical links between Iceland and the Basque Country (Edvardsson and Rafnsson 2006) dating back to the sixteenth century, I have not found any published comparative study in my research fields about contemporary Iceland and the Basque Country. </p><p>As Jón the Learned conveys in the <em>Spánverjavígin</em> saga, the relationship between Basque whalers and Icelanders reached a tragic peak in 1615, when approximately 30 of the former were slaughtered in the region of the West Fjords. However, they are two societies that may benefit from connecting with each other. They are struggling to depart from a crisis that is more than financial, and they need to readjust their governance systems to the changes in the last few years. Both require a deep democratic regeneration.</p> <h2><strong>Democratic regeneration</strong></h2><p><span>That was my main hypothesis—to attempt to connect, rather than compare, to the Icelandic and the Basque case. Indeed, there is a slightly common factor at present in the social sciences to compare two territories by carrying out </span><a href="">‘benchmarking’</a><span>. I do not dare to proceed with such a complex analysis insofar as my aim was to follow my intuition and check my hypothesis:</span></p> <ol><li><span>Like the Basque Country, Iceland also after struggled after the 2008 crisis to rise above its predicament.</span></li><li><span>Iceland was the first country hit by the 2008 financial crisis with dramatic democratic consequences. The source of the crisis was mainly the financial collapse that left the country with no credit, and in a socio-economic emergency. I focused on the source of the crisis and the way Icelanders explained the causes and the ongoing process to overcome it. I sought to answer the following question: If there has been some democratic social innovation or regeneration in Iceland after the crisis, what relationship does it have with ethics? What is its moral core?</span></li><li><span>With the Basque Country, the ceasefire announced by ETA in 2011 led to overcome the lack of peace and deficient normalised political or institutional life.</span></li><li><span>In this globalised context, both countries required to restructure their governance systems to adapt them positively. In the two cases, the democratic regeneration was the outcome by having similar ethical and political implications. They shared some features concerning their comparative small size and identity (unique local language and culture dealing with the bigger player in a global arena). I wondered whether some of the transformations (e.g., social innovations) that emerged in Iceland during the Kreppa years (2008-2013) could apply to the crisis in the Basque Country in the new post-violence situation (the ETA’s ceasefire from 2011 onward). In addition, could we suggest micro-social innovative cases such as cooperativism or plurilingualism, among other features?</span></li><li><span>As different as Iceland and the Basque Country are, both situations involved hope for a regeneration of the democratic system, and both raise questions such as: What has really been happening in Iceland? What is the nature of the change or innovation that has emerged? In what way is it special or different from the Basque case?</span></li></ol> <p>Therefore, I was interested in looking into two main research challenges:</p> <ol><li>First, I wanted to make clear the underlying ethics (presuppositions, emerging topics and emotions) and strategic critical social innovation trends (social networks, economic solidarity and contested anti-neoclassic economic orthodoxy initiatives) around themes such as the political innovation at the global and local scales. I was also interested in the meaning of the crisis and its impact on democracy (before and after 2008), the influence of technology and social movements in this hypothetical social transformation, and the role of different stakeholders and the macro and micro socio-economic real alternatives in contrast with the neoclassical economic orthodoxy agenda. I also wanted to examine how we could connect the Basque and Icelandic cases under this similar thematic umbrella.</li><li>Second, I wanted to reconnect not only Icelanders and Basques through our two political systems, but also apply ethics and critical social innovation to our comparative research project.</li></ol> <p><a href="">I presented the results</a> of the fieldwork in Reykjavik, in the University of Iceland, on September 27th of 2013. Here are the fieldwork research rationale and the main conclusions:</p> <h2><strong>Fieldwork</strong></h2> <p>As Hoeg (2005) stated, ‘There is only one way to understand another culture. Living it’. Trying to make my hypothesis precise, I set up a research agenda and design an intensive fieldwork in Reykjavik by using the qualitative, semi-structured method. I interviewed eight discussants, mainly academics but also policy-makers and politicians. </p> <p>With fieldwork research, one receives gratitude one deserves as a social scientist by temporary ‘living’ a culture, an atmosphere and a society. I applied a methodology by merging two disciplines, Applied Ethics and Critical Social Innovation for Territories. I depicted this methodological approach by using a glacier:</p><p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="429" height="427" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span></p><p>On the one hand, through the framework, I considered the social problematic issues of the Icelandic crisis, as addressed by Critical Social Innovation, in becoming much more complex due to deepening, mutually reinforced socio-economic, socio-political and socio-ecological crises (Moulaert et al., 2013). On the other hand, I tried to account for the ways in which social practices are laden with judgements of moral value (Dunn et al., 2012). I proceeded with the following methodological factors for each discipline that assisted me in the fieldwork process:</p><p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="147" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span></p> <p> <strong><span></span></strong></p> <p>In addition, here is the outcome and the methodological matrix in which I proceeded to gather qualitative data:<span>&nbsp;</span></p><p><span><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="150" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span></span></p><h2><strong>Main Conclusions</strong></h2> <p>Instead of presenting the entire methodological process and the specific conclusion about this research project, I aim to conclude this ethnographic chronicle with a summary in which I draw on the main suppositions of my research. The specific content of this research will undergo publication entitled <em>Demos-Ethos: A framework to study the Basque and Icelandic cases through Critical Social Innovation and Applied Ethics </em>shortly in the <em>Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research</em>.</p> <p>According to the <em>Financial Times</em> (09/27/2013), Iceland seemed to enjoy ‘abundant natural resources that even the most over exuberant financiers and politicians could not damage too much’. At present, this statement is fair and true after the 2008 crash.</p> <p>I connected the Basque observation with the Icelandic reality throughout two main crises that had in common their democratic regeneration imperatives. These are the main five conclusions:</p> <ol><li>Iceland’s material, spatial and economic system (URBS), proved the country was well balanced and ready for any unexpected vulnerable circumstances. The crises mainly hit Iceland but its reaction was quick by keeping the main economic factors in favour of the solution. Indeed, sustainability and well-being were the main structural factors in the regional development policies. In addition, being small and resilient made Iceland stronger by having such a well-connected territory between the hub (Reykjavik) and the periphery (Akureyri, Kópavogur, Harnarfjördur, Keflavik, and others). Some of the sources to overcome the crisis and settle down the economy were the real microeconomic recovery sectors, such as fishing and tourism.</li><li>Iceland’s physical, digital and social connectivity systems (CYBER) were the dynamic and modifiable ‘liquid’ artefacts. We cannot forget the spark the ‘kitchenware revolution’ propagated through social media such as Facebook. People demonstrated a collective defence of the means for happiness and social well-being by network-driven, new communitarian social reconfiguration. It should be also noted that digital connectivity and the physical proximity between culturally diverse peers enabled a socio-political new agenda and situation by presenting a social capital that still exists to date. Iceland started partially regenerating its political structures mainly due to the outstanding usage of the physical, digital and social connectivity as a response to an emergence.</li><li>Iceland’s citizenship, entrepreneurial and migration systems (CIVITAS) depicted an emotionally well-channelled activism. To face the massive threat of collapse, people self-managed and organised a civic level activist survival strategy; a Pots and Pans revolution in the streets was the main example. In addition, it should be added that in contrast with the Basque case, in Iceland, citizens channelled their collective anger without violence, and enabled public deliberation. Streets were synonymous with the public space to protect the basic rights of the citizenship. From the social innovation perspective, the transition from activism towards entrepreneurship did not proceed by being in jeopardy. Citizenship assumed the responsibility of contributing to the financial ‘bubble’.</li><li>Iceland’s political system changed dramatically before and after 2008 due to a massive dissatisfaction with the conventional political system (POLIS). Therefore, the outcome of that context was an internal political fragmentation in permanent and ongoing transition until present days. It is noteworthy that the confrontation between the declining dominant mass media, and the alternative social media-driven politics, was produced in this transition. Social media became the collective intelligence of ‘togetherness’ after a fragile, broken democratic system. The transition fostered a permanent celebration of cultural diversity by entertainment politics without populism. However, among the celebration and the victory, there was a new civilian principle: ‘Lack of impunity and zero tolerance when trust or social capital is broken’.</li><li>Therefore, by presenting dilemmas in the political transition, Iceland has been inside its own tunnel in an ongoing re-examination. Nowadays, the process, not yet closed and culminated, shows a national identity based on independence, modernity and uniqueness. There is myth already perceived as the ‘Icelandic miracle’, in reference to how a revolution transformed a bankruptcy by forcing it to a point of reversal. This set up a new critical order with permanent contestation, but also caused uncertainty and fear of a constitutional reform due to lack of consensus. Finally, this delicate and opened context leaves a pending question for Icelanders that could be named ‘the European dilemma’: can Iceland retain itself within the EU context without any institutional protection? This is a pending question for Iceland as a small state that provides hints to the Basque Country, another city-regional small nation that faces a future path by being as small as Iceland. </li></ol> <p>Hence, after connecting the Basque and the Icelandic cases in this research project, here now is my final conclusion: <a href="">‘Small is beautiful.’</a></p> <h2><span>Postscript:</span></h2> <p>For the last part of my fieldwork research in Iceland, we went to Thingvellir. It is said that the first parliamentary assembly in Europe took place in a region called Thingvellir, in southern Iceland (the so-called Althingi). I confess it was the perfect ending as to contemplate how the Basques and Icelanders already connected throughout their democratic recovery ties. Moreover, in Thingvellir, as viewed from the Basque perspective, Auden described Iceland as depicting three kind of landscapes: ‘Rocky, very rocky and completely rocky’. </p> <p>A day after Thingvellir, something even more magic occurred: I bumped into Björk in the local supermarket and I thought in this poem - half in Icelandic and half in Basque language - as the best feeling to recover the inner connection between Iceland and the Basque Country, once again:</p> <p><em>Takk fyrir, Iceland, zugatik pintatzen dituzte hospitaleak zuriz (oraindik).*</em></p> <p><em>*</em> Thank you Iceland, the hospitals are painted in white (still) because of you.<em>&nbsp;</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/igor-calzada/postindependence-in-scotland-catalonia-and-basque-country-cityregion">Post-independence in Scotland, Catalonia and the Basque Country: city-regional small nations beyond nation-states</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> <div class="field-item even"> Spain </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Can Europe make it? Spain Iceland Igor Calzada Joining the dots on independence movements in Europe Wed, 14 Jan 2015 14:25:54 +0000 Igor Calzada 89560 at A cold reception: the rise of anti-Islamic sentiments in Iceland? <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>A row over the planned construction of Iceland’s first purpose-built mosque has dominated the county’s most recent elections and comes in the wake of a spate of anti-Islamic initiatives that point to mounting tensions over the presence of Islam in the tiny island nation.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none caption-xlarge'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="445" height="345" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload caption-xlarge imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>The Muslim Cultural Centre of Iceland is located on the second floor of this building in Reykjavik. Wikipedia. Public domain.</span></span></span></p><p>Not long after Europe’s largest electorate turned out to vote for European Parliament candidates, one of the continent’s smallest electorates voted in local elections in Iceland. Most of the attention was on the city council elections in the nation’s capital, Reykjavik (with about 40% of Iceland´s pool of 230,000 registered voters), since these are often seen as a key battleground for the main parliamentary parties. The run-up to the elections seemed unremarkable: the social democratic party (Samfylkingin) – currently in opposition in parliament – was expected to do well in Reykjavik, whilst the senior coalition partner in government – the agrarian Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) was facing decimation in the capital, with polls suggesting it would fail to secure a single seat on the city council.</p><p>A relatively typical and harmonious campaign was upturned, however, when the leader of the Progressive candidacy in Reykjavik,&nbsp;Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir,&nbsp;<a href="">spoke to journalists</a>&nbsp;a week prior to the elections and expressed her determination to withdraw an existing offer of a plot for the building of the country´s first bespoke mosque. The Progressives had prepared for electoral defeat in the capital and initially pegged their candidacy onto a popular single issue movement dedicated to the safeguarding of the capital’s airport from future urban planning efforts to replace runways with new residential areas in the city centre. This initiative, however, appeared to have little impact on the party’s poll ratings, which remained relatively unchanged until they jumped after Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir commented on the mosque plans.</p><p>According to the candidate (and now city councillor), the fact that Iceland had a state-sponsored Lutheran National Church meant that the city council ought to avoid offering available plots for mosques or Orthodox churches. The thrust of her argument concerned Islam and Muslims. “We have lived here [in Iceland] in harmony since the land was first settled […] “I think that whilst we still have a National Church the municipal authorities should not offer any available plots for the construction of buildings such as mosques”, the candidate remarked. The building of a mosque in Iceland would result in the influx of funds from Qatar, she insisted. Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir asserted that she was basing her interjection on facts and personal experience, rather than prejudice: she had lived in Saudi Arabia for a year and was just back from Abu Dhabi where, she maintained, there are no churches (which is incorrect, as journalists were quick to point out).</p><p>The comments provoked widespread indignation and an intense and heated debate about the proposed mosque and the presence of Islam in Iceland and beyond which dominated media coverage in the days prior to the election. Many took to social media channels or commented on news websites.</p><p>One supporter of Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir´s position urged voters to familiarise themselves with the situation in the Nordic countries where Muslims were apparently “committing crimes particularly against women and children”, a comment Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir herself endorsed with a ‘like’ on Facebook. Others were outraged: one fellow Progressive Party candidate removed himself from the list in protest and the Foreign Secretary (also from the Progressives)&nbsp;<a href="">critiqued the remarks</a>, emphasising respect for human rights and equality. Candidates of other parties were more vocal in their opposition. </p><p>The Prime Minister, however – Progressive Party chairman Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson – refused to comment on the issue for days, until he came out in support of his Reykjavik candidate, condemning what he saw as a smear-campaign against her (one newspaper cartoon depicted her wearing a Ku Klux Klan cape in a line-up with candidates from other parties), whilst&nbsp;<a href="">complaining about the apparent stagnation</a>&nbsp;of Icelandic political debate. </p><p>The Prime Minister also expressed his opposition to the proposed location of the mosque (which was apparently too important as a central location in the capital), whilst acknowledging that Muslims ought to be able to build a mosque somewhere else, as long as it “conformed to its surroundings”. The chairman of the Society of Muslims in Iceland quickly retorted, pointing out that the existing plan had already been accepted by those living in the area, as well as the city council, that the proposed building would be no more than 800 square meters and that the proposed minaret would be lower than surrounding lampposts.</p><p>This is the first time that issues to do with religious identity, and Islam in particular, have dominated an election campaign in Iceland and the ploy – if indeed it was a ploy – seemed to work in favour of its proponents. Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir boasted that the media storm surrounding her remarks meant that the party saved a fortune on advertising costs. And, the party, which was predicted to do very badly, faired much better after the mosque comments were made, securing two city council seats.</p><p>The debate surrounding these comments and the impact they had on the election, however, point to a more deep-rooted development in Iceland over the past months and years where opponents to the presence of Islam in the tiny and remarkably homogenous nation have become increasingly vocal.</p><p>The plan to build Iceland’s first proper mosque appears to have energised a proportion of the population that was, in some instances, already predisposed to be suspicious of and even hostile towards Islam in particular. Some framed their arguments in light of the apparent need to preserve the demographic fabric of the country whilst others referred to fears over Islamist extremism in Scandinavia in particular. </p><p>A&nbsp;<a href="">Facebook group</a>&nbsp;in Icelandic was established in 2010 condemning the mosque plans, which now has over 4,400 ‘likes’. The proprietor states in the ‘about’ page that “plans to build a mosque in Iceland must be rejected on national security grounds because the preparation for terrorist acts often appears to originate inside the mosque”. The forum contains a host of vehemently racist and anti-Islamic statements, videos and photographs and appears to be associated with other Icelandic anti-Islamic campaign sites, particularly the ‘<a href="">Terrorism blog,’</a>&nbsp;a compilation of anti-Islamic diatribes and conspiracy theories. The far-right undertones of much of this material are often explicit. The Facebook group was even advertised on the notorious ‘white power’ web forum ‘<a href="">Stormfront’</a>, where an Iceland-based user calling himself ‘Swastika88’ – ‘88’ referring to ‘Heil Hitler’ – appealed for help in “fighting Islamization in Iceland”. The posting received numerous pledges of support from white racist sympathisers.</p><p>Other prominent opponents to proposed mosque plans include a former Reykjavik mayor, Ólafur F. Magnússon, who has written several letters to newspapers publicising his views. In July 2013 he wrote a letter to one of the main national newspapers citing national security concerns as a reason for preventing a mosque from being built. Were these plans to go ahead, Mr. Magnússon&nbsp;<a href="">warned</a>, “Muslims in Iceland would have direct access to foreign Islamic proselytising groups that would assist with the funding of the mosque”. These groups, in turn, would become embedded in the country and “enhance the influence of Islam” in Iceland and beyond. In another letter published by the same newspaper a month later, Mr. Magnússon&nbsp;<a href="">claimed</a>&nbsp;that plans to build a mosque were “an insult to Iceland´s national heritage and to the inhabitants of the Westman Islands in particular”, because they had been victims of a Barbary pirate raid in 1627.</p><p>The anti-mosque/anti-Islam protest took an ugly and bizarre turn when on a November morning in 2013 a group of people descended on the proposed mosque site and&nbsp;<a href="">planted severed pigs’ heads</a>&nbsp;and pages of the Quran draped in a red blood-like liquid, whilst speaking to morning commuters about their opposition to the planned building. The police arrived, but only after city council staff had removed most of the evidence. </p><p>One of the perpetrators later called a radio station to claim responsibility. The individual in question, Óskar Bjarnason,&nbsp;<a href="">claimed</a>&nbsp;to have been part of a group of four men (with wider backing, he insisted) who wished to register their hostility in this way. Mr. Bjarnason, who resides in Sweden, claimed the group had been seeking to “desecrate” the site in order to scuttle plans to build a mosque on the plot and claimed similar tactics had been used in Scandinavia. He described the proposed mosque building as a “military base” for Muslims in Iceland. “Ever since they [Muslims] acquired mosques in Sweden for instance”, Mr. Bjarnason insisted, “they started to form designated groups because these [mosques] of course constitute nothing else than military headquarters. They come together to rape women in Sweden and beyond. Islam tells them to rape. A Swedish woman, she´s a whore. They behave like beasts, as you can see from media reports from Sweden and Norway.” “They [Muslims] are planning to take over the world”, Mr. Bjarnason continued, “and that´s what we are protesting against”. </p><p>Mr. Bjarnason claimed in the interview that powerful people in Iceland were supportive of their opposition and efforts to derail plans to build a mosque in Reykjavik, and insisted he was member of a much more radical group than that represented by the Facebook collective mentioned above.</p><p>Police eventually spoke to Mr. Bjarnason but complained they had no evidence, since city council workers had been too quick in clearing the site. Remarkably, and contrary to the opinion of human rights lawyers, police investigators rejected claims that anything illegal had taken place and insisted people had to be free to protest in Iceland. There was no difference, police argued, between this incident and other protests of yore, for instance when people gathered to protest the building of the central bank by planting horses’ heads. Icelandic law, of course, protects religious freedom and protects religious minorities from intimidation and hate crime, but police chose not to interpret these events in this way.</p><p>There are, according to the&nbsp;<a href="">Icelandic Statistics Office</a>, approximately 900 registered Muslims living in Iceland. Animosity against them, although – it should be stressed – clearly not representative of general national sentiment, hardly seems to stem from any form of tangible community tension within the country itself. Iceland has not experienced any of the incidents that are used by anti-Islamic groups in the UK, for instance, such as acts of Islamist terrorism or cases of&nbsp;<a href="">‘Asian sex grooming gangs’</a>&nbsp;that serve to fan the flames of anti-Islamic sentiment locally. Rather, the anti-Islamic debate in Iceland is a case of spillover from abroad, particularly the Nordic countries. Islam, in the most extreme cases, is equated with Islamist terrorism, whilst the mainstream and the diversity of divergent Islamic strands are ignored. Some of these attitudes, albeit in a watered-down version, have entered the political mainstream in Iceland via, primarily, some members of the Progressive Party.</p><p>Ironically, meanwhile, the scale of efforts against Muslims’ plans to build a mosque in Iceland risk to exacerbate community relations within the country and create genuine tension, more akin to that experienced in some parts of Europe.</p><p>One politician remarked that political debate in Iceland had “lost its innocence” in the wake of&nbsp;Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir’s comments. Politicians will also be aware, however, of the impact that the comments had and the ability of candidates willing to voice their suspicion of Muslims to mobilise pockets of support with minimal effort. It would seem likely, therefore, that populist politics of this nature will become a permanent fixture on the Icelandic political scene. What seems equally clear, moreover, is that the anti-Islamic movement has spread to the outermost peripheries of Europe where, for certain groups, notions of security, safety and national cohesion have become tied to open hostility towards Islam and Muslims.</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/thorvaldur-gylfason/democracy-on-ice-post-mortem-of-icelandic-constitution">Democracy on ice: a post-mortem of the Icelandic constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/5050/pia-karlsson-minganti/female-islamic-leadership-in-sweden">Female Islamic leadership in Sweden</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Can Europe make it? Iceland Donald Holbrook Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:52:37 +0000 Donald Holbrook 83684 at Democracy on ice: a post-mortem of the Icelandic constitution <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>In spite of clear popular support, Iceland's new crowd-sourced constitution was recently killed by politicians. An ex-member of the constitutional council sheds some light on what happened - and why there might still be some hope for this unique experiment.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="During the 2009 Icelandic Kitchenware Revolution. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved." width="460" height="312" /><span class="image-caption">During the 2009 Icelandic Kitchenware Revolution. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved.</span></p> <p><span>Iceland earned the respect of many observers of democracy around the world when, after the financial crash of 2008, its parliament decided to go back to basics and revise the country‘s constitution. A constitutional overhaul was long overdue. For nearly 70 years, Iceland’s political class had repeatedly promised and failed to revise the provisional constitution of 1944, which was drawn up in haste with minimal adjustment of the 1874 constitution as part of Iceland’s declaration of independence from Nazi-occupied Denmark. Clearly, the 1944 constitution had not prevented the executive overreach and cronyism that paved the way for the corrupt privatization of the Icelandic banks from 1998 to 2003 - and their subsequent crash a few years later.</span></p> <h2>Collective intelligence</h2> <p>Faced by pots- and pans-banging crowds in Parliament Square in Reykjavík in late 2008 and early 2009, the politicians admitted failure, accepting the protesters’ demands for, among other things, a new constitution.</p> <p>The new post-crash government that came to office in early 2009 – the first majority government to include neither the centre-right Independence Party nor the agrarian Progressive Party – decided to break new ground by asking the people, not the politicians, to draft a new constitution. To this end, the parliament appointed a constitutional committee of seven to prepare the ground and organize a national assembly comprising 950 individuals drawn at random from the national registry.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>The national assembly, organized in 2010 in accordance with the notion of <a href="">Collective Intelligence</a>,<a href="#_ftn1">[1]</a> concluded after a day’s deliberations in November that a new constitution was called for and ought to contain certain key provisions concerning, e.g., electoral reform and the ownership of natural resources, for a long time two of the most contentious political issues in Iceland. In October of that year, the government also held a national election to a constituent assembly to which 25 individuals were elected from a roster of 522 candidates from all walks of life, most of them with no particular political or special interest affiliations. </p> <p><span>With the constituent assembly about to start its work in early 2011, some opposition politicians could not conceal their displeasure. The conclusion of the national assembly constituted an unequivocal appeal for the revocation of privileges – e.g., the privileges of those who benefit from unequal access to the country’s common-property natural resources as well as from unequal voting rights. Understandably, the prospect of 25 individuals over whom the political parties had no control being about to begin their work guided by a legal mandate to revise the constitution in broad accord with the conclusions of the national assembly made some politicians uneasy.</span></p> <h2><strong>Obstacles</strong></h2> <p>What happened next? Three individuals with documented connections to the Independence Party, Iceland’s largest political party until the crash of 2008, filed a bizarre technical complaint about the way the election to the constituent assembly had been conducted. On the basis of these complaints, six Supreme Court justices, five of whom had been appointed by successive ministers of justice from the Independence Party, declared the election null and void - even if no one had ever claimed that the results of the election were at all affected by the alleged technical flaws.</p> <p>Never before had a national election in a fully fledged democracy been invalidated on technical grounds. The parliament reacted to the ruling by appointing the 25 representatives who had received the most votes to a constitutional council, thereby changing a popularly elected assembly into one appointed by parliament. The opponents of constitutional change celebrated victory and thereafter used every opportunity to undermine the creditworthiness of the council.</p> <p>The opposition was not confined to the Independence Party. The Progressives, who had previously expressed strong support for a new constitution, changed course and joined the opposition to reform. Even within the new governing coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement, there were pockets of passive resistance to change as well as among some academics apparently disappointed that <em>they</em> had not been asked to rewrite the constitution.</p> <p>Whence the fierce opposition to constitutional reform? The chief opponents were the usual suspects: the political allies of special interest groups such as the fishing vessel owners whom the politicians had turned into a state within the state through <em>gratis</em>, or practically <em>gratis</em>, allocation of valuable fishing licenses. The opposition also came from politicians who would not stand much chance of being reelected to parliament under the principle of ‘one person, one vote' (as the current system requires much more votes to be elected as an MP in Reykjavik than in one of the more rural areas). Indeed, constitutionally protected national ownership of natural resources and electoral reform to ensure ’one person, one vote’ were the two principal hallmarks of the bill.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>But the constitutional council paid no attention to any of this. Within four months, it produced a constitutional bill incorporating virtually all the conclusions of the national assembly, and approved the bill unanimously by 25 votes to zero, no abstentions, and delivered the bill to parliament in mid-2011. In the course of preparing the bill, the council sought and received the advice of numerous experts in different areas as well as from ordinary citizens who were invited to offer their comments and suggestions on the council’s interactive website. Representatives of special interest groups, unused to not being invited to exclusive legislative meetings, did not respond to this open invitation to the public. After the bill was completed, they could not rightly complain that they had not been consulted. </p> <p><span>After delivering the bill to parliament, the constitutional council disbanded. The parliament took over, seeking further comments from local lawyers as well as, ultimately, from the </span><a href="">Venice Commission</a><span>. The parliament was encouraged to translate the bill into English so as to be able to solicit foreign expert opinion, but failed to respond. Instead, a </span><a href="">translation</a><span> was arranged and paid for by the Constitutional Society, a private nonprofit organization. This translation made it possible for world-renowned constitutional experts such as Prof. </span><a href=";feature=plcp">Jon Elster</a><span> from Columbia University and Prof. </span><a href="">Tom Ginsburg</a><span> from the University of Chicago to express their helpful views of the bill.</span></p> <h2><strong>Referendum</strong></h2> <p>The bill was brought to a <a href="">national referendum</a> in late 2012. Initially, the parliament intended the referendum to coincide with the presidential election in June 2012 to secure a good turnout, but the opposition Independence Party and Progressive Party resorted to filibuster to thwart this plan, holding parliament hostage for days and weeks on end. </p> <p>At the same time, they complained about not having enough time to consider the bill – which was, of course, largely due to their reluctance to accept and follow the constitutional process. When the Independence Party leader was reminded of the classic example of <em>chutzpah</em> (this is when you murder your parents and ask for mercy on the grounds that you are an orphan), he complained about being unfairly likened to a murderer. </p> <p>Nevertheless, the referendum was delayed until October 2012. Voter turnout was 49 percent. No less than 67 percent of the electorate declared their support for the bill as well as for its key individual provisions such as national ownership of natural resources (83 percent said Yes) and equal voting rights, meaning one person, one vote (67 percent said Yes). By inviting the voters to accept or reject the bill <em>in toto </em>(specifically, the first question on the ballot was: “Do you want the proposals of the Constitutional Council to form the basis of a legislative bill for a new Constitution?") as well as its key individual provisions, the parliamentary majority was able to say to the bill’s opponents: Look, the voters support both the bill as a whole <em>and</em> its key provisions. In view of the results, parliament decided to suggest only changes of wording where considered necessary and to abstain from substantive changes (except concerning the church where the voters did not accept the formulation in the bill). The people had spoken.</p> <h2><strong>Further obstacles</strong></h2> <p>The path forward, however, proved tricky. Three of the seven members of the constitutional committee which had been fairly unanimous in its work criticized the bill, unmoved by the result of the referendum, conducting themselves <em>ex post</em> like agents of the parliamentary opposition to the bill. The majority of four is known to support the bill and to respect the result of the referendum. A committee of lawyers asked by parliament to suggest only changes of wording went beyond its mandate by, among other things, suggesting substantive changes to the natural resource clause in a poorly disguised attempt to thwart the intent of the constitutional council and the will of the voters as expressed in the referendum. The council had made it clear in its proposed constitutional provision as well as in its supporting documents that the allocation of fishing quotas does not bestow on the recipients of such allocations any private property rights to the common-property resources. To its credit, the parliamentary committee in charge restored the council’s original formulation.</p> <p>There was no dearth of academic viewpoints on the council as five of its 25 members were professors and three others were junior academics. But unlike the many academic experts who generously offered their help and advice to the council during its four months of intensive work in 2011, a few others were less forthcoming. </p> <p>It was only after the October 2012 referendum that some of the unsupportive academics stepped forward with critical comments on the bill, presented in newspaper articles and television interviews as well as at a series of conferences organized by some universities. The criticism offered was generally of low quality on top of being late, reflecting personal opinions rather than academic research as well as total disregard for the timetable laid down by parliament. </p> <p>In a newspaper interview, after the referendum, one professor called the council “completely illegitimate,” adding that “<a href="">a certain elite</a>” (presumably including himself) should rewrite the constitution. The poor timing of this late criticism is noteworthy because the <a href="">Alliance for a New Constitution</a>, a private association established to explain the constitutional bill to the voters before the referendum, had written to the rectors of the universities ahead of the referendum, asking them to encourage their experts to contribute to public debate on the bill. Their reaction appeared only after the referendum. It seems that the dissenting academics hoped the bill would be rejected in the referendum and thought it unnecessary to discuss it.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <h2><strong>Endgame</strong><strong>&nbsp;</strong></h2> <p>A month after the referendum, parliament at last asked the Venice Commission for its reaction to the bill. In record time, Venice produced a draft report with various suggestions, several of which the relevant parliamentary committee decided to incorporate into the bill. The bill was now ready for a final vote in parliament. A <a href="">majority of 32 MPs</a> out of 63 declared in public and in writing that they supported the bill and wanted it passed before parliament was dissolved in time for the April election. Based on earlier related votes in parliament, it seemed likely that only fifteen or twenty MPs would vote against the bill; the October 2012 referendum was approved by 35 votes against fifteen, with thirteen abstentions. Victory seemed assured.</p> <p>Or was it? The main opposition parties, the Independence Party and the Progressives, threatened a final act of filibuster, a tactic they had used successfully to delay the 2012 referendum and to derail and destroy various other legislative initiatives of the government. (In a telling comparison, one pro-constitution bill MP likened her attempts to get work done in parliament to trying to file her income tax return with monkeys at the kitchen table.) The government majority behind the bill, including a small opposition party, the Movement, did have the legislative means to stop the filibuster to prevent time from running out but they were reluctant to do so, even if it was clear that failing to do so would kill the bill.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>I received advance warnings from MPs that the bill would not be passed; “I smell sulfur,” one MP wrote to me. Some council members with good connections to parliament had warned all along that parliamentary support for the bill was rather weak. The strategy of the Alliance for a New Constitution was to force the issue into the open. We understood from the outset that in a secret ballot the bill might fail in parliament; after all, rising against the fishing vessel owners in Iceland has been described as “suicide” for rural MPs.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>Parliament does not vote in secret, however, and this was key. In an attempt to ensure that the constitutional bill would have to be brought to a vote, Margrét Tryggvadóttir MP presented the bill put forward by the parliamentary committee in charge (of which she was a member) as an amendment to another related last-minute bill. But the president of the parliament put the last-minute bill to a vote without first presenting the amendment, thereby failing to bring the constitutional bill to a vote, in violation of parliamentary procedure. This happened at 2 A.M. on the morning of the last session of parliament before recess. The enemies of constitutional reform carried the day and democracy was put on ice. The government blamed the misbehaving opposition for the debacle, while the outgoing prime minister who had launched the process in 2009 said this was the saddest day of her 35 years in parliament.</p> <h2><strong>More ice, then thaw</strong></h2> <p>The April 2013 election produced a coalition government of the Independence Party and the Progressives, the two parties that privatized the banks <em>à la Russe</em> and set the stage for the crash of 2008. The parties represented in parliament hardly mentioned the constitution in the campaign; they wanted to avoid the subject. The Progressives won the election by promising instant household debt relief. In office, the first thing they did – surprise, surprise – was arrange instant tax relief for the vessel owners. It is clear that the two parties have no intention of reviving the constitutional bill. To them, it does not matter that 67 percent of the electorate expressed support for the bill and its key provisions. Further, they have decided to put Iceland’s 2009 application for EU membership on ice. Expect more ice to come.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>As always, however, there will be a new parliament after this one. One day, most probably, the constitutional bill approved by the people of Iceland in the 2012 referendum or a similar one will become the law of the land. Stay tuned.</p><p><em>If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking <em><strong>Can Europe Make it?</strong></em> on <a href="">Facebook</a> and following us on Twitter <a href="">@oD_Europe</a></em></p> <p><a href="#_ftnref1">[1]</a> The 2010 assembly was modeled on a privately organized national assembly the year before.&nbsp;</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p class="Default">Ginsburg, T., Z. Elkins, and J. Melton (2012), <a href="">Review of Iceland’s Draft Constitution</a>, The Comparative Constitutions Project, October 14.</p><p>Gylfason, T. (2013), "<a href="">From Collapse to Constitution: The Case of Iceland</a>", in&nbsp;<em>Public Debt, Global Governance and Economic Dynamism</em>, ed. Luigi Paganetto, Springer, 379-417.</p><p>Meuwese, A. C. M. (2013), "Popular constitution-making. The case of Iceland" in D. Galligan &amp; M. Versteeg,&nbsp;<em><a href="">The social and political foundations of constitutions</a></em>, New York: Cambridge University Press, 469-496.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-still-missing">Real democracy still missing</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/when-politics-strike-back-end-of-icelandic-constitutional-experiment">When politics strike back: the end of the Icelandic constitutional experiment?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Thorvaldur Gylfason Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Europe 2.0 Wed, 19 Jun 2013 08:20:56 +0000 Thorvaldur Gylfason 73409 at Real democracy still missing <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Those of us who were actively working for a sustainable and democratic society in Iceland have always wondered when the window of opportunity opened by the 'pots and pans revolution' would close. Did the last elections bring&nbsp;<span style="line-height: 1.5;">an end to&nbsp;</span><span style="line-height: 1.5;">Iceland's radically democratic moment?</span></p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="Icelanders vote in the 2013 election. Demotix/Eythor Arnason. All rights reserved." width="460" height="307" /><span class="image-caption">Icelanders vote in the 2013 election. Demotix/Eythor Arnason. All rights reserved.</span></p><p>&ldquo;The road ahead might be long and hard. But at least the road is open.&rdquo; These were the last words of my <a href="">previous article</a> on democracy in Iceland - let&rsquo;s take up the story from there.</p> <p>As early as the summer of 2009, those of us who were actively working for a sustainable and democratic society in Iceland started asking ourselves when the window of opportunity opened by the <a href="">'pots and pans revolution'</a> would close.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>There is usually a period of greater opportunity for change in the aftermath of a crisis. This is mainly due to three factors: defaults of the current system are visible and obvious to all, the system and its ability to reproduce itself is weakened and, facing decreased opportunities to meet expected living standards, people are more willing to direct their resources/attention towards progressive movements.</p> <p>But as time goes by the system restores itself. In this case, it was salvaged by a left wing government which chose to restore rather than restructure the system &ndash; promising to change things once the crisis was resolved. As I have <a href="">pointed out</a> in my last article, many were highly sceptical of this approach, arguing that it would be far more difficult to change a restored rather than a broken system.</p> <p>Still the window of opportunity remained open - and is still open in many regards, especially in comparison to the state of affairs before the 2008 crisis. But as the system restores itself the window is slowly closing. The results of the last election will most probably lead to a right wing government which will rule out many opportunities, and speed up the restoration according to a neoliberal ideology of the markets.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>One of the few, and by far the most innovative and interesting attempts by the former left wing government to restructure the system was the <a href="">Constitutional Council</a>. Alas, although the basic idea - that the general public should be actively involved in creating a new constitution - was indubitably right, the implementation had many flaws that were soon exploited by those against this radical proposal. Ultimately, the attempt <a href="">failed</a> as Althingi (the Icelandic parliament) could not reach a majority to follow through the proposals of the Council - even though a <a href="">referendum</a> was held and a two-third majority of voters supported the Council's proposals.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>During the campaign leading to the referendum, many pressure groups were formed to defend the Council's constitutional draft. The same groups then pressured the government and parliament to ratify the proposals. In the political arena, new political parties were formed with the specific goal of making the parliament adopt the draft Constitution if elected, and members of the Constitutional Council sometimes even joined their ranks.</p> <p><span>But these parties did not get elected to the parliament. In contrast with the strong support that Icelandic voters showed for the constitution&nbsp;in the referendum, polls indicated that the constitutional issue ranked low on voters' priorities in the 2013 elections.</span></p> <p>But why didn't the previous parliament finish the process before the election? This can mostly be pinned down to excessive optimism on the part of the proponents of the constitutional experiment &ndash; there are many lessons to be learned here. The most important is that when you engage in a huge task such as a revision of the constitution, the whole process needs to be clear from the very beginning. Clearly stated and publicized. Back when the elections for the Constitutional Council were held, it was still unclear how the Council's proposals would be implemented. Would the parliament simply ratify them, or would political parties be allowed to revise the draft? Was there going to be a binding referendum, even only symbolically, as the constitution doesn&rsquo;t allow for it? These issues, among others, were left pending when the process started. The consequence proved to be decreased legitimacy and trust in the whole process.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>There is little reason to hope that the Council's proposals will be implemented as the expected right wing government was generally against the process and the draft constitution. It would thus come as a major surprise if the proposals came back on the political agenda during this government's four year term.</p> <p>And that&rsquo;s where we are at. The journey towards real democracy and sustainability is going to be long and difficult. And longer, more difficult than initially expected.</p> <p>Yet, the movement is not quite dead: grassroots organizations multiplied during the crisis and a lot of effort was put into many different activities. Some of these efforts focused on <a href="">Icesave</a>, others on feminism, the constitutional process etc. Many are still active and will keep fighting for years to come, while some will undoubtedly wither away. Numerous political parties were founded but only two, Bright Future and the Pirate Party, got members elected to the parliament. A lot of people put great effort into political projects that did not bear fruit in the last elections.</p> <p>That&rsquo;s the lesson we&rsquo;ve learned so far. The project of making our societies truly sustainable and democratic is a long term one. It&rsquo;s going to take time, patience, organization and a lot of effort. For many it might seem that the window of opportunity was wasted and is now lost. I disagree. Some opportunities were wasted, of course, and many things could have been done differently for better results. But it was to be expected that in a period of anomie and crisis, any mitigating attempts would be slightly chaotic.</p> <p>This is another very important lesson. When the financial crisis hit, we weren&rsquo;t prepared. Thatcher would have said there was no alternative &ndash; in our case, we didn&rsquo;t have associations, let alone political parties, with adequate organization and a coherent policy and institutional model that could replace our current system, while ensuring sustainability, real democracy, greater equality and increased well-being for all.</p> <p>Considering this, at least we now have a task. A long-term task to introduce, support and press for a new institutional model. To polish and refine our ideas. It takes a long time to introduce new ideas into the general public, even though many of these ideas are themselves quite old. It also takes a long time to create associations and groups with the adequate organization to generate resources needed to mount a successful campaign. But never mind the time it takes, it is what we have to do.</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/when-politics-strike-back-end-of-icelandic-constitutional-experiment">When politics strike back: the end of the Icelandic constitutional experiment?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Kristinn Már Ársælsson Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Elections 2013 Fri, 17 May 2013 07:48:16 +0000 Kristinn Már Ársælsson 72737 at When politics strike back: the end of the Icelandic constitutional experiment? <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>A wave of enthusiasm took Icelanders through the 2012 referendum&nbsp;after the 2008 crash, once the widely-praised 'crowd-sourced' constitution appeared to be within reach. But Icelanders’ hopes seem to be evaporating in the haze of this week-end's parliamentary elections.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" width="460" /><br /><span class="image-caption">Protestors outside the Icelandic Parliament, 2010. <a href=";popup=1">Demotix/Cinzia d'Ambrosi</a>. All rights reserved.</span></p> <p>The Icelandic constitutional experiment attempted to bring more equality and direct democracy into Icelandic society. Yet, the parliament has been reluctant to respond. Now, after almost two years of fruitless debates, the coming national elections cast a negative shadow over the future of the new constitution.</p> <h2><strong>The Icelandic constitutional experiment</strong></h2> <p>In the fall of 2008 the Icelandic financial system collapsed following the bankruptcy of the major Icelandic banks. After people stood up for themselves in a series of vociferous demonstrations, the right-wing Prime Minister resigned and a new left-wing coalition, comprised of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement won the national elections. But quickly, general disillusion towards traditional politics provoked grassroots political initiatives. Among them, a new draft constitution was written by an elected Constitutional Council of 25 ordinary citizens using the internet to gather input from citizens. In 2011 the bill was presented before Althingi, the parliament of Iceland, which started discussions preceding the vote. The government soon realised that the hostility of the opposition parties could prevent the bill from being approved. It then called for a national referendum, held in October 2012, to show that the constitution was backed by the whole nation. </p> <p>Though the referendum was non-binding, general belief was that if the outcome was positive, the parliament would feel under far greater pressure to proceed accordingly. </p> <p>With a 49 percent turnout, two thirds of the voters affirmed their wish for the proposal of the Constitutional Council to be used as the basis of a legislative bill for a new Constitution. But contrary to initial expectations, the parliament then proceeded to disregard the popular will and has yet to agree on the draft.</p> <p>It is not that MPs were completely blind to what was happening outside the corridors of power - the issue has actually been debated extensively in parliament&hellip; So extensively, indeed, that they were not able to put it to a vote before the end of the current parliamentary session and elections, which are due on 27 April. The problem is that the newly-elected parliament will then have to start from scratch. </p> <h2><strong>Politics strike back</strong></h2> <p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m disappointed, but I&rsquo;m not surprised,&rdquo; says Gudr&uacute;n P&eacute;tursd&oacute;ttir, chairman of a Committee that helped the Council draft the constitution proposal. The conservative opposition, made up of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, has never looked kindly upon the work of the constitutional council. However, the ruling coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green Movement, which formerly backed the work of the Constitutional Council, have also failed to show unanimous support for the draft. </p> <p>&ldquo;The motivation to pass the draft constitution was not high enough. The majority was weak and at the mercy of powerful people who were against it,&rdquo; says P&eacute;tursd&oacute;ttir. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s too revolutionary.&rdquo;</p> <p>One of the most disputed clauses in the constitutional draft is the one stating that Iceland's natural resources are the &ldquo;perpetual property of the nation.&rdquo; It is no surprise that the Independence Party strongly opposed it, as the fishing industry, a traditional supporter of the conservative party, would be most damaged by this clause.</p> <p>The stalled situation, according to 'The Movement' MP Margr&eacute;t Tryggvad&oacute;ttir, happened because the draft introduces changes on how politicians should behave. &ldquo;But they clearly want the old ways,&rdquo; she says. </p> <p>But disagreement over individual provisions is not the only reason for the paralysis. &ldquo;The powers-to-be are afraid of the new constitution because they don&rsquo;t get it, they don&rsquo;t understand it,&rdquo; says Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, a Pirate Party (P&iacute;ratar) member and parliamentary candidate. &ldquo;Lawyers dislike the proposed bill because it is nowhere near what they are used to,&rdquo; he explains, and therefore do not know how it works. "They complain that many good ideas in the draft have no jurisdictional history", Gunnarsson says, underlining the fact that, &ldquo;the whole idea behind the proposed bill is to change how the government fundamentally works.&rdquo;</p> <h2><strong>Reform, frozen</strong></h2> <p>The future of the constitution now depends on the election results. As many as 15 parties have submitted their lists of candidates. This exceptionally high number seems to reflect people&rsquo;s disillusionment with old politics. Tryggvad&oacute;ttir, who is now a candidate for the newly formed Dawn (D&ouml;gun) party list, explains: &ldquo;four years ago everyone was angry and hopeless, but now people feel they can make some changes.&rdquo; Only a few parties, however, are expected to reach the five per cent threshold necessary to earn seats in Althingi. </p> <p>Perhaps surprisingly, given the popular wish for political renewal, the long-established Progressive and Independence Party are currently leading the polls. A survey conducted this week by the Social Science Research Institute for the newspaper <em>Morgunbladid</em> reveals that respectively 24.4% and 24.8% of voters favour them. Back in 2008, they were blamed for the financial collapse, but a restyling of leadership faces has enabled them to come back into play again. These are also the parties that have objected most to the work of the Constitutional Council. However, as Tryggvad&oacute;ttir asserts, &ldquo;that doesn&rsquo;t mean that Icelanders don&rsquo;t want a new constitution,&rdquo; but just that &ldquo;people are struggling with loans&rdquo; and see in the programme of the Progressive Party a solution to their problems. As home debts are connected with inflation, and inflation is very high, sorting this out is now a priority for Icelanders. By making good use of the citizens&rsquo; disappointment with the government, P&eacute;tursd&oacute;ttir affirms, &ldquo;they&rsquo;re making populist promises that are impossible to keep.&rdquo; &ldquo;That&rsquo;s why they&rsquo;re doing so well,&rdquo; she concludes.</p> <p>Regardless of the majority Althingi will have next week, parties such as P&iacute;ratar and D&ouml;gun are ready to fight to see the draft constitution approved. &ldquo;If we don&rsquo;t manage to replace the whole constitution, we&rsquo;ll work to implement at least the clauses that went before the referendum &ndash; and that people clearly wanted,&rdquo; states Gunnarsson. &ldquo;To do so, however, we need to deal with every single point individually and that&rsquo;s going to be a long process,&rdquo; he concludes. </p> <p>To become law, the new constitution &ndash; or the amendments to the old one &ndash; has to be put through a parliamentary vote. Once it has been approved by two thirds of the 63 MPs, new elections are to be called and the newly-elected Althingi has to ratify it again with at least two thirds of votes.</p> <p>The council has submitted a proposal, and the nation has expressed itself through a referendum. It is now up to the Icelandic parliament to take this process seriously. It will certainly take years, but now that citizens know what they themselves are able to do, they will not be content to just stand by and watch.&nbsp;</p> <fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Democracy and government Ideas Giulia Dessi Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Europe 2.0 Elections 2013 Fri, 26 Apr 2013 09:25:49 +0000 Giulia Dessi 72384 at A short history of banks and democracy <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The extraordinary bounce-back of the banks reveals the most disturbing, but least obvious, largely invisible, feature of the unfinished European crisis: the transformation of democratic taxation states into post-democratic banking states.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><em>The following reflection on the subject of banks and democracy has been prepared for a forthcoming OECD meeting in Paris, in late-May 2013. The text is long, stretching the definition of a field note on present-day democracy. But such matters are sadly neglected by contemporary theorists and analysts of democracy. Comments are most welcome.</em></p><p><em><em><a href=""><img src="" alt="A sign in New York in 1913. Flickr Commons/The Library of Congress. Public domain." width="460" height="267" /></a><span class="image-caption">A sign in New York in 1913 (click to enlarge). Flickr Commons/The Library of Congress. Public domain.</span></em></em></p> <h2>The unfinished European crisis</h2> <p>Five long years into its worst economic slump since the 1930s, the European region now resembles a boiling pot of contradictory political trends, most of them traceable to the past misconduct of banks and bitter fights over their future. From a distance, it&rsquo;s hard to grasp the scale and intensity of this worsening crisis, or the deep public disaffection now directed against banking and credit institutions and their government protectors.</p> <p>The shock and anger among citizens is palpable, for instance in Cyprus, whose offshore banking system has effectively been terminated by an EU bailout deal, for which not one member of the local parliament voted. In Greece, criminal charges have been brought against Andreas Georgiou and other officials responsible for overstating the country&rsquo;s debt, so contributing to the implosion of local markets and compounding the public misery caused by enforced austerity. Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest bank, is subject to a new investigation of claims that it falsely valued credit derivatives so as to avoid a government bailout by concealing losses as large as $12 billion. In Spain, the cajas (savings banks) have all but disappeared and their consortium replacement, known as Bankia, has crashed, leaving behind a trail of wreckage. In Britain, uproar has greeted revelations that nearly 100 top executives of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is 83% owned by taxpayers, were last year awarded pay rises of a million pounds, despite the fact that its quality of service is poor and its internal computer systems have suffered from prolonged collapse. Public disaffection with the state-owned bank has been compounded by its conviction (by the British state!) for fiddling the bank inter-lending rate (LIBOR), and by the sizeable fine it has been forced to pay, at taxpayers&rsquo; expense.</p> <p>Given such obscenities, for that&rsquo;s what they are, it comes as no surprise that the quaint old reputation of bankers as uncorrupted local men prone to dapper eccentricity, but fair-minded in their disbursement of money, has been blown apart. In more than a few European countries, the neologism &lsquo;bankster&rsquo; is now a popular term of abuse. It was probably first used in Italy, where the oldest bank in the world (Monte dei Paschi di Siena) has been bailed out with state funds (4 billion euros) paid for by taxpayers. &lsquo;Once there used to be gangsters&rsquo;, joked <a href="">Beppe Grillo</a>, well before the onset of the present banking crisis, and his recent stunning electoral success. &lsquo;Today, we have banksters&rsquo;. Since then (1998) he&rsquo;s regularly hurled jokes at thieving bankers, often comparing them to dogs, who at least can be trained to return things honestly.</p> <p>In one of their wilder moments, Germany&rsquo;s <em><a href="">Der Spiegel</a></em> has dubbed Beppe Grillo the new Mussolini, &lsquo;the most dangerous man in Europe&rsquo;, but the plain fact is that his hyperbole resonates with millions of Europeans, who know in their guts that the banking and credit sector remains both dysfunctional and deeply hurtful of the lives of citizens. Scandals centred on interest-rate fixing and mis-selling continue to erupt. Bank tycoons are still paid handsome bonuses. Politicians defend them. Two months ago, efforts by Brussels to apply stricter caps on bankers&rsquo; bonuses were slammed by London&rsquo;s Mayor Boris Johnson as a &lsquo;transparently self-defeating&rsquo; assault on &lsquo;banking talent&rsquo;. </p> <p>In many countries, banks have meanwhile stopped doing what they&rsquo;re supposedly chartered to do: to lend money to individuals, businesses and organisations at affordable rates of interest. In Britain, whose 30-year boom was hitched to the power of the City, bank lending to small and medium-sized businesses continues to drop, despite cut-price loans from the government&rsquo;s Funding for Lending Scheme. To make matters worse, the <a href="">Bank of England</a> has recently warned that in 2014 more than a few companies are vulnerable because before the crash they were saddled with huge debts by private equity firms that bought them out with money borrowed from banks. Meanwhile, whole banks continue to drop. Two months ago, the fourth largest bank in the Netherlands, SNS Reaal, was taken into state hands. The &euro;10 billion bailout was designed to prevent the banking and insurance group&rsquo;s collapse from property loan losses and to shore up confidence after a private investor-led rescue had failed. Part of the crippling cost will be borne by Dutch taxpayers.</p> <p>The sad news for citizens is that the deep political crisis triggered by the collapse of risk-infused, profit-hungry banks is by no means over. There are public reminders that 'the demons haven't been banished; they are merely sleeping' (<a href="">Jean-Claude Juncker</a>). For the first time in the history of European integration, there are stern warnings that Europe, comprising around 7% of the world's population and now less than 20% of global economic output, may in political economy terms be irreversibly in decline. Others point out that in the history of modern capitalism there have been eleven <a href="">large-scale financial bubbles</a> whose bursting caused widespread social damage. Seven of these have occurred since the early 1970s. </p> <p>That&rsquo;s a spooky fact, which is why nobody, certainly not the political elites of Europe, knows what is going to happen next. For many millions of European citizens, especially for those with eyes and ears, the deepening uncertainty is sobering. They are learning about the deep structural dependence of parliamentary democracy on the financial sector. They&rsquo;ve figured out that during the past three decades, banks fuelled booms, especially in the housing and construction sectors. They drove what the political sociologist <a href=";userIsAuthenticated=false">Colin Crouch</a> has called &lsquo;privatised Keynesianism&rsquo;: instead of governments raising taxes, or borrowing money to fund equal access to such goods as housing, work skills and education, individual citizens themselves were encouraged, at their own risk, to take advantage of easy access to loans, to pay for the services that governments once provided.</p> <p>Meanwhile, thanks to upswings in the loans business, house prices climbed. Millions of citizens felt richer. Employment levels in the banking and credit and real estate sectors blossomed. Young graduates found high-paying jobs; banks became a source of national pride, and they attracted bright and talented young things. Top executives raked in small fortunes from salaries, bonuses and equities. New bank &lsquo;products&rsquo; centred on reckless risk-taking and hedging were produced and marketed successfully, sometimes on the sly. (Full disclosure: from direct personal experience as a long-time customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland, I can confirm that the bank operated bizarre off-shore deals lubricated by written and verbal assurances that deposited funds were &lsquo;safe&rsquo;, and not subject to mainland taxation rules.) In the end, the recklessness of the finance sector came a cropper. It brought whole economies to the edge of a political abyss. The resulting bubbles began to burst all over the place, depressing markets and dragging down whole governments. Then a most astonishing thing happened: at taxpayers' expense, the banks that had recklessly fuelled the boom and bust rebounded by setting the austerity agenda that is now hurting the lives of millions of people and crippling the parliamentary democracies they once cherished.</p><p><img src="" alt="After a protest at the British Bankers Association HQ in the City. Demotix/Paul Davey. All rights reserved." width="460" height="312" /><span class="image-caption">After a protest at the British Bankers Association HQ in the City. Demotix/Paul Davey. All rights reserved.</span></p> <h2>The rise of the banking state</h2> <p>The extraordinary bounce-back reveals the most disturbing, but least obvious, largely invisible, feature of the unfinished European crisis: the transformation of democratic taxation states into post-democratic banking states.</p> <p>What is meant by this mouthful? The Austrian economist, <a href="">Joseph Schumpeter</a>, long ago pointed out how modern European states (at first they were monarchies, later most became republics) fed upon taxes extracted from their subject populations. The point is still emphasised by government and politics textbooks. Usually this is done by noting that under democratic conditions elected governments are expected to satisfy the needs and respond to the demands of citizens by providing various goods and services paid for through taxation granted by their consent. Behind this observation stands the presumption that the creation and circulation of money is the prerogative of the state. &lsquo;Money is a creature of the legal order&rsquo;, wrote Georg Friedrich Knapp in his classic <em><a href=";amp;pg=PA167&amp;amp;lpg=PA167&amp;amp;dq=georg+friedrich+knapp+state+theory+of+money&amp;amp;source=bl&amp;amp;ots=3Y4jSXxOA8&amp;amp;sig=et-I6TI05XAjO3yDWuirwUZU2M4&amp;amp;hl=en&amp;amp;sa=X&amp;amp;ei=kThRUZy5GquUiQfhnoCADQ&amp;amp;ved=0CGEQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&amp;amp;q=georg%20friedrich%20knapp%20state%20theory%20of%20money&amp;amp;f=false">State Theory of Money</a></em> (1905). </p> <p>Critics of this view long ago sensibly pointed out that the public &lsquo;validity&rsquo; of money also stems from its quantity and purchasing power. But, what&rsquo;s missing from both the criticism and today&rsquo;s textbooks is acknowledgement of a deep-seated counter-trend, an epochal shift that has barely been noticed by thinkers of democracy: the emergence of banking states that are structurally dependent on financial markets.</p> <p>Slowly but surely, in most European democracies, the power to create and regulate money has effectively been privatised. Without much public commentary or public resistance, governments of recent decades have surrendered their control over a vital resource, with the result that commercial banks and credit institutions now have much more &lsquo;spending power&rsquo; than elected governments. In a most interesting new book, the acclaimed historian <a href="">Harold James</a> has described how this out-flanking of European states by banks and credit institutions was reinforced at the supra-national level, disastrously it turns out, by the formation of the independent European Central Bank. From the moment of its foundation, the wholly unregulated operations of the ECB supposed that money could and should be divorced from the fiscal activities of the member states. </p> <p>The ECB was designed by the Delors Committee, a body stacked with central bankers, who seriously imagined they could insulate themselves from democratic political pressures. They dared look fortune in the face. Preoccupied with keeping inflation rates low, the ECB supposed from the outset that a simultaneous failure of markets and governments was inconceivable. </p> <p>It turned out that the ECB, the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency functioned as the composite framework within which cross-border banking flourished, partly for reasons of size, but also because the euro-zone offered banks hungry for acquisitions easy access to less regulated zones (German banks had a preference for Irish and Luxembourg subsidiaries, for instance). The disastrous consequence is summarised by Harold James: &lsquo;Europe-wide banking produced self-sustaining and self-propelling credit booms and bubbles, without any built-in corrective mechanisms.