Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir - extended interview

The Icelandic prime minister talks to the NS about scrambling to rescue an economy under pressure fr

Click here to see the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.

How has your first year as prime minister been?
I have always worked hard, and seeing so many Icelanders make tremendous efforts to cope with difficult tasks and decisions inspires me to press for further reforms and to achieve concrete results. First, our aim is to revitalise the economy, balance the state finances and get troubled companies and families on their feet again. This cannot be done without facing the facts, identifying the reasons for the crash and determining who is responsible. Second, the government is taking decisions on law enforcement and changes in our governmental institutions in order to prevent a possible new meltdown in our financial system in the coming decades. Third, by reinforcing democratic processes, promoting better and more responsible governance and a reorganisation of the civil service, the government is opening a new path towards a better society, grounded in the ideals of the Nordic welfare state.

There is still a lot of anger in Iceland about the country's financial collapse. What are the next steps?
Feelings are mixed. Icelanders are both angry and full of sorrow and anxiety. They feel betrayed in many ways by the state, by the banks and by our allies. But the anger is also directed inwards - at ourselves as individuals and as a nation. Why did Icelanders let this happen? Sorting out those feelings will be a long and difficult process. This month, the findings of the parliamentary inquiry into the crash will be published and it's up to the Althing [national parliament] and the government to respond properly and in a trustworthy manner. An extensive judicial process into possible misconduct by financial institutions and other principal players is also ongoing. This will all take time but eventually the reckoning will take place and those suspected of misdoings will be prosecuted. At the same time, the government is pressing on with extensive reform of the financial markets and a radical restructuring of the civil service and the state institutions, in order to ensure that the collapse will not be repeated in the foreseeable future.

How is your relationship with Gordon Brown, given the disagreements over Icesave?
I met him briefly at the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen. We have exchanged letters and spoken on the telephone last week, and our officials have maintained contact. In our conversation last Tuesday, I explained the present situation in Iceland regarding the Icesave bill.

The Icesave bill, and the underlying agreement with Britain, was passed by the Icelandic parliament on 30 December, but the president of Iceland deferred the bill to a national referendum to be held less than two months from now. That is his constitutional right, albeit highly unusual usage of the presidential powers. Mr Gordon Brown was of course disappointed by this delay, but declared his will to continued co-operation with the Icelandic government concerning those difficult circumstances. He expressed the same sentiments regarding Iceland's EU bid, as Foreign Minister David Miliband also conveyed to Iceland's foreign minister, Össur Skarphéðinsson, last week.

Countries have interests and diplomacy is usually not personal, but many Icelanders feel that last year Prime Minister Brown went beyond what can be justified by the protection of British national interests. In addition, the application of anti-terror legislation against a peaceful neighbour and Nato ally is unprecedented. I am convinced that, in a similar situation, the government of the UK would not apply this particular legislation against a larger European country. All of this needs to be discussed openly, while we move forward in repairing bilateral relations.

Are you still seeking to discuss the Icesave issue with him face to face?
In my discussions with Prime Minister Brown, I declared myself ready to meet him if we [both] deemed it productive to clarify and mend the relations between our countries.

What do you expect the outcome of the referendum to be?
The national referendum is in accordance with Iceland's constitution, and that deserves to be respected both at home and in other democratic neighbour countries. I'm convinced that the Icelandic voters will reach the right decision and, on that basis, we will keep on with our recovery plan, hopefully in good co-operation with the international community. You don't contest the judgement of the voters in a democratic society.

Is the request that Iceland repay its bankers' debts reasonable?
Understandably, almost every Icelander finds it unreasonable that Icelandic taxpayers should have to pay thousands of pounds each for a failed private bank, because of mistakes the taxpayers had nothing to do with. But someone has to pay, and the question is really how this burden should be divided between the parties involved.

Iceland has always maintained that the EU regulation on depositors' insurance is flawed, in the sense that it doesn't have relevance in a system crisis where the financial institutions of a country crash at one go. The regulatory bodies of the Netherlands and Britain should also be held accountable for their faulty control of the Icelandic bank Landsbanki in their respective countries. Up to now, we have been pretty isolated in this view, but we will keep on speaking for our opinions on this issue.

If Iceland does not repay its bankers' debts, is there a risk that the country will become an international pariah?
The parliament and three successive governments have stated that Iceland remains committed to honouring its obligations. However, the Icesave case has been deeply contested in Iceland, given the enormous economic burden involved.

If you take into consideration Iceland's progress in 2009 in implementing the economic recovery programme supported by the International Monetary Fund, the prolongation of the conclusion of the Icesave issue is a certain setback. However, Iceland's fundamentals remain strong -- Iceland will recover. We stay in close contact with the governments of the UK and the Netherlands, Nordic and other partner countries, and with the EU and the IMF, in order to explain the issue and the next steps.

