Amid allegations of bullying and profiteering by bigger nations, angry Icelanders are expected to deliver a resounding slap down this weekend to plans to use taxpayer money to pay off the tiny island nation’s international debts.
Polls suggest that three quarters of Icelanders are expected to vote “no” in a referendum on Saturday on a $5.3 billion deal to compensate Britain and the Netherlands for deposits lost in a collapsed Icelandic bank.
The vote will formalize a public backlash that has become Iceland’s latest stumbling block on the difficult road out of a deep recession, jeopardizing its credit rating, access to much—needed bailout money from the International Monetary Fund and desired entry to the European Union.
It has been desperately seeking a revised deal with its European creditors since President Olafur R. Grimsson tapped into public anger and used a rarely invoked power to refuse to sign the so—called Icesave bill into law in January, triggering the national poll.
At the heart of the dispute is the payment of $3.5 billion to Britain and $1.8 billion to the Netherlands as compensation for funds that those governments paid out to around 340,000 nationals with savings in the collapsed Icesave internet bank.
Britain and the Netherlands offered better terms last week - including a floating interest rate on the debt plus 2.75 percent, representing a significant cut on the 5.5 percent under the original deal hammered out at the end of last year.
The British say their “best and final offer has been turned down.”
But Iceland continues to hold out for more, aware that any new deal must win substantial political and public support to avoid another veto by the president.
“It is improbable that a new deal on Icesave will be reached before tomorrow,” Finance Minister Steingrimur J. Sigfusson, told reporters in Reykjavik after a Cabinet meeting on Friday.
Locals largely view the deal both as bullying by bigger nations and an unfair result of their own government’s failure to curtail the excessive spending of a handful of bank executives that led the country into its current malaise.
Because of Iceland’s tiny population, around 320,000, the original deal would have required each person to pay around $135 a month for eight years - the equivalent of a quarter of an average four—member family’s salary.
That’s a step too far for many ordinary Icelanders who resent forking out the money to compensate for losses incurred by potentially wealthier foreign investors who chased the high interest rates offered by Icesave.
There’s also residual anger that Britain invoked anti—terrorist legislation to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks at the height of the crisis, prompting the worst diplomatic spat between the two countries since Cod Wars of the 1970s over fishing rights in the North Atlantic.
“I am going to say no on Saturday because it’s not fair and justifiable that the Icelandic nation should pay for other people’s mistakes,” said Benedikt Mewes, 33, a cashier at the National Post Office in Reykjavik.
Sigfusson - who, along with Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir does not plan to vote on Saturday - said that he has spoken to his counterparts in Britain and the Netherlands, requesting that discussions continue after the weekend, but he has not yet received a reply.
IHS Global Insight Europe political analyst Dragana Ignjatovic, said that Iceland could use the people power from the weekend referendum in renewed negotiations - if it moves quickly.
With both the British and Dutch governments facing general elections this year, their willingness to offer serious concessions on the Icesave issue will be limited by their likely determination not to appear soft to their own recession—hit citizens.
“Iceland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are likely to have a finite window of opportunity to seal a deal that would prove acceptable to both politicians and the public,” Mr. Ignjatovic said.
Officials within Iceland’s Social Democrat—Left Green coalition government, whose authority is being challenged by the weekend poll, acknowledge the repercussions of a failure to settle the dispute.
Although the International Monetary Fund has never explicitly linked delivery of a $4.6 billion loan to the reaching of an Icesave deal, it is connected to Iceland repaying its international debt - the months taken to reach the original Icesave deal were responsible for holding up the first tranche of IMF funds last year.
There are also fears that Britain and the Netherlands will take a hard—line stance on Iceland’s application to join the EU and refuse to approve the start of accession talks until an Icesave deal is signed into law.
Those are factors that Iceland can do without as it struggles to recover from a rout in which most of its banking system collapsed.
The Icelandic government has forecast the economy will contract 2 percent to 3 percent this year, after shrinking 7 percent last year.
“Several months’ delay could deepen the 2010 contraction to about 5 percent,” Economy Minister Gylfi Magnusson, said this week.
Whatever happens on Saturday, Iceland has a long, hard road ahead and while many Icelanders see the vote as an opportunity to rebel en masse, others are weary of the saga.
“I do not plan to vote,” said Linda Erlendsdottir, 41, a web developer. “I’m tired of the whole affair.”