&rsquo; </p> <p>The recent history of these various trends reveals something shocking for democrats. It shows just how misleading is the commonplace perception that banking and credit institutions are just intermediaries linking savers and borrowers. These institutions are in fact political agenda setters - institutions with tremendous power to make decisions behind the backs of elected governments, to veto their policies, or to ransack their structures. </p> <p>Take the central case of Britain, where the City strikingly overshadows Westminster. An estimated 97% of the country&rsquo;s money supply is in the hands of banks and credit institutions (the remaining 3% is government-created coins and notes carried around in citizens&rsquo; pockets and purses). In effect, these institutions rent out &lsquo;digital&rsquo; money to the rest of the economy and political order. This gives the credit and banking sector vast powers over all other institutions, and of course over citizens as a whole. The sector determines whether people can rent or buy a dwelling, and whether or not ventures as different as small businesses, wind and solar energy farms and commercial real estate receive funding.&nbsp; Proof of the clout of the sector is everywhere. The financial sector in Britain pays limited taxes (in 2012, only 6% of overall tax revenues came from the banking sector). It&rsquo;s not required to disclose how it uses its customers&rsquo; funds. The sector is dominated by oligopolies (in the UK, just 5 banks control 85% of the money supply). They are run by board members blessed with enormous power to shape the economy and government policy, for instance through political donations to parties, or by direct access to policy makers by means of &lsquo;backstage passes&rsquo; and &lsquo;revolving doors&rsquo;. The banking and credit sector naturally provides a comfortable home for retired politicians. <a href="">Tony Blair</a> now earns 12 times his Prime Minister&rsquo;s salary as a &lsquo;senior adviser&rsquo; to JPMorgan Chase; he reportedly earns another &pound;1 million a year &lsquo;advising&rsquo; Zurich Financial Services.</p><p><img src="" alt="A view of the City of London, dated 1744. Shutterstock/I. Pilon. All rights reserved." width="460" height="297" /><span class="image-caption">A view of the City of London, dated 1744. Shutterstock/I. Pilon. All rights reserved.</span></p> <p>It is painfully obvious that when the financial sector generates bubbles, and when these bubbles pop, as happened during the past five years, banking states and their citizens are at the whim and mercy of banks and credit institutions. Citizens are held hostage. It is no accident, and certainly no fleeting policy whim, that &lsquo;too big to fail&rsquo; banks have been bailed out and propped up at taxpayers&rsquo; expense. </p> <p>The rescue patterns established during the past five years simply reflect the structural power that the financial sector wields over governments, whatever their composition. What has happened, to put things brutally, is that the elected parliamentary government component of monitory democracies has been overwhelmed, transformed into a slavish sub-sector of financial markets. </p> <p>These markets were protected by independent central banks and self-regulatory bodies run by the financial sector.&nbsp; When those self-regulated markets failed, the democratic principle of one citizen, one vote was cast aside. Electoral democracy was reduced to being the servant of high-profile banks and shadowy credit and finance institutions, powerful bodies such as private equity firms, asset management companies and money market funds that collect money from investors, such as pension funds, insurance companies and ordinary savers, then for very short periods &ndash; weeks or months at most &ndash; lend those funds to banks, governments and business firms. </p> <p>The extreme example of the trend, which implies the temporary suspension or outright abolition of elections and parliamentary government, has been unfolding in Cyprus. There, a collapsing banking system is being rescued through the imposition of capital controls (for the first time in history depositors within a euro-zone country have been blocked from taking their money out of financial institutions in large amounts and moving it elsewhere) and by literally robbing citizens (whose accounts contain more than 100,000 euros) of their savings overnight &ndash; two precedents that are highly dangerous, if only because as soon as the crisis intensifies in another euro-zone country, as it surely will, depositors may well move to withdraw their money in a flash, so intensifying the crisis.</p> <p>The deepening European crisis exposes the depth of dependence of elected governments on finance capital, and it therefore comes as no surprise that opinion polls show that large majorities of citizens in many European countries are appalled by these trends. They no longer &lsquo;bank on&rsquo; democracy; they sense that democracy is now at the whim and mercy of banks. </p> <p>It's true that there&rsquo;s some public awareness of the political dangers of simplifying complexities by demonising or meting out rough treatment to individual bankers (as happened to the man formerly known as <a href="">Sir Fred Goodwin</a>, boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who was stripped of his knighthood and whose house was attacked by a shadowy group called &lsquo;Bank Bosses Are Criminals&rsquo;). There&rsquo;s also some public recognition granted to &lsquo;good&rsquo; bankers, those who keep their dignity by telling the truth, admitting their crimes and mistakes, and offering wise advice about what next needs to happen. The assembly democracy of Athens in the 4th century BCE had Pasion, a much talked-about former slave who quickly rose through the ranks to become a citizen-owner of a money-changing table and provider of military equipment to the armed forces of Athens. Nineteenth century representative democracy featured figures such as George Grote, a banker who championed the secret ballot and democratic parliamentary reform and wrote a twelve-volume history of classical Greece. Our age of <a href="">monitory democracy</a> has George Soros, whose intelligent diagnoses of the present crisis have earned him global public respect.</p> <p>The plain fact nevertheless is that figures of the calibre of Pasion, Grote and Soros are today exceptional. The world of high finance has attracted risk addicts, pathological gamblers and amoral rogues. The German political scientist, <a href="">Claus Offe</a>, provocatively calls them 'freebooters'. The term captures the mood among millions of European citizens who are victims of &lsquo;austerity&rsquo;, and who are understandably disgusted by what is going on. If justice is fairness in the distribution of life chances, then (so they reason) present trends reek of piracy, lawlessness, criminal injustice.</p> <h2>Citizens and banks</h2> <p>What can be done in this European crisis to breathe life back into the least bad way of publicly handling power called democracy? Can anything be done? Learning from the past, looking backwards in order to envision a new future, is mandatory, if only because loud cries to have bankers&rsquo; guts for garters are a well-rehearsed theme in the history of democracy. Much can be learned from why past democrats felt discomfort with banks and why this disaffection triggered innovations that surely are still relevant to our times.</p> <p>The principle of no taxation without representation was one of the most important of these innovations. Born of deep tensions between citizen creditors and monarchs in the prosperous Low Countries, it proved to be revolutionary. In late 16th-century cities such as Amsterdam and Bruges, influential men with money to invest demanded, as citizens, that they should only agree to lend money to governments, and to pay their taxes, if in return they were granted the power to decide who governs them. </p> <p>The principle was first formulated in the name of democracy (<em>democratie</em>) in a remarkable Dutch-language pamphlet called, <em>The Discourse</em> (it&rsquo;s analysed in detail in <em><a href="">The Life and Death of Democracy</a>)</em>. Its author is unknown. Published in 1583, its 24-page reasoning elaborated a new equation responsible for kick-starting a revolution in the arts of statecraft, especially in matters of public finance: since governments had to be paid for, for instance by lending them money or paying them taxes, incumbent governments are obliged to treat those who grant them money as citizens. </p> <p>If their money was to be entrusted to governments, then governments had to prove that they could be trusted with their creditors&rsquo; money. Financial trust implied political trust. Trust needed constantly to be renewed and that could only happen, so the reasoning ran, when subjects kept their eyes and ears open, doubted what their governments said and did, and demanded of them openness and propriety. Democracy is a form of government in which &lsquo;the most competent and able inhabitants and citizens are elected to the government by their fellow citizens on certain conditions and for a specified period of office.&rsquo; Democracy means the readiness &lsquo;to put out of office again those who have been found to be inefficient in government, or who have conducted themselves in a way unbecoming to office; and to refill them as they should be.&rsquo;</p> <p>The dynamic reasoning was peculiarly modern. In the ancient democracy of Athens, <a href=";amp;printsec=frontcover&amp;amp;source=gbs_ge_summary_r&amp;amp;cad=0#v=onepage&amp;amp;q&amp;amp;f=false">Pierre Vidal-Nacquet</a> and other scholars have pointed out, banks were small-scale and mainly money-changers and pawn brokers. Most of the moneyed wealth in the assembly democracy of Athens never came the way of its citizens (it was usually hoarded by the rich). Banks were not credit institutions geared to speculative or productive investment, for instance investing the money of their clients in maritime loans. As the case of Pasion shows, banks were not agents of greed, champions of unlimited wealth, what Aristotle called <em>chrematistike</em>.</p> <p>Early modern banks, by contrast, were capitalist institutions. Their aim was to make money within secure political settings. This required political power to be regarded as a trust exercised for defining and protecting its citizens. Elected representatives were to be held permanently accountable to the (moneyed and tax-paying) people from whom it ultimately springs. The argument worked in favour of men of wealth, obviously, but the day came when it backfired on their heads. In the history of modern representative democracy, the principle of political trust fed a second democratic trend: political efforts to break up big banks that abused their powers and violated the trust invested by the people in their elected governments.</p> <p>Champions of this second principle of &lsquo;bank busting&rsquo; recognised that banks could become too big for their boots, and that periodically, for the sake of democracy and its principle of equality, elected governments had to bring them back to earth. The first such attempt to rein back banks in the name of democracy happened during the 1830s, in the young republic of the United States. </p> <p>The move against money power was led by President Andrew Jackson (1767 &ndash; 1845) and his supporters. He was a strange democrat whose aggressive toughness earned him the nickname &lsquo;Old Hickory&rsquo;. Jackson was a wealthy slave holder who disliked &lsquo;aristocracy&rsquo; and over-bearing government. In the name of &lsquo;the people&rsquo;, he took on the Bank of the United States &ndash; and managed to win, by rescinding its charter.</p><p><a href=""><img src="" alt="A contemporary caricature of &#039;Mr Jackson&#039;s financial panic&#039;. The Times. Public domain." width="460" height="319" /></a><span class="image-caption">A contemporary caricature of 'Mr Jackson's financial panic' (click to enlarge). The Times. Public domain.</span></p> <p>Jackson&rsquo;s <a href="">veto message</a> (July 1832) explained why. Large banks make the rich richer, he said. By concentrating so much financial power, they threaten states&rsquo; rights, render legislatures vulnerable to their designs and expose citizens to the unaccountable power of foreign interests. The solution was to deal with the &lsquo;hydra of corruption&rsquo; by breaking up the most powerful banks, to enable smaller local banks to flourish. &lsquo;The Bank is trying to kill me,&rsquo; he declared, &lsquo;but I will kill it.&rsquo; </p> <p>That is exactly what Jackson did. Calling for government to &lsquo;confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor&rsquo;, he ordered the withdrawal of funds from the Bank of America. They were redirected to a variety of smaller &lsquo;pet&rsquo; banks, which fuelled investment in land, canal construction, cotton production and manufacturing &ndash; until the demand for gold and silver coins (called &lsquo;<em>specie</em>&rsquo;) went through the roof, to the point where many banks fell victim to a burst bubble and collapsed. A great panic ensued (in 1837), followed by a deep stagnation from which the American economy took years to recover. The collapse was compounded by a simultaneous crisis in Britain, where banks issuing paper receipts and lending excessive quantities of money pushed up prices and destabilised the economy, until the Conservative government led by Sir Robert Peel passed the 1844 Bank Charter Act, which enabled the government to regain control over the creation of bank notes.</p> <h2>Iceland</h2> <p>All this is history, of course, but history is repeating itself, this time as a disastrous farce. In the European democracies, their substance and spirit under siege, millions of citizens are now convinced that banks are abusing their vast powers and whole governments are violating the hard-won principle that they&rsquo;re only ever legitimate when they rest on the consent of most people. </p> <p>The principle and practice of government in charge of banks by consent of its citizens have been side-lined. A deep stalemate is developing. The consequences, which include deepening social injustice, political resistance to austerity (most recently, in the Italian elections) and, possibly, more Greek-style social explosions, are for the moment incalculable. So far, there&rsquo;s only one country in the region &ndash; <a href="">volcanic Iceland</a> - where corrupt banks and greedy bankers have received their due punishment, using swift, decisive and radical measures.</p><p><img src="" alt="The 2009 &#039;Pots-and-Pans Revolution&#039; in Iceland. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved." width="460" height="307" /><span class="image-caption">The 2009 'Pots-and-Pans Revolution' in Iceland. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved.</span></p> <p>Five years ago, the citizens of one of the richest countries of the world watched aghast as their three main banks (Landbanki, Kapthing and Glitnir) went bust, and were nationalised. Government debt rocketed. The kroner fell sharply in value against the euro. Market capitalisation of the stock exchange dropped over 90%. At the end of 2008, Iceland declared bankruptcy. Public protests erupted when two successive governments tried to impose austerity measures. Demonstrators beat pots and pans in the streets and lit bonfires before the parliament. In March 2010, a national referendum was held in which 93% voted against any laws that would have made Iceland&rsquo;s citizens responsible for paying more than the minimum of its bankers&rsquo; debts. A 9-volume <a href="">Special Investigation Commission</a> report meanwhile slammed the criminal wrongdoings of banks, some politicians, auditing firms, government officials and administrators. Backed by citizens who were both indignant and furious, the government issued arrest warrants for the bankers responsible for the crash. A parliamentary court (the first in the history of the country) found a prime minister guilty of violating the constitution and laws of ministerial responsibility. A new draft constitution was prepared by a publicly elected Constitutional Council. Including clauses specifying the right of all citizens to have access to natural resources and the Internet, it awaits ratification through a parliamentary vote and a national referendum. Its fate now depends on the outcome of the general election, to be held this coming weekend. </p> <h2>Political innovations?</h2> <p>Will the courageous methods of Icelanders to save their democracy by politically reining in banks and bankers be adopted by others elsewhere in Europe? It&rsquo;s too early to tell, unfortunately. Iceland&rsquo;s circumstances are in any case special. Yet a clear implication of its recent experience is that the present crisis-ridden drift towards banking states can only be resolved by pursuing radical political reforms. </p> <p>Scapegoating of individuals, the demonisation of banks and caps on bonuses are not enough. Toothy political innovation that comes from &lsquo;above&rsquo; is badly needed, yet so far in this European crisis, predictably, there&rsquo;s nothing that remotely measures up to efforts during the 1930s, such as the Glass-Steagall Act in the United States, to ring fence vanilla-flavoured mainstream savings and loans businesses from much riskier &lsquo;casino&rsquo; investment banking, for instance by creating &lsquo;custodial accounts&rsquo; that remain the legal property of customers, whose funds cannot be used by investment banks for risky speculations and profit-driven lending.</p> <p>Few members of the political elites of Europe think in terms of ring-fencing democratic institutions against the reckless greed of banks. No democratic means has yet been found for shutting down failed banks without burdening taxpayers or endangering the financial system. Yes, on the way is European legislation in support of tougher rules governing how much capital banks must hold in reserve. There&rsquo;s plenty of talk of the need to bring &lsquo;ethics&rsquo; back into banking. There's growing political interest in the so-called German Sparkassen, a network of local banks that have a civic duty to lend within a region and to promote local growth. </p> <p>There are pop-up makeover men, like Antony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays, who&rsquo;ve taken to wearing modest dark blue suits, &lsquo;trust me&rsquo; shirts and plain ties. They talk in management speak, using such acronyms as TRANSFORM (&lsquo;Turnaround&rsquo;; &lsquo;Return Acceptable NumberS&rsquo; and &lsquo;&rsquo;FORward Momentum&rsquo;). Calls by politicians for bonus caps are growing louder. In a recent referendum in business-friendly Switzerland, voters approved the principle that shareholders must have a binding say on the overall pay packages for company executives and directors. </p> <p>The representatives of European Union governments and the European Parliament have meanwhile just agreed that maximum annual bonuses given to bankers, starting next year, would be equal to their salaries.&nbsp;</p> <p>Annual doubling of the salaries of powerful people heavily responsible for this deep crisis hardly seems fair. Sure, these political proposals and reforms are better than nothing, but if my short history of banks and democracy is plausible then it suggests that a much tougher and more innovative program of democratisation is needed. If the aim is to 'throw as many wrenches as possible into the works of &lsquo;<em>haute finance</em>' (<a href="">Wolfgang Streeck</a>), then organised pressures from below, from both voters and civil society networks, will be vital.</p> <p>A pertinent example is Spain&rsquo;s Platform of Mortgage Victims, a militant social network geared to the protection of citizens suffering property repossessions and unaffordable mortgages. The platform is a new type of citizens&rsquo; initiative. It has managed to wrong-foot the Rajoy government by collecting nearly 1.5 million signatures in support of a petition calling on parliament to change the laws covering mortgages and to eliminate penalties for citizens who fall behind in payments. </p> <p>Its prominent spokeswoman Ada Colau has gone further. During a recent parliamentary briefing, she caused a sensation by calling to his face a senior member of the Spanish banking association a &lsquo;criminal&rsquo; who &lsquo;should be treated like one&rsquo;. She&rsquo;s since publicly demanded a moratorium on house evictions and proposed that nationalised lenders should be converting empty flats into affordable social housing. She puts the underlying principle that&rsquo;s at stake forcefully, in plain speech: &lsquo;It cannot be that the most vulnerable people are made to live with the consequences of their actions until their death, while the big companies take no responsibility and are bailed out with public money.&rsquo;</p> <p>Given the scale of the developing catastrophe, surely Ada Colau, an unflinching democrat, is right about that?</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/openeconomy/ann-pettifor/eurozone-crisis-what-way-forward">The Eurozone crisis: what way forward? </a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/yiannis-kitromilides/cyprus-bail-in-blunder-template-for-europe">The Cyprus &#039;bail-in&#039; blunder: a template for Europe? </a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> EU </div> <div class="field-item even"> UK </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Spain </div> <div class="field-item even"> Cyprus </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Greece </div> <div class="field-item even"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Conflict </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item even"> International politics </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? openEconomy Iceland Greece Cyprus Spain UK EU Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Ideas International politics europe John Keane The fortunes of the Eurozone Tue, 23 Apr 2013 10:07:29 +0000 John Keane 72288 at From the people to the people, a new constitution <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>What the future holds in store and what will be the fate of the bill for a new constitution is hard to say at this point in time. But what is evident is that the battle of “who owns Iceland” is being fought and is at its high water mark. There is much at stake.<strong><em></em></strong></p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="During the Icelandic &#039;Pots-and-Pans Revolution&#039; in January 2009. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved." width="460" height="307" /><span class="image-caption">During the Icelandic 'Pots-and-Pans Revolution' in January 2009. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved.</span></p><p>The end of the cold war marked the beginning of a process which led to the great financial collapses in 2008. People had been locked in ideological prisons since the end of the war and dualism has dominated the discussion, west or east, for or against, black or white, good or bad. No alternatives, no shades were allowed. </p> <h3>The first fall</h3> <p>This situation came to an end - metaphorically speaking - with the fall af the Berlin Wall. Suddenly people were out in the open. The winds of &lsquo;freedom&rsquo;, i.e. the free market, blew over the world, no longer hindered by walls. Post- modernism followed with what most people would argue, rightly, was necessary deconstruction and re-evaluation. Extreme individualism, another byproduct, craved diversity to such an extent that no two people had anything in common. In the name of freedom and so called healthy competition &ndash; &lsquo;everyone for him or herself&rsquo; dominated everything else. People were judged and valued by the scale of greed, the more you could grab the more you were admired. No questions asked. This was the new gospel glorifying individual &lsquo;freedom and happiness&rsquo;. </p> <p>This is of course a short and simplified version of what happened, but nevertheless, this was generally the atmosphere that paved the way to a new Iceland. With the help of the government, a coalition of the conservative party, called Independent Party and a central party called The Progressive Party, great changes took place. Deregulations, privatization of banks, sold off at low prices to members of these two parties, were amongst the measures taken to encourage the growth of the financial scene.</p> <p>Buying and selling of fish quotas, with great profits, enabled by new laws, created a new class of extremely rich individuals and families, hitherto unknown to that extent in Iceland. The stock exchange overflowed, not only did the new rich class buy stocks using the money that mainly came from selling fish quotas, the general public was encouraged to buy stocks, even to take loans out to buy them, which was easy. The banks seemed bursting with money and were giving loans out left, right and centre. Everyone could walk into a bank and get money to buy houses, cars, stock or any and every consumable. What was not known, partly due to a very weak Financial Supervisory Authority, was that all this consuming was financed by foreign loans. On the surface everything was blooming. Iceland was top of the list of the richest countries in the world and the idea of Iceland becoming a banking empire on a worldwide scale was fostered. </p> <p>Growing nationalism became apparent. We were supposed in some ways to be superior, due to our viking blood and heritage. Even the president of Iceland went around boasting about our genetic superiority. The young bankers and financial geniuses were hailed like national heroes which enabled and encouraged them to continue gambling, not only in Iceland but with the savings of people in other countries like England and Holland, which later led to the so called &lsquo;Icesave case&rsquo;. The banks grew to weight three times the GNP, so that the collapse when it came in Iceland was far heavier than in other countries. Signs of great political and financial corruption were routinely ignored. </p> <h3>The second fall</h3> <p>This was generally the situation when the spectacular financial crash took place in October 2008. Three banks comprising 85 percent of the country&acute;s banking system collapsed within a week and the domestic equity market was virtually wiped out overnight. The rest of the banking system crashed in quick succession. The natural thing for inhabitants in any country to do in such a situation is to inspect their legal and constitutional foundations in order to look for latent flaws and to fix them. </p> <p>This in fact took place in Iceland. Meetings were held every Saturday on a square, called Austurv&ouml;llur, right in front of the Parliament House. Thousands of people turned up and this gradually grew into what became known as the Pots&ndash;and-Pans revolution. It owes its name to the boisterous banging of kitchen utensils, which was to emphasize the fact that the general public, real families and homes were the actual victims of the financial crash. The three main demands of the Pots-and-Pans revolution were the following: for the government to resign, the general director of the Central Bank to resign (interestingly enough he was the former prime minister and leader of the conservative party, who had himself appointed to this post when he resigned from politics) and for a new constitution. The government resigned in early 2009 and a new government was formed - a coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement. Soon after the general director of the Central Bank was forced to resign. An election was held in the spring , after which the two above-mentioned parties formed a new government. One of the promises it made was to rewrite the constitution.</p> <p>After the election in the spring of 2009 the parliament decided to face up to a promise it had made itself to revise a constitution that had been pending for 65 years. It decided to have a constituent assembly elected by the people to do the job. It must be recognized that the prime minister, J&oacute;hanna Sigurdard&oacute;ttir, leader of the Social Democratic Alliance, had over the years spoken of this possibility and put forward resolutions on the matter, so she cannot be accused of rank populism. The Althing&acute;s decision was to proceed in three steps: a) Calling a National Assembly, b) appointing a Constitutional Committee and c) holding an election for the Constitutional Assembly. Thus emphasizing that the constitution should come from the people rather than from politicians and their lawyers.</p> <ul><li>a)<span> </span>The National Assembly consisted of 1,000 individuals selected at random from the national registry, with certain restraints such as to select an equal representation of men and women of different ages and from different parts of the country. It was held for one day in October 2010 in a big sport stadium in Reykjav&iacute;k. People were divided into small groups of 10-12 persons who discussed what they wished to see in a new constitution. The National Assembly had expressed very strong views on, for example, public ownership of the country&rsquo;s resources. The Constitutional Assembly was by law expected to consider the conclusions of the National Assembly.</li><li>b)<span> </span>A Constitutional Committee, consisting of seven professionals from different areas of expertise, including law, literature and political science, was appointed by the Althing. Its role was to gather information, provide analyses and propose ideas. The committee produced a 700-hundred- page report with detailed ideas and information, for example, quotations from different constitutions and related literature, as well as clause-by-clause analysis of the constitution from 1944, always taking into consideration views expressed by the National Assembly, including on the management and ownership of natural resources.</li><li>&nbsp;</li><li>c)<span> </span>The Constitutional Assembly was elected in November 2010. There were 523 candidates competing for the 25 seats in the assembly. The candidates were all representing themselves as individuals, not presenting any political parties or unions, and the campaign was very civilized and moderate. Most candidates just put their names forward, wrote a few articles emphasizing their viewpoints on different matters, hardly advertised at all and answered questions put to them by the media or the public through Facebook.</li></ul><p>The political parties did not support any special candidates, but the Independence (conservative) Party and The Progressive Party opposed the idea of electing an assembly from the beginning and encouraged people to ignore the election. Just before the election day The Independence Party mailed a list of favoured candidates to its party members, but only two of those were elected. The media, including state television and radio, did little to inform the public about the issues or candidates. No opinion polls were conducted, so no one knew which were most likely to be elected. The electoral system used was STV (single transferable vote) and the turnout was 37 percent.</p> <p>The representatives elected formed a very diverse group of people, with broad and different experience: doctors, lawyers, political scientists, priests and professors, a farmer, a bold fighter for the rights of handicapped people, mathematicians , mediapeople, former members of parliament, a nurse, a philosopher, a theatre director and a labour union leader.</p> <h3><strong>An unexpected hiccup</strong></h3> <p>A surprising aftermath was the sudden and unexpected intervention of the Supreme Court of Iceland. One unsuccessful candidate and two other individuals, all with connection to The Independence Party, filed a technical complaint about the designs of the voting booths, claiming the election was not secret. The fact being that the booths were 15-20 centimetres lower than in parliamentary elections, but approved of in many countries.</p> <p>After reviewing the complaints, the Supreme Court declared the Constitutional Assembly election null and void in what must be the first instance of a national election being invalidated in a democracy and, as considered by many, on very flimsy grounds. It must be mentioned here that members of the Supreme Court had over the years been appointed by The Independence Party and/or The Progressive Party. The appointments were often highly criticized, especially during the reign of Mr. David Oddsson, leader of The Independence Party and Prime Minister for seventeen years. Also worth mentioning is that according to opinion polls the public does not have great confidence in the judicial system, even less in fact than it has in the political system or rather Althing, i.e. around ten percent.</p> <p>The Althing reacted to the Supreme Court decision by appointing the 25 elected representatives to a Constitutional Council, revising accordingly the law governing the Constitutional Assembly. Of the 25 elected representatives, ten women and fifteen men, all but one accepted the parliamentary appointment. The abstainer was replaced by the person who came in 26th position in the vote tally.</p> <p>Probably as intended, the opponents of the project have used the Supreme Court intervention to question the legitimacy of the Council, referring to it as an irrelevant &lsquo;conference&rsquo; that no one needs pay any particular attention to. Others have asked: if the parliament wanted to appoint 25 people to a Constitutional Council, which 25 individuals would have been better suited to the task than the 25 who were elected through a process that not even the Supreme Court claimed was affected by the alleged technical flaws in question? This is a key point: the Supreme Court invalidated the election without suggesting that the election results had been affected by the problems cited.</p> <h3><strong>Back to work for democracy</strong></h3> <p>But back to the now-appointed Constitutional Council, and its work. Opinion polls suggested that the broad consensus among the elected representatives as well as among the 523 candidates reflected not only the sentiments of the National Assembly as attended by 1,000 randomly selected citizens, but reflected also public opinion. For example, the broad consensus among the representatives about the need to substantiate, or rather reclaim, the people&rsquo;s ownership rights to their natural resources accords with public opinion polls that have for many years consistently shown about 70 percent of the electorate opposing the discriminatory nature of the fisheries management system that has turned a small group of boat owners into billionaires and major political power brokers.</p> <p>The National Assembly echoed this popular sentiment. The Constitutional Council considered itself obliged by law to take the resolutions of the National Assembly into consideration. Therefore, no one should have been surprised when the Constitutional Council approved and delivered to parliament a <a href="">constitutional bill</a> that, if ratified in a national referendum, will entail a major overhaul of Iceland&rsquo;s constitution.</p> <p>Early on in the Constitutional Council&rsquo;s work it became clear that most of its members wanted to start with a clean slate, to write a new constitution rather than revise the existing one. Even so, the council reached a consensus, approving the bill after four months of work with 25 votes against zero, a remarkable feat, not least in view of the fact that the reforms proposed are quite far-reaching and radical in a number of ways. The bill stresses stronger checks and balances between the three branches of government as well as between power and accountability. It stresses transparency, fairness, protection of the environment, and efficient and fair exploitation - plus national ownership of the country&rsquo;s natural resources. </p> <p>It aims to stamp out corruption and secrecy, yet leaves both words unspoken. At the same time, the bill promises continuity and stability by preserving and strengthening the semi-presidential form of parliamentary government laid out in the provisional constitution from 1944.</p> <h3><strong>&lsquo;Property of the nation&rsquo;</strong></h3> <p>A short preamble in first-person plural sets the tone:</p> <p>&ldquo;<span> </span>We, the people of Iceland, wish to create a just society with equal opportunities for everyone. Our different origins enrich the whole, and together we are responsible for the heritage of the generations, the land and history, nature, language and culture.<br />Iceland is a free and sovereign state, resting on the cornerstones of freedom, equality, democracy and human rights.&nbsp;</p><p><span> </span>The government shall work for the welfare of the inhabitants of the country, strengthen their culture and respect the diversity of human life, the land and the biosphere.</p><p><span> </span>We wish to promote peace, security, wellbeing and happiness among ourselves and future generations. We resolve to work with other nations in the interests of peace and respect for the Earth and all Mankind.</p> <p><span> </span>In this light we are adopting a new Constitution, the supreme law of the land, to be observed by all.&rdquo;</p> <p>All members of the Constitutional Council will agree that they might all have personal wishes or views that do not appear in the bill, but that is a natural result of consensus. You cannot have everything your own way. If that is your attitude you cannot work with other people, at least not in the consensus method. But most, if not all, would agree that article 34 is essential and it is also the one causing the most serious dispute because of its content, which radically changes the &lsquo;ownership of Iceland&rsquo;.</p> <p><span>In the new bill, article 34 is as follows:&nbsp;</span></p> <p><span>&ldquo;Iceland&rsquo;s natural resources which are not in private ownership are the common and perpetual property of the nation. No one may acquire the natural resources or their attached rights for ownership or permanent use, and they may never be sold or mortgaged. Resources under national ownership include resources such as harvestable fish stocks, other resources of the sea and sea bed within Icelandic jurisdiction and sources of water rights and power development rights, geothermal energy and mining rights. National ownership of resources below a certain depth from the surface of the earth may be provided for by law. The utilization of the resources shall be guided by sustainable development and the public interest. Government authorities, together with those who utilize the resources, are responsible for their protection. On the basis of law, government authorities may grant permits for the use or utilization of resources or other limited public goods against full consideration and for a reasonable period of time. Such permits shall be granted on a non-discriminatory basis and shall never entail ownership or irrevocable control of the resources.&rdquo;<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>By &ldquo;full consideration&rdquo; is meant full market price &ndash; that is, the highest price that anyone is willing to pay, e.g., in a market, at auction, or in an agreement with the state as agent for the resource&rsquo;s rightful owner, the nation &ndash; for the right to exploit the resource in question. This marks a clear departure from current practice where vessel owners have been granted access to valuable common-property fishing quotas. The Iceland bill makes an explicit conceptual distinction between the &lsquo;property of the nation&rsquo; and &lsquo;property of the state.&rsquo; State property &ndash; office buildings, for example &ndash; can be sold or pledged at will by the state. The property of the nation is different in that it &ldquo;may never be sold or mortgaged.&rdquo; This means that the present generation or future generation do not have the right to dispose of the resources for its own benefit. These restrictions are meant to refer to the natural resources themselves as well as to the rights attached to the resources.<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>In part to clarify the meaning of the nation&lsquo;s, as opposed to the state&lsquo;s, ownership rights to its natural resources, the article on natural resources is preceded by a corresponding article on cultural assets (article 32): &ldquo;Valuable national possessions pertaining to the Icelandic cultural heritage, such as national relics and ancient manuscripts, may neither be destroyed nor surrendered for permanent possession or use, sold or pledged.&rdquo; National ownership of cultural assets as well as of (renewable) natural resources is intended to impose on the current generation a duty to preserve the assets in question for unborn generations. State ownership involves no such duty.<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>Articles concerning nature and environment are quite explicit. Article 33 starts as follows: &ldquo;Iceland&rsquo;s nature is the foundation of life in the country. Everyone is under obligation to respect it and protect it...&rdquo;. It reflects increased and growing awareness of the necessity for environmental protection. According to the bill public access to preparations for decisions that will affect nature and environment is ensured.<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>Without going into the details of every article a few will be mentioned. Clauses on the electoral system, opening up the possibility to vote for individuals as well as party slates, equal votes, &ldquo;one person-one vote&rdquo;. This means that the votes of voters everywhere in the country should have equal weight. Not all politicians agree with this as MPs from rural areas currently have much fewer votes behind them than their fellow MPs from the Reykjav&iacute;k area. Clauses of freedom for the press, to ensure public access to information and documents in official possession and strict rules about appointment to public offices are also to be found in the bill.<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>Worth mentioning is the article on referendum which allows &ldquo;Ten percent of the electorate (to) petition for a referendum on legislation passed by Althing&hellip;&rdquo; and &ldquo;Ten percent of the electorate may submit a legislative bill in the Althing...&rdquo;.</span>&nbsp;</p> <h3><strong>How it was done</strong></h3> <p>The Constitutional Council decided to do things differently from the customary methods used in political discussions and decision-making processes. The council was divided into three committees, each working on a different subject. Once a week the whole council met and introduced the work already done in the committees. Suggestions were discussed, altered if need be and voted on. When an article or a provisional one had been agreed on it was included in a paper, always published on our website for the public to see and comment on if they so wished, thus gradually building up a whole bill.</p> <p>Before the actual work began it was decided to aim for consensus and to have the process open to the public. The job was done in three overlapping rounds. First, each week, the Constitutional Council posted on its <a href="">website</a> some new provisional articles for perusal by the public. In a second round, usually two to three weeks later, after receiving comments and suggestions from the public as well as from experts, the Council posted revised versions of those articles on the website. Then, in a final round, proposals for changes in the document as a whole were debated and voted upon article by article, and the final version of the bill was prepared. At the end of the last round, each article was approved by an overwhelming majority of votes.</p> <p>The Council decided to invite the people of Iceland to participate in the drafting of the constitutional bill on the Internet. Judging by the traffic on the Constitutional Council's website, the people of Iceland welcomed the Council&rsquo;s invitation to participate in the project. The Council received 323 formal proposals that the three committees of the Council discussed and answered. More than 3,600 written comments were posted on the website by visitors; the Council representatives answered many if not most of them. Nearly all the proposals and comments received proved useful in one way or another.</p> <h3><strong>Owners, spoilers and gatekeepers</strong></h3> <p>Contrary to this interest of the public the lack of enthusiasm of the majority of academics, not only lawyers, became very evident. Like everyone else they were welcome to make their point on the website or visit the council. In spite of this it must be underlined that the council actively sought and received the advice of many experts, every step of the way, in meetings as well as in writing.</p> <p>In July, after four months of work, the council reached a consensus, approving the bill with 25 votes against zero. The bill was then sent to the Althing. Then another interesting process began. In discussing the bill The Independent Party and The Progressive Party opposed the bill so strongly that it proved impossible to get it through the parliamentary process. The content of the bill was hardly mentioned in the discussions - the emphasis was on the process. They claimed everything had been done the wrong way, the election to the Constitutional Assembly and the appointment of The Constitutional Council. The bill was bad they claimed, and needed to be corrected from beginning to end etc. although what and how was never stated.</p> <p>Furthermore and interestingly enough the main obstacle was never mentioned. Which was of course the article 34 concerning the nation&rsquo;s ownership of its natural resources or rather the fact that vessel owners and quota holders should from now on pay &ldquo;full market price&rdquo; for the utilization of the resources. This would deprive the elite that had until now been granted access to valuable common-property fishing quotas, of this privilege. The majority of vessel owners and quota holders support the Independent Party and pay great sums to it and expect in return to be protected by the party, which they have been. So there is much at stake here. Some would even say that the parliamentarian discussion on the bill crystallizes the battle of &ldquo;who owns Iceland&rdquo;. The nation or a few privileged!</p> <p>Not being able to pass the bill and legislate on it the government decided to put the bill into a referendum. Give it back to the public and ask whether it would like to base a new constitution on the bill proposed by The Constitutional Council. Thus taking one additional very democratic step. Five other questions were as well included in the referendum. The ownership of the natural resources was one. Another was if the Evangelic Protestant Church should be mentioned in the constitution (as it is in the existing constitution). There were further key questions regarding the electoral system, one person-one vote and the clause allowing the public to ask for a referendum. Needless to say the opposition was strongly against this referendum.</p> <h3><span>Who owns Iceland?</span></h3> <p>The referendum was held on 20 October this year. The turnout was around 50 percent and 69 percent said yes to the first question concerning the bill being used as a base for a new constitution and to four of the other five questions. Judging by the vote, Icelanders, contrary to the bill, want to have a state church. </p> <p>This result has not quieted the voices of opposition. The discussion is getting even harder. Now the whole process right from the year 2010, starting with the National Assembly handing the bill to the Constitutional Council is, just to mention a few arguments, called undemocratic, utterly unnecessary and a total waste of money. According to the opposition, the writing of a new constitution should not be done by amateurs but by Althing with the help of lawyers chosen by MPs etc.</p> <p>What the future holds in store and what will be the fate of the bill for a new constitution, or a new constitution altogether, is hard to say at this point. But what can be said and what is evident is that the battle of &ldquo;who owns Iceland&rdquo; is being fought and is at its high water mark. There is much at stake - and I personally hope the opponents are fighting a losing battle.</p> <p><em>Special thanks to Professor <a href="">Thorvaldur Gylfason</a> for giving me free access to his texts and writings on the writing of the bill for a new constitution and the Constitional Council.</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item even"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics Ideas Internet europe Thorhildur Thorleifsdottir Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Europe 2.0 Tue, 13 Nov 2012 09:18:23 +0000 Thorhildur Thorleifsdottir 69311 at Real democracy in Iceland? <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>After the crash that destroyed Iceland's economy, Icelanders started to take an interest in new forms of political and economic governance. So - what can we learn from the country's experiments?