How will Iceland's economy change, post-crash?
In future, the Icelandic economy will be based on sustainable use of its fishing stocks and energy resources, and the ingenuity and strength of its well-educated, vibrant, young population. The economy will not return to the flammable combination of high leverage and unbridled risk-taking that drove us into the financial crisis we are now overcoming.

Our international competitive sectors, including tourism, have rapidly become more important over the past 12 months. These sectors will continue to be of high importance and push the economy onwards to rapid recovery. Most importantly, we are restructuring a more stable economy that is returning to its roots as a Nordic welfare state.

To this end, I put great faith in the EU accession negotiations that we hope will start in early 2010. Membership of the European Union and adoption of the euro would secure the already extensive success we have made in restructuring and rebuilding our economy.

What benefits would EU membership bring?
Our goal in the membership negotiations is to reach an agreement that is in accordance with Iceland's fundamental interests as defined by the Althing. Recent polls indicate that public opinion is divided about EU membership, but I expect the nation to approve an agreement if a solution is found regarding fisheries and agriculture. We have been members of the European Single Market for 15 years through the European Economic Area Agreement, as well as being members of the Schengen Agreement, and I believe that the benefits are appreciated in my country.

EU membership will build confidence as regards the future of the Icelandic economy and give a clear sign of direction. This is very important in the light of the circumstances. In addition, we would gain a voice within EU institutions and be able to rely on European solidarity. Prices of certain consumer goods should fall, and the EU's regional policy would be beneficial to the remote regions of Iceland.

Membership would also allow for adoption of the euro, which would reduce the costs we pay to maintain the world's smallest independent currency. We would expect less economic volatility, lower interest rates and funding costs closer to those enjoyed by other European economies.

Your economic "stability pact" received a mixed response from trade unions. As a former union organiser, do you still feel loyal to them?
Times in Iceland are hard for everyone and the trade unions feel the burden of accepting wage cuts, cuts in social expenditure and the rise in income taxes. Nevertheless, they are taking full part in stabilising the economy for the common good.

The trade unions participate in managing the pensions funds, which are fully funded by 10 per cent of the pool of wages each year, and they manage capital the equivalent of 150 per cent of GNP. These funds play an important role in Iceland, as they give us means to invest in large-scale infrastructure programmes, which will raise the employment level in the difficult times ahead. I have given my word on implementing the stability pact, and despite all obstacles I will do my best.

Your government is 50 per cent female. Is equality important to your vision for Iceland?
Definitely! My long experience in politics tells me that egalitarian policies are the best way to unite and empower people, and are also a necessary counterweight to the sometimes dividing and detrimental influence of market forces. A society that does not use the intellectual power of its female population fully is not a wise society. Women are now the majority of students in the Icelandic universities, and 43 per cent of our MPs.

We have to use all our resources to bounce back from the recession and we expect women to take their full part in the new era. Most women are not as tainted by mistakes in the conduct of the economy as the male population, and now they deserve an opportunity. We are determined to achieve gender equality in the political sphere but, unfortunately, the corporate side is still lacking. This is odd, because international research shows that companies with a sound gender policy are better run and more profitable than male-dominated companies. We are prepared to introduce legislation that would actively encourage the private sector to adopt a wiser and more effective gender policy.

By the way, it's not a coincidence that the World Economic Forum recently ranked Iceland first in its annual, 134-country survey of gender equality, followed closely by Norway, Finland and Sweden. We would like to keep that position!

You called for Davíð Oddsson, the former head of Iceland's Central Bank, to stand down. He now edits the Morgunblaðið newspaper. How do you feel about his current job?
It has become a quite common view that he has turned Morgunblaðið into a campaign organ for his own views, rather than a broad-minded newspaper on the right. His assignment is a decision the owners of Morgunblaðið have to stand by, and is not for me to comment on.

Iceland is already experiencing signs of climate change. What moves is your government making to combat it? How can those be reconciled with the need to focus on the economy?
The Icelandic government will soon publish its action plan for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, recovering wetlands and increasing forestation. In Iceland, renewable energy has supplied 90 per cent of the primary energy needs since 1999 -- proportionally more than any other country. Geothermal sources are also used to heat 89 per cent of our buildings.

Our aim is to become completely energy-independent, using 100 per cent renewable energy sources. This will take time but makes ecological and economic sense.

Following the oil crises in the 1970s, Iceland turned geothermal, and this has led to great savings in the national economy. Some estimates say Iceland is saving as much as a year's national income every 11 to 12 years by virtue of that foresight.

Is there a plan?
A plan provides focus, but it is not an end in itself.

What would you like to forget?
I would like to remember all and be able to forgive everything -- in due course!

Are we all doomed?
Our time is limited, but the spirit is free.

Click here to see the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.