During the nearly half a decade she has been in office, Iceland’s prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has built a reputation for quietly obliterating expectations. She is consistently voted the most trusted politician in a country where distrust of politicians has run high since the collapse of Iceland’s banking system in 2008. Before Jakobsdóttir entered office in late 2017, Iceland went through three prime ministers in two years. She remained prime minister following the general election last September, despite her party, the Left-Green Movement, winning just 12.5 per cent of the vote. And she’s achieved political stability by forming coalitions with parties on the right.
“I won’t say it’s not difficult to be in government with difficult parties – oh, I mean with different parties,” she told me during a video call from Stjornarradid, the prime minister’s office in Reykjavik. Chuckling at her mistake, Jakobsdóttir continued: “Well, also difficult parties. But it was a Freudian slip there.”
Stretching across the wall behind her is a large painting, a geometric seaside scene by the Icelandic abstract artist Karl Kvaran. “I actually picked that painting myself,” she said. “It is really kind of joyful.” The same could be said of Jakobsdóttir. She’s remarkably good-humoured – and not just for a politician. The day before our interview was her 46th birthday. When I asked how she celebrated, she deadpanned: “My youngest son was diagnosed with Covid.” (He’s fine, she assured me.) Jakobsdóttir comes from a family of academics, which isn’t all that unusual in Iceland. The country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world – 99 per cent – and Jakobsdóttir joked that “sometimes it’s said that everybody in Iceland writes at least one book”. She herself has a master’s degree in Icelandic literature. (She wrote her dissertation on the popular crime fiction writer Arnaldur Indriðason and she confessed that, even today, it’s her preferred genre.)
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After graduating, she briefly worked as a journalist for the public broadcaster RÚV before making the transition to politics. Prior to becoming prime minister she served as Iceland’s education minister, as well as minister for Nordic cooperation. She has been chair of the Left-Green Movement since 2013.
Though she has been rebuked by some in her own party for her willingness to work with politicians across the spectrum, Jakobsdóttir has skilfully absorbed the criticism. It likely helps that she has broad appeal, even though her party might not.
“I find it really difficult to analyse myself as a politician,” Jakobsdóttir said. “I think what is important is that we all have ideals and we have goals and we have policies.” Jakobsdóttir listens to questions intently, her head tipped to one side. When she answers she uses her hands, with big sweeping gestures to punctuate her points. “But we also need to think about the people who don’t share our views, and don’t share our policies. And we need to try to develop some understanding of the whole of the population.”
A case in point: as a pacifist, Jakobsdóttir is known for her opposition to Iceland’s Nato membership. Yet she has repeatedly said she respects voters’ majority support for the alliance and recognises it as a cornerstone of the country’s national security policy.
For a state without its own army, Iceland has long played a prominent role in transatlantic military strategy. It was one of the 12 founding members of Nato in 1949, and in 1986 it provided the setting for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Reykjavík Summit, which at the time helped to temper relations between the US and the Soviet Union.
Today, Iceland’s northerly position also means the country is strategically important. In recent years, Russia has added naval bases in the Arctic Circle, which has improved its capacity to send submarines through the GIUK gap (where Greenland, Iceland and the UK form a narrow naval “choke point” in the ocean). Meanwhile, US deployments to Iceland under Nato for air and submarine surveillance have increased.
Given Russia’s growing aggression, not just on the border with Ukraine, but also against the Baltic countries and Sweden and Finland, has Jakobsdóttir’s view of Nato changed at all? Surely there’s some comfort in being part of a military alliance when some allies are certain war in Europe is imminent?
“My opinion – and my party’s opinion – has not changed,” Jakobsdóttir said firmly. She concedes, however, that she has found satisfaction in working to influence the alliance as best she can from the inside. “It’s very important to have a voice within that context which really stresses the importance of dialogue and peaceful solutions.” This influence, she added, would not be used to block membership of any country – be it Sweden, Finland or Ukraine – that wanted to join Nato. “We respect the will of those nations to make their own decisions,” she said.
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She has also pressed Nato to expand its definition of “security”, especially since the pandemic. “You can actually say that maybe Covid-19 was also a security threat,” Jakobsdóttir said, adding that taking a “broader view” of security – so that it is not just about military affairs, but also encompasses public health, cyber and environmental threats – is inherently Icelandic. “This is maybe a part of the language, because in Iceland we have the same word (öryggi) for safety and security.”
Though Jakobsdóttir is somewhat used to being a political outlier, she now finds herself part of the club. Following the Norwegian election last September, all five Nordic nations now have left-wing leaders. (Four of the five also happen to be women.) Though the region has long enjoyed a reputation as a social-democratic utopia, this “new Nordic left” marks a significant transformation. “When I started, I think there was a right-wing prime minister in Denmark, Norway and Finland,” Jakobsdóttir said. “So this is a very recent development. And all those other leaders come from the social democrats, while I’m the chair of the Left-Greens. But obviously we have a lot in common.”
Jakobsdóttir points, for example, to the common Nordic commitment to egalitarian social security, as well as to “basic rights” such as free education and equal access to healthcare. But, wisely, she’s hesitant to suggest other European left parties should take lessons from the Nordic example. Each Nordic country is still grappling with the volatility of post-crash politics. Denmark’s centre-left government has moved to the right on some social issues including immigration; Sweden’s new prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, is leading a minority government, while an anti-immigration party with neo-Nazi roots (the Sweden Democrats) has strong support.
Iceland, Jakobsdóttir said, is not immune to disruptive populist ideas. “We have sensed this threat of the radical right or far right,” she said. “And sometimes Iceland is a little bit lagging: you see a political tendency somewhere else and then you see it happen in Iceland later.” But so far, she said, populist agitation hasn’t led to widespread instability. “Maybe the fact we are so few and small strengthens that social cohesion,” she said, referencing Iceland’s population of just 370,000. “It’s a different project.”
In the face of any domestic or foreign threats, Jakobsdóttir will continue to prioritise cooperation. And she’ll remain in good humour, so long as there is stability. “Trust is a very sensitive thing, and you can easily lose it overnight. So I think that’s a project we need to be very humble about, and very respectful of.”
Listen to NS international editor Megan Gibson’s interview with Katrín Jakobsdóttir on the World Review podcast
This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game