</p> </div> </div> </div> <p align="center"><img src="" alt="During an Occupy London protest in May. Demotix/Paul Ottavio. All rights reserved." width="460" height="245" /><br /><span class="image-caption">During an Occupy London protest in May. Demotix/Paul Ottavio. All rights reserved.</span></p><p>Four years have passed since the financial system crashed in Iceland. The crisis hit Iceland harder than many other countries: the whole banking system defaulted and crashed. Attempts to bail out the banks failed, and because of the size of the banking system in Iceland, the government did not have the option of taking them over - the Icelandic state would have defaulted.</p> <p>It was a crude awakening for most people. The enormous &ldquo;success&rdquo; of the financial sector before 2008 was a matter of national pride. Living standards, mostly based on great expectations and debt, had skyrocketed. But it had all been a lie. And the political system had failed to prevent this unsustainable bubble. In fact political parties attributed the &ldquo;success&rdquo; to their own policies, while most did not read the danger signs and the few who did sound the alarm were not heard. After the crash swept it all away, trust in the political system fell to ten percent. It has not risen since then.</p> <p>In some respect, Icelanders have made their voices and interests heard in a way people of other countries have not. The protests after the crash got us a new government, the head of the central bank and the financial inspection agency were axed and a process to make a new constitution with the active involvement of the people was initiated. Public pressure got us a vote on <a href="">IceSave</a>. The Prime Minister of the government in charge at the time of the crash was convicted of negligeance. Because of the size of the financial system in comparison with the wider economy, it was allowed to default. Bailouts were impossible. A special agency was formed to investigate possible illegal activity within the banking system. And the government decided against a severe austerity programme (although there were cuts in spending).</p> <p>These are important achievements. Things that other countries could learn from.&nbsp;But frankly, most of these developments were also controversial in Iceland and overall, they could have been executed more efficiently. For example: the idea that the general public should be actively involved in creating a new constitution is indubitably right. But this could have been better carried out. The selection process didn't have the legitimacy it needed and random selection should have been used as well. The time given to the process was too short. There was not enough debate all over the country and in the media.&nbsp;Of course, in comparison with the constitution being rewritten by a small group of politicians in closed session, as usually happens,&nbsp;the new process was great. But it could have been better.</p> <p>And there are many, many unsolved issues. The financial system has not been restructured but restored. And a system that is restored will yield the same results. The political system, trusted by only ten per cent of the population, has not been fundamentally revised either. Most of the changes were minor and cosmetic. The path towards a real democracy is becoming clearer - and it will be a long one. That was already obvious in 2009: just after the elections for parliament, many sensed that the left-wing government simply didn't have the ideas and institutional models for restructuring our financial and political systems. Political parties didn&acute;t have a plan B - no alternative to western capitalism (and actually TINA - There Is No Alternative - has been one of the Icelandic right's strongest arguments during the last twenty years).</p> <p>As a response, a group of us formed&nbsp;<a href="">Alda</a> - the Association for Sustainability and Democracy. Our goal was first and foremost to introduce into the public debate ideas and institutional models on how to restructure our economy and the terrain of politics. Alda is only one of many new grassroots organizations in Iceland since the crash which focus on changing the structure of society in some way. Alda has been promoting ways to deepen our democracy - our focus is on institutional models that have been tried and tested. And fortunately there are a lot of great examples out there.</p> <p>When it comes to politics what is clear is that we need a shift to participatory democracy. Participatory budgeting is one way to go: the most famous example being <a href="">Porto Alegre</a> in Brazil, but participatory budgeting is starting to be used all over the world (New York is one of the latest cities to try the process). In Brazil it has led to greater equality in the distribution of public assets and services, less corruption and a more vibrant civil society - to name but a few positive outcomes. In Iceland, the city of Reykjav&iacute;k is also experimenting with an online version of participatory budgeting. For now, it concerns only a small portion of the city's budget, but we are hopeful this model will soon spread to other cities and communities.</p> <p>Alda also promotes the idea of randomly selected citizen assemblies. This participatory process has already been tried in various places. One example is the Citizen Assembly in British Columbia, where randomly selected people from the general public were invited to come up with ideas to change the electoral system. Directly involving citizens is the way forward - and research (by <a href="">Helene Landemore</a> for example) on random selection indicates that cognitive diversity outperforms individual ability or knowledge.</p> <p>The economic field also calls for more democracy &ndash; as currently there is almost none! Corporations are run by a few people while most staff&nbsp;members&nbsp;have no vote or say. Corporations, like all institutions, are based on cooperation between individuals. But only a very small minority of them are real cooperatives. And Alda thinks that all corporations should be democratic cooperatives &ndash; one person (employee, manager or CEO), one vote. Research shows that co-ops are efficient, more resistant to crisis, and have a more equal wage distribution. Plus, they contribute to the creation and strengthening of local communities.</p> <p>There are all sorts of other problems we need to solve, e.g. currency issues, fractional-reserve, exotic financial products, unsustainable production and consumption, growth in a world of finite resources, long working hours, inequality etc. And on those issues a lot of interesting ideas are surfacing since the crash. Even neo-liberal economists are now forced to admit that mainstream economics is deeply flawed.</p> <p>The old political parties in Iceland do not have a real democracy, as envisioned by Alda, on their agenda. A few of the numerous new political parties that have been created since 2008 might have adopted some of its aspects - but none has as of yet called for a radical restructuring of our political and economic system. Nevertheless, the ideas are gradually getting out there, into the public debate. And that's the first step, making them familiar - because people will not call for things they don't know about or turn to unfamiliar ideas. And that is our greatest regret - that there was no plan B when the financial crisis hit in 2008.</p> <p>But looking forward there is reason for hope. The crisis opened up a space for new ideas (and some old, unrealized ones as well). There are more active grassroots organizations than before 2008. The defaults in the economy and political field are clear for all to see. And more importantly, the people of Iceland are open to new suggestions.</p> <p>The road ahead might be long and hard. But at least the road is open.</p> <fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitution-on-way">Icelandic constitution on the way</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/herdis-sigurgrimsdottir/solomon-comes-to-iceland">Solomon comes to Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kim-andersen/icelands-economic-downturn-is-%E2%80%9Dfreedom-of-speech%E2%80%9D-upturn">Iceland&#039;s economic downturn is a ”freedom of speech” upturn</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> <div class="field-item even"> EU </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item even"> International politics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? EU Iceland Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Internet europe Kristinn Már Ársælsson Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Reinventing the left Europe 2.0 Mon, 12 Nov 2012 09:29:47 +0000 Kristinn Már Ársælsson 69254 at Iceland: direct democracy in action <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The Icelandic experiment raises many intriguing questions: how do citizens of a country get called to this office? How do they draft a new constitution? What sort of political forces do they have to balance? An insider view from a former member of the Constitutional Council.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="Protesters gather in front of the Icelandic parliament after the 2008 crash. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved." width="460" height="307" /><span class="image-caption">Protesters gather in front of the Icelandic parliament after the 2008 crash. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved.</span></p><p>Iceland went to the polls on October 20, 2012 to vote on a <a href="">new crowd-sourced constitutional bill</a> that emanated from the country&rsquo;s financial crash of 2008.</p> <p>The drafting of the bill was guided by a National Assembly of 950 citizens drawn at random from the national registry, meaning that every Icelander eighteen years of age or more had an equal chance of being invited to take a seat in the Assembly. Convening for a day in late 2010, the National Assembly decided that Iceland does need a new constitution, as the parliament had also resolved by 63 votes to zero, and laid down the lines for some key provisions that a new constitution needed to contain, including &lsquo;one person, one vote&rsquo; and national ownership of the country&rsquo;s natural resources.&nbsp;</p> <p>It does not happen every day that ordinary citizens are offered the opportunity to help rewrite their country&lsquo;s constitution. Like 522 other Icelanders, I decided to put my name forward. Friends of mine collected fifty endorsements, the maximum allowed (30 was the minimum), and I then left the country for Africa and did not return back home until after the election. I did not spend a penny as there was no campaign. Like other candidates, I was interviewed for three or four minutes on state radio, in my case by phone from South Africa, and I posted a few short articles on the internet with websites that accepted such contributions from candidates. Also, I opened a Facebook page where I posted a few short messages intended for my friends. The daily newspaper in which I had published a weekly column since 2003 asked me to lay aside my pen from the announcement of my candidacy until after the election. Many if not most of the other candidates kept an equally low profile before the election. Very few advertised or spent significant amounts of money to promote their candidacies. As I see it, this was the least expensive and most civilized election 'campaign' in the history of the republic. The turnout was 37%, which is respectable in view of the fact that this was a special election as opposed to a general election, and considering that strong political forces keen to preserve the status quo tried to denigrate the whole process and even encouraged their supporters to boycott the election. But, overall, the political parties did not field candidates nor did they interfere in the work of the Constitutional Council</p> <p>Elected by the nation and appointed by the parliament, the 25-member Constitutional Council <a href="">took on the task</a> of converting the resolution of the National Assembly into a coherent constitutional bill. In the process, the Council was encouraged by popular participation <em>via</em> more than 300 unsolicited reports from the public plus thousands of communications on the Council&rsquo;s interactive website. After four months of work in mid-2011<a href=""> </a>in full view of the public (the Philadelphia convention in 1787 also took four months, behind closed doors), the Council approved the bill unanimously with 25 votes to zero. Eight months after receiving the bill, in early 2012, the parliament directed some issues to the Council, convening it for a four-day follow-up meeting. There, in response to the issues raised by parliament, the Council, again unanimously, proposed alternative wording for some provisions in the bill, mostly for clarification, with minimal substantive changes involved. Four months thereafter, the parliament decided by 35 votes against fifteen, with thirteen abstentions, to hold a consultative national referendum on the bill and some of its key provisions on 20 October 2012. The referendum was fought tooth and nail by the political opposition in parliament. The opposition resorted to filibustering in an attempt to derail the promised referendum, an action that ultimately failed.</p> <p>The ballot presented six &lsquo;Yes or No&rsquo; questions, all of which the voters answered decisively in the affirmative. Presumably, the parliamentary majority&rsquo;s intention was to be able to say to the opposition afterward: Look, the voters not only accept the bill as a whole, but specifically also accept several of its key individual provisions. This strategy worked. Voter turnout was 49%, well above the Swiss average in more than a hundred referenda since 2000.</p> <p>The questions and answers of those who took a stand were as follows.</p> <ol><li>Do you want the proposals of the Constitutional Council to form the basis of a legislative bill for a new Constitution? <strong>67% said Yes</strong>.</li><li>Would you want natural resources which are not in private ownership to be declared the property of the nation in a new Constitution? <strong>83% said Yes</strong>.</li><li>Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions on a National Church of Iceland? <strong>57% said Yes</strong>. </li><li>Would you want a new Constitution to permit personal elections to the Althing to a greater degree than permitted at present? <strong>78% said Yes</strong>.</li><li>Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions to the effect that the votes of the electorate across the country should have the same force? <strong>67% said Yes</strong>. </li><li>Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions to the effect that a specific proportion of the electorate could call for a national referendum on a specific matter? <strong>73% said Yes</strong>.</li></ol><p>With such unequivocal guidance from the people <em>via</em> their clear expression of the popular will, the parliament must now finalize the bill and ratify it. The 1944 constitution stipulates that, for the bill to take effect, the next parliament, following a parliamentary election in April 2013, must also ratify the bill.</p> <p>Here the plot begins to thicken. The current opposition and allied forces have at least three reasons for opposing the bill. First, they have strong ties to the fishing industry that has for many years received fishing quotas&nbsp;practically gratis&nbsp;from the government, a corrupt arrangement that the bill aims to end. Second, they are worried about &lsquo;one person, one vote&rsquo; because some of their current MPs would not have much of a chance of being re-elected under &lsquo;one person, one vote.&rsquo; Third, the freedom of information provisions in the bill aim to promote transparency by breaking a pervasive culture of secrecy that has enabled the political class to get away with, among other things, the Russian-style privatization of the banks in the period from 1998-2003 that paved the way off the edge of cliff in 2008.</p> <p>The opposition insists on the right to propose substantive changes to the bill even if the bill has already been accepted by the people - two to one. Some think the opposition really aims to kill the bill. The parliamentary majority, by contrast, wants to respect the will of the people by making only a few changes of wording if necessary as well as perhaps fairly minor changes that the Constitutional Council already approved at its follow-up 2012 meeting. Confident of continued popular support for the bill, the prime minister has raised the possibility of presenting the final version of the bill to a second referendum at the time of the parliamentary election in 2013 in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that the next parliament tries to thwart the will of the people and kill the bill. In any case, the bill awaits a bumpy ride through parliament. &ldquo;The people have put the parliament on probation,&rdquo; said the prime minister after the vote.</p> <p>Around the world, nations routinely change their constitutions, every 19 years on average. In a remarkably prescient <a href="">1789 letter to James Madison</a>, Thomas Jefferson wrote that &ldquo;Every constitution ... naturally expires at the end of 19 years&rdquo; because &ldquo;the earth belongs always to the living generation.&rdquo; On the basis of its textual elements, taking into account its various provisions, <a href="">researchers at the University of Chicago</a> predict that the new Icelandic constitution, if ratified, will last 60 years, adding that &ldquo;drafting the right text has been found to be surprisingly important for constitutional mortality&ldquo; and declaring the bill to &ldquo;be at the cutting edge of ensuring public participation in ongoing governance, a feature that &hellip; has contributed to constitutional endurance in other countries.&ldquo;</p><p><em>A modified version of this article has previously been published on <a href="">VoxEU</a>.</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Elkins, Zachary , Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton (2009),&nbsp;<a href=""><em>Endurance of National Constitutions</em></a>, Cambridge University Press.</p><p class="Default">Elkins, Zachary , Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton (2012), “<a href="">A Review of Iceland’s Draft Constitution</a>,”, University of Chicago, 15 October.</p><p class="Default">Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2011a), “<a href="">From Crisis to Constitution</a>,”<em>&nbsp;</em><em>VoxEU</em>, 11 October.</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2011b), “<a href="">Crowds and Constitutions</a>,”<em>&nbsp;VoxEU</em>, 13 October.</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2012a), “<a href="">Finance and Constitutions</a>,”&nbsp;<em>VoxEU</em>, 11 April.</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2012b), “Constitutions: Financial Crisis Can Lead to Change,”&nbsp;<em>Challenge</em>&nbsp;55, September-October, pp. 106-122</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2013), “<a href="">From Collapse to Constitution: The Case of Iceland</a>,“ in&nbsp;<em>Public Debt, Global Governance and Economic</em>&nbsp;<em>Dynamism</em>, Springer (forthcoming).</p><p><a href="">Iceland Constitutional Bill</a>&nbsp;(2011), delivered by Constitutional Council to Parliament 29 July.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitution-on-way">Icelandic constitution on the way</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/herdis-sigurgrimsdottir/solomon-comes-to-iceland">Solomon comes to Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kim-andersen/icelands-economic-downturn-is-%E2%80%9Dfreedom-of-speech%E2%80%9D-upturn">Iceland&#039;s economic downturn is a ”freedom of speech” upturn</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Equality </div> <div class="field-item even"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item odd"> International politics </div> <div class="field-item even"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics Equality Ideas International politics Internet europe Thorvaldur Gylfason Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Reinventing the left Europe 2.0 Mon, 12 Nov 2012 09:29:44 +0000 Thorvaldur Gylfason 69276 at The Icelandic constitutional experiment <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>This Saturday, a year after a Constitutional Council has written a draft constitution with the help of citizens, voters agreed this draft should be the basis for a new constitution. This writing experiment stands out for its surprisingly democratic process, but a closer look reveals some of its limitations.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="Ballot paper in the Icelandic referendum on 20 October 2012 regarding proposals for a new constitution. Demotix/Arnthor Ævarsson. All rights reserved." width="460" height="210" /><span class="image-caption">Ballot paper in the Icelandic referendum on 20 October 2012 regarding proposals for a new constitution. Demotix/Arnthor &AElig;varsson. All rights reserved.</span></p> <p>On a national referendum last Saturday, about two thirds of the Icelanders who went to the polls voted yes to the first question and backed the draft constitution.</p> <p>But if anyone thought that polemics over a new constitution would have ceased with the referendum, they couldn&rsquo;t have been more wrong. The parliament of Iceland, Althingi, has been indeed split between those who promoted the Constitutional Council &ndash; the movement and the ruling coalition of Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green Party &ndash; and those who are against &ndash; the conservative opposition&rsquo;s Independence and Progressive parties. And it is still split today, over the interpretation of results and turnout.</p> <p>But rather than the text, at the centre of the controversy is the Council&rsquo;s work. Conservatives believe that the formulation of such a document should be the exclusive concern of the parliament. What has happened instead is that in the fall of 2010, 25 ordinary citizens &ndash; the Constitutional Council &ndash; have been elected by the nation to draft a new constitution. Through the Internet the general public had the chance to give comments and suggestions. The international media have praised this to the skies. They have gone as far as to say that the entire nation has written the new draft constitution. The facts are slightly different. There has indeed been a fundamental change in Icelandic society and those who have drawn up the document are really ordinary people. But a closer look reveals also three other limitations on this. Traditional party politics has had a finger in the pie. Some citizens did not have a clue about the whole rewriting process. And the parliament might still distort the draft constitution before approval of it. The intention of drafting a new constitution has its origins in 1944, when Iceland became a republic independent from Denmark. The country inherited the Danish document, but it was agreed to draft a new code in the following years. Still, only a few changes have been made since then. Right-wing and left-wing parties have repeatedly shown themselves unable to come to an agreement. </p> <p>When the financial system collapsed in 2008, Icelanders claimed important changes in the foundations of society. But the idea of writing a new document beyond the walls of Althingi came from the Social Democrat PM J&oacute;hanna Sigurdard&oacute;ttir. In 2010, one year after her election, the parliament appointed a Constitutional Committee of seven people not directly involved in politics. Their task was to prepare the groundwork for a Constitutional Council that would have to be elected soon thereafter.<span>&nbsp;</span>The Committee first organised a national brainstorming session &ndash; whose public response was outstanding &ndash; to discuss the type of constitution that Icelandic society wanted. Then, as many as twenty experts offered their knowledge on all issues through a 700-page report. &ldquo;This work made a lot of difference for the Council,&rdquo; says Gudr&uacute;n P&eacute;tursd&oacute;ttir, chairman of the Constitutional Committee. &ldquo;Even though they did it absolutely their own way, they didn&rsquo;t have to start from scratch.