We can learn from Iceland's crash – and their recovery

Iceland's PM isn't the only one guilty of ignoring the evidence that a crisis was coming.

Let’s confess, it felt good to see a Prime Minister criminally charged for the financial mismanagement of his country, as happened to Iceland’s Geir Haarde. But it also seems fair that he was convicted only of negligence.

After all, he and his government had full policy cover from mainstream economists like Richard Portes (ex-President of the Royal Economic Society) in the bubbly lead-up to the banking collapse in October 2008. Professors Portes and Baldursson co-authored a November 2007 report for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, in which they concluded that:

. . . the Icelandic economy and financial sector are highly resilient. . . With regard to both the macroeconomic situation and the characteristics and performance of the banks, we consider that the current market premium on Icelandic banks is excessive relative to their risk exposure and in comparison with their Nordic peers. . . Overall, the internationalisation of the Icelandic financial sector is a remarkable success story that the markets should better acknowledge.

The authors made similar points in a letter to the Financial Times in July 2008 – just 3 months before the crash!

No wonder then that Mr Haarde argues that

None of us realised at the time that there was something fishy (sic) within the banking system as now appears to have been the case.

Moreover, he added, "nobody predicted that there would be a financial collapse in Iceland."

Well, that last point is not quite true. Many did, like Professor Robert Wade. In my book The Coming First World Debt Crisis (2006) I drew attention to a report by Danske Bank which flashed strong warning lights:

Iceland seems not only to be overheating, but also looks very dependent on the willingness-to-lend of global financial markets. This raises the question of whether the economy is facing not just a recession but also a severe financial crisis.

Yet if Iceland got it all wrong in the lead-up to the October 2008 banking collapse, the country (which still has its own currency) has since done much that is interesting and positive, ignoring or going against the counsel of orthodox economists:

  • Iceland nationalised the domestic parts of its banks, and allowed the non-domestic parts to go bankrupt

  • Iceland looked after its own citizens first, and refused to be bullied by the UK and the Netherlands demanding preferential treatment for non-existent ‘loans’ at usurious rates of interest

  • Iceland’s President responded to popular dissatisfaction with proposed deals with the UK and the Netherlands, by allowing a democratic vote – which confirmed overwhelming opposition

  • Iceland imposed capital controls to stop hot money flows into or out of the country.

  • It gave special protection to home-owners threatened by banks foreclosing.

Despite (because of) all the above, GDP grew by 2.7 per cent in 2011, and unemployment - though high at 6.9 per cent - is far below the current EU average of 10.2 per cent. The IMF’s latest country report (March 2012) states

Iceland’s post-crisis recovery has taken hold. After two years of recession, growth turned positive in 2011, led by domestic demand. The labor market improved, although the unemployment rate remains high… A moderate economic expansion is projected going forward.

So compared with the Eurozone, Iceland is not doing so badly. And compared to Ireland, which has followed very different policies, it’s steaming ahead. Ireland’s GDP rose by 0.7 per cent in 2011, and unemployment is now double Iceland’s at 14.7 per cent. Given that many of Europe’s governments are now run by unaccountable technocrats, the same ones that developed the kind of policies that brought Iceland down, one must congratulate the people of this small country for insisting on the democratic accountability of its political class.

Iceland's former Prime Minister Geir Haarde speaks to the press during his trial. Photograph: Getty Images
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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear