Iceland: 5 years on, nationalism is growing inside capital controls


Last week, in the policy speech by prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson Icelanders were told that Iceland is a country almost too good to be true. However, for basic principles Iceland is less good. One of the basic principles is that property rights are inviolable. Some wonder if such principles still count in Iceland.

Part of the budget proposals, put forth last week, is that estates of the failed banks should be taxed. Taxing debt is a novel thing, remains to be seen how that idea fares. The proposal is vague as to how and what is being taxed. The proposal mentions the estates of Kaupthing, Glitnir and Landsbanki. The justification is that these three banks caused a lot of damage to Iceland – another novelty: tax is based on the principle of damage and the perceived good and evil.

There are however other failed financial institutions that did indeed cause a lot of harm and cost: Saga Capital and VBS, to mention just two, in addition to SpKef, Byr and others: the government did indeed try to save the two first ones and lost a lot of money on the attempt.

The intention seems clear enough. It would indeed be much more clear-cut if the definition was plainly to tax “estates where major part of creditors are foreign.”

Now on the fifth anniversary of the bank collapse politicians have been reminding Icelanders of the harm foreigners have caused Icelanders, i.a. the British actions five years ago against Kaupthing and Landsbanki. Less has ben said of what went on in the years before these few fateful days. And no mention is made of the fact that Icelanders, contrary to most other crisis-struck countries do actually know what happened and why: there is the SIC report that gives a clear and concise account of what happened.

The prime ministers is untiring in telling Icelanders what a great nation Iceland is. It is interesting to keep in mind the political rhetoric in Argentina. In any free country, i.e. a country, which is not locked up inside capital controls, citizens can vote with their currency, in the sense that if they do not like the policy they can go abroad. In Iceland – and in Argentina – that is not possible.

Both in Argentina and Iceland politicians constantly remind their countrymen of the unfair foreigners. In Argentina, this has been going on for almost 13 years. In Iceland, it is just beginning.

Qui vivra verra – but so far, Iceland seems to be emulating Argentina in trying to be a country that writes its own rules, forcing these rules on its citizens because they cannot go anywhere else and acting as if the outer world does not matter. Argentina, after almost 13 years, is waking up to the fact that this may not be that easy. Iceland still has years to find out if isolation matters. As one economist puts it, capital controls strangle the economy.

The weather has been glorious these days of the fifth collapse anniversary, as seen on the photo, taken on the outskirt of Reykjavík (for those who know Reykjavík it was taken out on the tip of Seltjarnarnes last night), truly if feels as a view of forever. In truth, the view here seems to be the view into populism, the only fast-growing thing within Iceland of capital controls.

About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.

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