&rdquo; National elections for the 25-member Constitutional Council were held in November. Every citizen was allowed to run and 522 people presented their candidacy. The turnout was disappointing: only 35.9 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls. </p> <p>There appear to be three reasons of this low turnout. First, the Single Transferable Vote system proved to be too complicated. Under STV, people are asked to list their candidates in order of preference. Icelanders could vote either for one person or for all 25. H&ouml;rdur Torfa, artist and leader of the protests that rose in response to the financial collapse, argues that &ldquo;the system was wrong&rdquo; because people didn&rsquo;t know how to vote for 25 people out of 500. &ldquo;It took me more than a day to read all the profiles, but people didn&rsquo;t spend time doing this,&rdquo; he says adding that the government was to blame for not having explained it properly to the public. Moreover, many Icelanders lost trust in the process due to the uncertain future of the proposal once handed over to the parliament. &ldquo;People thought that the parliamentarians would change it to what they wanted it to be &ndash; in a time when trust in parliament was 10 percent,&rdquo; says Kristinn M&aacute;r &Aacute;rs&aelig;lsson, founder of ALDA (Association for Sustainability and Democracy). And, finally, the low attendance was also traceable to an abstention campaign by the Independence party. &ldquo;They called on people to stay at home,&rdquo; says Th&oacute;rhildur Thorleifsd&oacute;ttir, Council member and theatre director. &ldquo;They are very powerful and they have money, so they can buy opinion very easily.&rdquo; </p> <p>The boycott might have been successful but conservatives appeared not to have considered an unintended consequence of this tactic. Because people who went to the polls were more inclined towards other parties, they elected those who had similar political or ideological views. The composition of the Constitutional Council ended up being unbalanced in favour of the Left. Citizens also tended to vote for the people who had been in the spotlight before. Their jobs varied a great deal. But what they had in common was involvement in politics and the willingness to help the process of changing Iceland.</p> <p>Even so, some in Iceland did not appreciate their lofty motives. In January 2011, after three citizens reported technical irregularities during the polling, the Supreme Court nullified the results of the elections. Judges stated that voters were not allowed enough privacy while voting. Among the deficiencies were traceable ballots, unlocked ballot boxes, and separator panels in the polling booths that had been too short. Still, there was no evidence that privacy&rsquo;s rights had been actually infringed. The Supreme Court is supposed to be independent but seven judges out of nine were good friends of the Independence Party, says &Aacute;str&oacute;s Sign&yacute;jard&oacute;ttir, the youngest member in the Constitutional Council. The problem is that judges are appointed by the government and, since the Independence Party has been in power from 1991 to 2009, most of the judges were conservatives. The left-wing government agreed reluctantly to abide by the Supreme Court&rsquo;s ruling and answered by appointing a Council with the same 25 people that had been elected. </p> <p>The Council drafted a document that improves government transparency, strengthens human rights, and gives greater power to the people. &ldquo;Althingi exercises the legislative power on behalf of the nation,&rdquo; Article 2 states. In other words, the people are sovereign but they devolve the exercise of that power to parliament. Moreover, 10 percent or more of voters are allowed to demand a national referendum on new laws passed by Althingi. The proposed constitution also takes some powers away from the government and grants them to the parliament. &ldquo;We had a very strong Prime Minister who controlled the parties with an iron fist, but now people want to change this,&rdquo; says Gudmundur H&aacute;lfdanarson, historian at University of Iceland. As for human rights, the preamble seeks to promote harmony, security, and happiness as of paramount importance; but a good 30 articles in the second chapter also revolve around these points. </p> <p>Every single issue covered in the draft constitution has been debated within the Council, but citizens could put forward their suggestions. ALDA association was one of those that handed over very detailed and well thought-out proposals to the Constitutional Council. Among its twelve suggestions are innovative methods of appointing MPs and ministers. Twenty-one MPs out of 63 should be randomly selected from Icelandic citizenry, ALDA members advised. And ministers should be directly elected by people, instead of being nominated by the PM. None of the suggestions have been accepted. But some of them were part of the Council&rsquo;s discussions.</p> <p>A sore point in the whole process is the issue of time. Many believe that the time allocated was too short for the complexity of the task. &ldquo;Writing a constitution in four months makes absolutely no sense whatsoever,&rdquo; says Gunnar Gr&iacute;msson, the founder of Citizens Foundation, a non-profit organisation with the aim of promoting electronic democracy in Iceland. He believes that the Council has accomplished a remarkable job, but there is no excuse for the government&rsquo;s decision to economise. Saving money while writing a constitution exposes a country to a much higher chance of a poor result. Kristinn M&aacute;r &Aacute;rs&aelig;lsson, who has kept an eye on the Council&rsquo;s work, advances other reasons for that short time. First, the government lacked experience of interactive democracy. Second, it does not have much interest in changing the democratic system towards direct democracy, he says.<span> </span>J&oacute;hanna Sigur&eth;ard&oacute;ttir herself, the PM who promoted the idea of the Council, did not seem concerned by the rewriting process. &ldquo;She has never confronted us, never came to us, never talked to us,&rdquo; says &Aacute;str&oacute;s Sign&yacute;jard&oacute;ttir. Neither she nor the ministers were present when the Council handed over the draft to the parliament.<span> </span>&ldquo;We were handing out a new constitution for Iceland and nobody cared,&rdquo; she says with dismay. &ldquo;Foreign media said that the nation wrote the constitution, but it&rsquo;s only those who were interested watching the website and commenting.&rdquo; <span></span></p> <p>Only recently have people realised the challenging goal the Council has achieved in formulating a draft constitution and that a new foundation for their society is at stake. After all, this constitution draft hasn&rsquo;t exactly been written by the nation, nor has it been completely free from party political influence. &ldquo;The idea of selecting a citizens&rsquo; Council to come up with new ideas and the way the Council worked were pretty good. But they could have done it better&rdquo;, says Kristinn M&aacute;r &Aacute;rs&aelig;lsson. The final proposal also appears to be an adequate document. Still, the procedure had several faults. </p> <p>If it is true that in the aftermath of the crash the general public felt the need of a new constitution, it is also true that the whole process was pushed forward by the government. As the Constitutional Committee was appointed by the majority, the selected people were probably not ideologically distant from the left-wing government. Moreover, the Independence Party&rsquo;s boycott of elections for the Council meant the elections of members who were unlikely to have conservative political views. So, although nobody has tried directly to affect the Council&rsquo;s work, party political influence in it has been strong. Time constraints have prevented the great potential of this experiment &ndash; to engage the whole society in discussions, open meetings, and debates in the media. Icelanders did not have enough time to think over what kind of constitution they wanted. It is small wonder the draft constitution ended up being quite moderate in its clauses, as no innovative or radical ideas had the time to be fully digested &nbsp;and accepted. The Council, Kristinn M&aacute;r &Aacute;rs&aelig;lsson says, limited itself to the concepts that have been floating around in the general discussion up to that point, which is to say what parties had been discussing for years.</p> <p>Despite these flaws, the Council succeeded in running a surprisingly democratic process. And the national referendum has just paved the way for a new constitution based on their suggestions.&nbsp;<strong></strong></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitution-on-way">Icelandic constitution on the way</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/herdis-sigurgrimsdottir/solomon-comes-to-iceland">Solomon comes to Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kim-andersen/icelands-economic-downturn-is-%E2%80%9Dfreedom-of-speech%E2%80%9D-upturn">Iceland&#039;s economic downturn is a ”freedom of speech” upturn</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/article/email/opportune-knocks">Iceland: &quot;It will fix itself&quot;</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Equality </div> <div class="field-item even"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics Equality Ideas Internet Giulia Dessi Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Europe 2.0 Tue, 23 Oct 2012 11:03:46 +0000 Giulia Dessi 68983 at Icelandic constitution on the way <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <!--StartFragment--> <p>After Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008, Icelandic citizens wanted a plan to clean up the island’s political system. A new draft constitution, written by a council of ordinary people, was handed over to the parliament. And on 20 October, all Icelanders will be asked for their opinion in a consultative referendum.</p> <!--EndFragment--> </div> </div> </div> <p>On a sunny afternoon of May in Reykjav&iacute;k, while locals enjoy the warmth and sip coffee outdoors, well-equipped tourists return from their hiking trips. Inside Althingi, the parliament of Iceland, a vitally important debate has been scheduled. But you wouldn't think so to judge by the atmosphere. The parliament chamber is nearly empty. Only a few members are present and take turns at the rostrum. After a few minutes of excited talk, they ease back into their seats.</p> <p>Right-wing opposition parties were adopting the strategy off stonewalling. It went on for weeks, until 24 May, when the parliament came to an agreement. What was at stake was an advisory referendum for a new constitution &ndash; which has finally been set for October 20. Since August 2011, when a draft for a new constitution was handed to the parliament, the conservatives have racked their brains trying to stop what they call &lsquo;nonsense&rsquo;. They knew that they would have to give up sooner or later. But in the meantime they did what they could to delay the outcome.&nbsp; </p> <p>The conservative minority in parliament, made up of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, are not entirely clear about the reasons they don&rsquo;t like the draft of the new constitution. But one thing is sure: they don&rsquo;t accept it being written by common people instead of parliamentarians. </p> <p>In the fall of 2010, a national vote elected 25 ordinary citizens &ndash; the constitutional council &ndash; to formulate a new document. The general public actively participated in the process. They put forward suggestions and commented on the council&rsquo;s decisions on a website and a facebook page. The result is a basic law that would turn Iceland into a more direct democracy. The executive &ndash; that is the government &ndash; would transfer some powers to parliament and the people.</p> <p><img src="" width="460" /></p> <p align="center"><small><em><a href="">Demotix/H&aacute;kon &Aacute;g&uacute;stsson</a>. Protest outside Althingi - Iceland's parliament in 2010. All rights reserved.</em></small></p> <p>As some issues are particularly controversial, the government wanted Icelanders to express their opinion both on the draft and on some specific articles. Still, this referendum is just consultative, which means that parliament will not be obliged to follow the voting results. But if the outcome is positive, then Althingi would feel an extra pressure. And the results have been positive so far. According to &Aacute;str&oacute;s Sign&yacute;jard&oacute;ttir, who, at 25 years old, is the youngest member in the constitutional council, opinion polls show that about 73 per cent of the nation wants the draft to be used as a ground for the new constitution.&nbsp; </p> <p>Yet, it cannot be forgotten that the latest polls also show that the Independence Party is the biggest party in Iceland again. This might be an obstacle for the definitive approval of the constitution. Iceland&rsquo;s constitution can be changed only in accordance with the current constitution. First, the constitution draft must be discussed and voted for by the parliament. Then, once this parliament has approved it, new national elections must be called. For the new constitution to come into force, the new parliament after the elections also has to ratify it. Sadly, it isn&rsquo;t written anywhere that the parliament is obliged to follow the suggestions of the constitutional council.</p> <p>The new parliament might not have enough MPs that are in favour of the new constitution, says Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson, political scientist at the University of Iceland. The conservatives are very likely to be in power starting April 2013. As a result, the chances that the next parliament will approve the new constitution might be low. </p> <p>But for the time being, the current government is interested in the next step: the forthcoming referendum. There are six questions to be answered on October 20. </p> <p>The first involves a judgment on the document. Citizens are asked whether they &ldquo;wish the Constitution Council&rsquo;s proposals to form the basis of a new draft constitution&rdquo;. </p> <p>The second question regards a controversial matter. It has aroused strong reactions from the Independence Party. Fishing vessels&rsquo; owners, usual voters of the conservative party, would be damaged by the clause in the draft constitution stating that Iceland&rsquo;s natural resources are the &ldquo;perpetual property of the nation.&rdquo; According to Th&oacute;r&oacute;lfur Matth&iacute;asson, economist at the University of Iceland, most Icelanders will vote yes, because &ldquo;they want more income from the natural resources coming into the state's coffers.&rdquo;</p> <p>The third question relates to the Church. Icelanders are asked whether they would like to see provisions in the new constitution on an established National Church, as it is in the current constitution. The new draft constitution, on the contrary, does not even mention the National Church. It just states that if the parliament &ldquo;amends the status of the church of the state the matter shall be referred to [a national] referendum.&rdquo; </p> <p>Question four involves the election procedure. As it is now, voters &ldquo;are permitted to cross candidates&rsquo; names out or change the order in which they are ranked on the list of their choice,&rdquo; the introductory website for the referendum reports. On 20 October Icelanders will say their opinion on the opportunity to vote for specific candidates on party lists. &ldquo;We would have legal constitutional rights to vote directly for politicians, instead of having the party select those who are in the top position,&rdquo; says Birgitta J&oacute;nsd&oacute;ttir, member of the parliament who defines herself as an activist operating both inside and outside the system.</p> <p>The fifth question asks citizens whether they wish that votes coming from different parts of Iceland carry the same weight in general elections. At present, Icelandic territory is divided in constituencies with unequal weighting of votes. This means that in order to have a member of parliament elected, more votes will be needed in one constituency than in others. &nbsp;</p> <p>The use of the tool of referendum is the subject of question six. The draft constitution introduces a mechanism allowing people to demand a national referendum on new laws passed by Althingi.&nbsp; Hitherto, a referendum resulted only when the president rejected a bill. But if the constitution draft is approved, a petition signed by 10 per cent or more of voters can force the holding of a referendum empowered to repeal a law. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s totally new,&rdquo; says Gudmundur H&aacute;lfdanarson, historian at the University of Iceland. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a rethinking of the democratic process. And it spurs citizens into action much more than before.&rdquo;</p> <p>Despite their inability to reach an understanding, right-wing and left-wing parties agree on one thing. The constitution needs to be changed. If it is true that the 2008 financial crash triggered a public demand for a new foundation for Icelandic society, it is also true that this idea didn&rsquo;t spring up overnight. </p> <p>The current Icelandic constitution dates back to 1874, when the country, then part of Denmark, inherited the Danish document. In 1944, after Iceland became a republic, the word king was simply replaced with the word president. The promise was to draft a new text once the Second World War was completely over for Icelanders. But the parliament has been trying without success since then. Political interests have prevented MPs from coming to an agreement. After the collapse, people thought that if some points had been rewritten with more transparency, the crisis might not have happened. Citizens then called for a new constitution as part of a clean-up plan for the island&rsquo;s political system. </p> <p>Even so, constitutional council member &Aacute;str&oacute;s Sign&yacute;jard&oacute;ttir, believes that the nation would have not demanded a new constitution if the prime minister, the Social Democrat J&oacute;hanna Sigur&eth;ard&oacute;ttir, had not come up with the idea. </p> <p>After 66 years of fruitless attempts by the parliamentary constitutional committee, PM J&oacute;hanna Sigur&eth;ard&oacute;ttir decided the discussion had to be taken beyond the walls of parliament. Althingi, with a left majority since 2009, appointed a constitutional committee of seven people not directly involved in politics to prepare the groundwork for a constitutional council that would have to be elected soon thereafter. The committee had the task of gathering together all the information &ndash; about the electoral system, human rights, local government &ndash; that would help to draft a new constitution. And the constitutional council, made up of ordinary people, would use that information to formulate the constitution draft. </p> <p>They dismantled the old foundation document of Icelandic society and put together a new one. Put forward after a four-month discussion, this document aimed to improve government transparency, strengthen human rights, and clearly outline the powers of the president of the country. But the biggest change is the power given to the people.</p> <p>All these issues regarding referenda, parliament, and the role of the president, have been debated in many meetings every week and each citizen was given the chance to participate by sending advice or pointing out faults. </p> <p>Some meetings of the constitutional council used to be broadcast and, on a weekly basis, the council used to report on its latest decisions. Response would follow through the official website, the facebook page, or via email. Then the council would look at the comments and revise the proposed articles accordingly. </p> <p>&ldquo;We thought of ourselves as publicly elected, so we felt it was our duty to have contact with the public,&rdquo; says council member Thorkell Helgason. &ldquo;But the main problem was that we had far too little time.&rdquo; Otherwise, the dialogue would have been more intensive. Still, he says, they received &ldquo;thousands of emails, which is not little in a population of 320,000.&rdquo;</p> <p>Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the proposed new constitution, written by the people for the people, would bring improvements to the democracy of the island. The political opposition within the parliament in not mirrored in the society. Citizens want a new constitution and like the council&rsquo;s proposal. That&rsquo;s what matters &ndash; and where it matters.&nbsp;</p> <fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/herdis-sigurgrimsdottir/solomon-comes-to-iceland">Solomon comes to Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kim-andersen/icelands-economic-downturn-is-%E2%80%9Dfreedom-of-speech%E2%80%9D-upturn">Iceland&#039;s economic downturn is a ”freedom of speech” upturn</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/article/email/opportune-knocks">Iceland: &quot;It will fix itself&quot;</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item even"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Democracy and government Economics Ideas Internet Giulia Dessi Europe 2.0 Mon, 08 Oct 2012 17:52:48 +0000 Giulia Dessi 68748 at Solomon comes to Iceland <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Guilty? Not guilty? The verdict handed down this week by an Icelandic court found former Prime Minister Geir H.Haarde to be both. The verdict seems balanced to some, but extremely unsatisfactory to many.&nbsp;<em>&nbsp;</em></p> </div> </div> </div> <p>To understand the Haarde trial it is best to think of it as part of a larger process of transitional justice in Iceland. After the bloodless national trauma of the financial collapse, Iceland is in the process of coming to terms with what actually happened. As in many countries in transition from conflict or repressive regimes, Iceland has had regime change, a truth commission, a process to provide reparation for the victims who were the hardest hit and institutional reforms intended to prevent history from repeating itself.</p> <p>The quest for truth and justice has been given highest priority in the hope that seeing the culprits sentenced in a fair trial will help the nation put the crisis behind it. Some of the former top bankers have been charged with fraud, embezzlement, insider trading and related charges, and the investigations are still ongoing. Public opinion is already solidly behind the notion that the bankers involved are guilty, and people are impatient to see them stand trial. But there is no such unanimity in public opinion on the guilt of the politicians involved.</p> <p>The strength of Monday’s <a href="">verdict over Iceland’s former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde</a> is also its weak point. It is both a conviction and an acquittal and there is no sentence. But the verdict balances too carefully on the thin, gray line between scapegoating and a just sentence, and ends up creating more discontent than harmony. As a result, the Icelandic public can’t even agree who the judgment favours.</p> <p>Haarde is the only politician who has been charged for his role in the financial crisis that started in 2008. He was tried under the Icelandic law on ministerial responsibility on four counts of negligence. As Prime Minister during the immediate run-up to the crisis, the indictment asserted, he should have taken more decisive action than he did. It was <a href="">the first time that the Icelandic judicial system had invoked the law</a> to put a politician on trial.</p> <p>Haarde was found guilty for not having adequately informed his cabinet of the looming crisis, including by not holding cabinet meetings on the impending banking crisis, a relatively minor infraction by the sound of it. But the reasoning behind the verdict is fair and reveals the weight of the charge. The <a href="">verdict (in Icelandic)</a> acknowledges that a higher number of cabinet meetings would probably not have prevented the crisis altogether, but a coherent policy borne out of cabinet meetings with all the relevant ministers would have made them better prepared to respond to the crisis and, crucially, limit the damage.</p> <p>In acquitting Haarde of the remaining counts, the judges acknowledge the necessarily hypothetical nature of a court case where a man is charged with not doing that which he maybe should have done. The verdict argues that as it was not proven that further actions would have prevented the banking crisis, he cannot therefore be found guilty. It acknowledges that Haarde bears some of the blame while exempting him from formal punishment.</p> <p>Many agree with what Haarde himself said <a href="">in an interview with Al Jazeera</a>, that it is unjust to hold one man responsible for the failure of a democratic political system. Others think that Haarde, who served as minister of finance from 1998 and as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2009, carried more responsibility than others, in light of his position and his experience.</p> <p>It is not only Icelanders who have found room for interpretation in the verdict. The international media ran with headlines that tracked along three main readings of the court’s decision: Haarde <a href="">was cleared of all charges but one</a>; he <a href="">was convicted</a> for one of four charges; despite a guilty verdict, he <a href="">escapes </a>an actual punishment.&nbsp;</p><p>In Iceland, the verdict is as divisive as it is Solomonic. It leaves the floor open for both sides to interpret it in their favour. In all of the brouhaha, there is little attention to the voices who remind us that a court case is in its nature only a process to test whether laws have been broken. Breaches of morals or ethics will be determined outside the courtroom.</p><p>&nbsp;</p> <p><em>This article was originally published on the <a href="">Laws of Rule </a>on April 26, 2012</em></p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Conflict </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> International politics </div> </div> </div> Iceland Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Economics International politics Herdis Sigurgrimsdottir Fri, 27 Apr 2012 07:30:12 +0000 Herdis Sigurgrimsdottir 65566 at Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Never again can the world be told by the custodians of the old that the people cannot be relied upon to write the contract between citizens and government, and write it well.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p>Iceland's fate epitomizes the tragedy of ‘constitutional democracies’ as they have been variously practiced and imposed in recent times: whereby the writing of a constitution by the people is considered the revolutionary exception, and not the rule.&nbsp; Never before has a ‘peacetime’ state constitution been drafted by an Assembly of ordinary citizens.&nbsp; Never before has a constitution’s fundamental values framework been ‘crowd-sourced’.&nbsp; Never before has a constitution been produced under the intense gaze of a population, scrutinising each draft as it is uploaded onto a website, watching meetings beamed live on the internet, with publics relaying feedback for improvement in real time.&nbsp; Never before has so much been at stake in the peacetime re-drafting of a constitution in such circumstances, and never before have citizens had such a stake in the process of its creation.&nbsp; Never again can the world be told by the custodians of the old that the people cannot be relied upon to write the contract between citizens and government, and write it well. &nbsp;</p> <p>In what follows I hope to make up for the faintly patronising tone struck by <a href="">other</a> accounts dealing with this event.&nbsp; There are, I would argue, in fact, serious lessons to be learned from Iceland that may also be applicable to other, larger states.</p> <p>Iceland embarked on this path to constitutional change not following a pre-planned strategy but, as always, driven by events; irreducible to one or the other, but each, nevertheless, crucial to shaping the course of action that has since come to pass, <em>yet</em> could so easily have been otherwise.&nbsp; Disbelief, awe, frustration, astonishment, horror, spooked with a simmering fury, strike the tone that seeps out of every seething pore of <a href="">Andri Snær Maganson</a>’s bestselling, well-researched, non-fiction tragi-comedic polemic - <em><a href="">Dreamland (2006</a></em>). The book (and subsequent <a href="">film</a>) lucidly sketches the corruption, the botched ‘privatisations’, the cosy relations of the financial-business-political (and media) complex, the unique processes of ministerial accountability, <a href=",28804,1877351_1877350_1877340,00.html">Davið Odsson</a>’s uncanny ability to forever avoid participating in a parliamentary debate; as well as the concrete effects these arrangements have had for Nature whilst they have formed the ritualistic functioning of Icelandic government during recent decades.&nbsp; Magnason held the Mirror of Truth to Iceland, and the reflection wasn’t pretty.&nbsp; Many already knew something was going wrong, but had neither the energy nor the incentive to revolt.</p> <p>In January 2008, as the magnitude of the crisis was becoming apparent, a lone <a href="">Hörður Torfason</a> began to sing protest songs outside the Icelandic parliament, day-in-day-out.&nbsp; Persistently, insistently, during the dark days of the Icelandic wintertime, he <a href="">struck a rhythm</a> in harmony with mainstream, hitherto (on-the-whole) silent, opinion, and contributed to drawing-out the profound <em>dis</em>harmony between the population at large and the corrosive politics that had ruled elite Icelandic affairs, particularly since around 1991.&nbsp; Post-Soviet states have a term - ‘<a href=""><em>political technology’</em></a> - to refer to its similar widespread, intricate gaming of politics; Iceland has the less vast but similarly corrosive ‘<em>Octopus’</em>.&nbsp; Those responsible for the crisis number little more than thirty. &nbsp;But each weekend, as more and more people assembled outside parliament, the musician who would play protest songs became one among a multitude involved in the composition of a whole movement for change.&nbsp; </p> <p>For the first time in living memory, Icelanders assembled <em>en masse,</em> each Saturday, with ever more disregard for elites, ever-intensifying anger, and ever-solidifying determination to force those responsible for the present out of command of their collective future.&nbsp; For the first time in post-independence history too, citizen discontent met elite dissatisfaction head on; the citizens whose day job was to occasionally perform as riot police, were commanded to restore ‘order’ by <a href="">pepper spraying</a> the protesters into retreat.&nbsp; The ethical order that had proven its failure, and now, with the turn to violence, complete absence of authority, came under unprecedented popular pressure. The government was forced to resign.&nbsp; The <a href="">‘Pots and Pans Revolution’</a>, as it has become known in the media, is not a revolution strictly defined, but it did achieve the only government to be forced out by popular revolt owing directly to the ‘financial’ crisis (other governments such as Greece and Italy have been forced-out too, but overwhelmingly by finance industry pressures), and this in no small way contributed to the constitutional change of today that has inspired movements around the globe.</p> <p>The Social Democratic - Green coalition government, sworn-in on February 1, 2009, was led by <a href="">Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir</a> – a long-term advocate of constitutional renewal, ever-stymied in her attempts by the outright hostility to change both in the Parliament and Supreme Court. The twin-resistance of these institutions had more than a little to do with the existing Constitution itself that few objections to make with the ruling parties’ political, clientelistic appointments to the civil service and Supreme Court.&nbsp; The Alþingi’s<strong> </strong>(the Icelandic Parliament) Constitutional Council had been tasked with re-writing the Constitution within a year of complete independence of Denmark in 1944.&nbsp; By 2010 (aside from a few amendments), the Council had failed to complete this (only) task entrusted to it, resulting in the situation that the citizens’ governing contract with the Republic of Iceland remained structured by a framework more appropriate to the monarchy of nineteenth century Denmark.</p> <p>Why re-write the Constitution now?&nbsp; The leadership of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir offers some explanation, but by no means all.&nbsp; It is demonstrative of the depth of the <em>pathos</em> (described by eminent constitutional democracy scholar <a href="">Pasquale Pasquino</a>) afflicting the Icelandic political elites that not only the people but also the <em>politicians</em> no longer trusted themselves to adequately re-write a Constitution that would attain popular legitimacy.&nbsp;</p> <p>The government, too, located the source of the crisis not only in the risk-blind investment practices of the banks, their gargantuan leveraging-up of lending, their swelling of non-secured assets in an unprecedentedly short period, and their insider-trading; but also in the complicity of members of successive governments in these actions. In fact, as later revealed by the <a href="">Truth Report</a>, members of government actively engaged in insider-trading themselves; denied the economy was in a precarious situation, and funded propaganda campaigns to counter the diplomatic, yet stern, warnings of the IMF and others, as far back as 2005.&nbsp; </p> <p>The public was rendered blissfully unaware of the precariousness of the situation – crucial information was systematically withheld from the Prime Minister; committee meeting minutes and reports were ‘spun’ at best, or remained unpublished at worst.&nbsp; The paid-for press monopoly of <em><a href="">Morgunblaðið</a></em>, tight on funds and politically aligned to the governing parties, failed in its duty to critically investigate and make these, and other, issues public over successive years.&nbsp; </p> <p>In sum, aside from profound ethical lapses in the interconnected financial-government-business complex (<a href="">the ‘Octopus’</a>), what drove the crisis and ensured that it would never be effectively resolved on behalf of the people, were numerous, symmetrical, systematic ‘failures’ in accountability structures. These enabled and institutionalised obscure, inappropriate relationships that engrained particular rationalities of rule into the functioning of government, as well as the routine concealment of information, compounded by an ineffective media that may otherwise have equipped the population with information to make informed judgments for themselves.&nbsp; The economic crisis was completely and non-accidentally bound-up with the ways in which Iceland’s elites, particularly since the pseudo-privatisation of the fishing and banking industries, related to each other and governed in, and for, their own interests – a political malaise bred economic malaise bred social malaise bred environmental malaise.</p> <p><em>What happened next?</em>&nbsp; The new coalition government resolved to repair the constitutional infrastructure that had failed the people to the ruination of the country, by competently rewriting it.&nbsp;&nbsp; Thus on June 16 2010, the Alþingi passed (despite the opposition of the previous governing parties) the ‘<em><a href="">Act on a Constitutional Assembly’</a></em> – a historically-unique document that delegates the intensely legalistic task of writing a peacetime constitution to a group of citizens, supported by legal council.&nbsp;</p> <h3>What does Iceland mean today?</h3> <p>The <em>Act </em>established, first, a National Meeting in November 2010 with the purpose of crowd-sourcing the norms and values of the population of twenty-first century Iceland.&nbsp; The meeting adopted a sophisticated process based on participatory democracy techniques practiced by ‘<a href="">Agora’</a>, an Icelandic company that specialises in arranging and advising on participatory democracy procedures for rewriting documents such as organisational charters.&nbsp; The meeting was composed of fifteen hundred randomly selected citizens from around Iceland, and drew both on the experience of the National Assembly revived in 2009, and partly based on a (successful) speculative trial conducted on a small scale in January 2010 that focused specifically on the Constitution.&nbsp; Citizens were divided into small groups focused on particular themes (e.g. Human Rights), where each participant had the time and space to contribute meaningfully to the debate; to express opinions, ideas, and reach consensus.&nbsp; The aim of the meeting was to produce a bottom-up map of contemporary Icelandic values on particular constitutional matters – to establish the values framework within which the Constitutional Assembly (CA) would produce its draft Constitution.&nbsp;The Meeting <em>collectively</em> answered the question: <em>what does Iceland </em>mean<em> in the twenty-first century?</em></p> <p>Second, the <em>Act</em> initiated processes for the election of citizens to the twenty five-member CA.&nbsp; Any citizen was eligible to apply, subject to existing limitations on election to Parliament, provided they were not already elected members of the Alþingi, and as long as they were able to collect the requisite number of signatures to qualify for the shortlist. One potential shortcoming of this procedure, however, was that the elected were by and large already recognisable public figures. Nevertheless, they were chosen by the people for largely non-partisan reasons.</p> <p>Following the CA election however, several members of the long-hostile opposition parties submitted a complaint to the (also hostile) Supreme Court regarding the legality of the elections.&nbsp; Their argument was that six (very minor) technicalities invalidated the entire election process, despite the technicalities having, at the maximum, resulted in the election of one candidate who should not have been, and who in any case voluntarily withdrew.&nbsp;The Supreme Court agreed (see: ruling <a href=""><strong>here</strong></a> and thoughtful riposte <a href=""><strong>here</strong></a>), and ruled the election invalid.&nbsp; The decision left the government with three options: a) to re-run the election at considerable expense; b) to appoint representatives to a Constitutional <em>Council</em>; or c) to abandon the whole procedure.&nbsp; The government chose to respect the result of the initial election and <em>appointed</em> the victors to the Council.</p> <p>The Constitutional Council (CC) was sworn in, and was given three months (starting April 2011, later extended to four months) to write, from scratch, the Constitution, with the aid of a legal council.&nbsp; Councillors worked full time, and were paid the equivalent of a parliamentarian.&nbsp; The Council was completely self-governing – it elected a chairperson, and elected members to four sub-committees that were tasked with brainstorming statutes falling under their respective competences, within the values framework of the National Meeting.&nbsp;</p> <p>In a non-descript office block in the suburbs of Reykjavík, day-in day-out the Councillors met, brainstormed, and reviewed their statutes.&nbsp; At a weekly meeting, the sub-groups assembled in a (televised) general meeting, and debated and agreed new submissions and amendments.&nbsp; Each week, the new draft was uploaded onto the <a href="">website</a>, and the Council actively encouraged letters, Facebook messages, and emails from the general public, containing suggestions about how the document could be strengthened and improved; what should be added, what should be taken away.&nbsp; The composition of the Constitution process extended far beyond the bounds of the grey, concrete block in which it was written, to the living rooms, offices, and cafes of citizens throughout Iceland.&nbsp; The public’s submissions were actively considered and debated in the sub-group sessions, and on most occasions the correspondent received a human response.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Council’s legitimacy did not draw simply from its composition of elected ‘ordinary’ Icelanders; it stemmed from the ongoing, <em>real time</em>, technology-enabled dialogue between the Council and the people.&nbsp; It stemmed from the Council’s openness to the public (which was invited to observe general meetings) and from its complete independence from political meddling and subversive corporate lobbying. All public correspondence to the committee was published online.&nbsp; With each passing meeting, the CC attempted to achieve greater proximity between the written document and the sentiments of the people, whilst constantly referring also to ‘state-of-the-art’ Constitutional practices from around the world.</p> <h3>Becoming sovereign</h3> <p>Finally, the Constitutional Analysis Support Team (CAST), a semi-formal collective of individuals sharing an interest in the Constitution process, was established by <a href="">Smári McCarthy</a> and <a href="">Eleanor Saitta</a> in January 2011 in order to undertake analysis of the Constitution as it was drafted.&nbsp; The collective made itself aware to the CC, and indeed many of the Constitutional Councillors became involved in CAST’s project.&nbsp; In particular, towards the end of the drafting process as the Constitution started to ‘stabilise’ (mid-June), CAST arranged a Constitution ‘Stress Test’ – an event open to citizens with a willingness to contribute to testing and finding gaps in the Constitution. The testing drew heavily on the linguistic analysis expertise of the internet company, whose director was also a lead proponent of the exercise.&nbsp;All those present were divided into smaller working-groups operationalising different textual analysis approaches.&nbsp; The results were tweeted in real<em>-</em>time, and a summary report of the findings was produced and uploaded onto CAST’s <a href="">website</a>, and informally reviewed by many on the Constitutional Council.</p> <p>After four months of intense drafting, the Council completed its work on July 27, 2011, ready to be put to referendum.&nbsp; The Chairperson handed the draft Constitution over to the Parliament to the accompaniment of a rather stuffy wood-panelled fanfare - tradition that jarred with the <em>break</em> with tradition that the entire process had hitherto marked.&nbsp; The people had been entrusted with the task of writing the rules by which they are governed; of replacing the state of affairs that provided for the anti-politics-as-usual of previous years and the systematic production of concealment, patronage, and terror which contributed so acutely to our economic, social, and environmental ruin.&nbsp;</p> <p>The foundational <a href="">document</a> that defines and unites people is written by and for the ordinary people of the country.&nbsp;The Supreme Court would now be fully independent.&nbsp; The minutes of all meetings would now be made public.&nbsp; The Prime Minister would now be obliged to account for his/her government before Parliament.&nbsp; Information about issues that concern the public would now always be available to the public.&nbsp; Throughout, and because of this process, the people had been, and would henceforth, be sovereign.&nbsp; </p> <p>Whilst this is no guarantee of good government, Iceland’s Constitutional process nevertheless remains a timely reminder of not only the powerful hope that change from below represents, but, as evidenced by recent (anti-)democratic trends in southern Europe, a reminder of the necessarily interdependent, non-incidental character of relations between systems of government and the varieties of capitalism, that inform the foundational structure of the ways in which we are governed.&nbsp; The ‘Truth Report’ traced the roots of the economic crisis in Iceland (ruined poster-boy of neoliberal experiment) to a crisis of democracy, transparency, and accountability.&nbsp; </p> <p>A ‘Truth Report’ of transnational scope and ambition might just make it apparent that these were not uniquely Icelandic failures, but rather more intrinsic to the rationality of rule itself than the rulers are willing to admit, and hence make it incumbent on all those whose lives are tainted by the unique infrastructures of power peculiar to the family of neoliberalism to <em>also</em> radically reassess and recover their own constitutional democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Conflict </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item even"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item odd"> International politics </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? uk Iceland Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Occupy! Richard Bater Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Occupy Europe! Thu, 01 Dec 2011 23:13:30 +0000 Richard Bater 62955 at Orthodoxy is wrong: it can pay to default <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> In the 1990s, Argentina was an IMF poster boy, but it soon became a byword for the failures of the Washington Consensus. Tying its currency to the dollar, cutting public spending and selling its assets led to a deepening debt spiral from which it could not escape, until it defaulted. </div> </div> </div> <p>Christina Fernandez has won a <a href="">thumping victory</a> in Argentina&rsquo;s Presidential elections, securing 53% of the popular vote to win by the largest margin in the last four decades.<span>&nbsp; </span>Such a resounding success looked highly unlikely a few years ago, when her personal popularity had slumped and the economy was buffeted by the global financial crisis. But underneath the ebb-and-flow of events, the Argentinian economy has posted remarkable success during the years it has been governed by Fernandez and her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, who died last year. Since its catastrophic collapse in 2001, when the country defaulted on its debts, it has seen strong growth, rising living standards and steep reductions in poverty and inequality. Unsurprisingly, Argentinians have rewarded the Kirchners for this success.</p> <p class="MsoNormal">Indeed, according to this <a href="">new study</a> by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, Argentina has had the fastest growth of any country in the Western Hemisphere in the period 2002 &ndash; 2011, achieving a remarkable 94% increase in its GDP. Meanwhile, poverty has fallen by two-thirds from its peak, unemployment by half, and social expenditures have trebled in real terms. <span>&nbsp;</span>This is a record most policymakers would be delighted to emulate.</p> <p class="image-left"><img src="" alt="" width="520" height="412" />It has done this in the teeth of orthodox economic policy advice. In the 1990s, Argentina was an IMF poster boy, but it soon became a byword for the failures of the Washington Consensus. Tying its currency to the dollar, cutting public spending and selling its assets led to a deepening debt spiral from which it could not escape until it defaulted. Once it had broken free of the dollar peg and unsustainable debts, the Kirchners put growth and jobs first, holding down the currency, investing in anti-poverty drives, paying off the IMF and refusing to settle with &ldquo;vulture creditors&rdquo;. This was not good luck, contingent on an export boom, as their critics allege, but a set of strategic choices that have paid off.</p> <p>The question is whether it is sustainable. Hitherto, the price that has been paid for this success has been rising inflation, which is now running at 25%. Over time, inflation at this level will erode Argentina&rsquo;s competitive advantages. If Argentina is to avoid another crash, Fernandez will need to start to bring inflation down. Whether she can do so without imperilling growth and living standards will be the central test of her second term (longer term, Argentina needs to cement constitutional-democratic reforms, in order to leave its 20th century cycles of populism and authoritarianism firmly behind).</p> <p>But for now, heterodoxy has paid off in Argentina, just as it has in Iceland, as Paul Krugman has <a href="">recently observed</a>. Compare their fate to what Greece and Ireland can expect in the years ahead:</p> <p class="image-left"><img src="" alt="" width="500" /></p> <p class="image-left"><img src="" alt="" width="500" /></p> <p>&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p><em>Update, 24/10/11: Paul Krugman also picks up on Argentina&rsquo;s <a href="">&lsquo;unacceptable success'</a>, citing Keynes&rsquo;s dictum: Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally then to succeed unconventionally.</em></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p><em>This piece was originally published on&nbsp;<a href=";option=com_wordpress&amp;Itemid=17">Nick's blog</a>.</em></p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Argentina </div> <div class="field-item even"> Iceland </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Greece </div> <div class="field-item even"> Ireland </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? openEconomy Greece Iceland Argentina Ireland Nick Pearce Mon, 24 Oct 2011 16:56:00 +0000 Nick Pearce 62213 at