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"In my view the best way to rebuild our financial system is to join the EU and join the Euro."


Johanna Sigurðardóttir during news conference on 29 February 2009

Illustration by Laura Hempel
"I have some sweet Euros for you!"

 

 

A gay Obama from Björk's homeland rakes in the Top European award this time round. Mrs Johanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland's 66-year-old Social Affairs Minister, was appointed interim Prime Minister of Iceland on the 26th of February 2009. She stole the spotlight from the Americans when, just two days after the US presidential inauguration, she became not only the first female Head of Government in her country's history, but also the world's first publicly gay PM.

She started her career as a stewardess and married a banker with whom she has two kids, and then her life seems to have taken a U-turn - something she can reflect on when taking a moment's break from ruling the country, accompanied by her lesbian life-partner Jonina Leosdottir, a novelist and playwright.

The change, however, did not come about quickly or in glamorously abrupt style for Mrs Sigurðardóttir. Now the longest-sitting MP and prime minister-in-waiting in Iceland, having spent three decades in parliament and four stints as Social Affairs Minister, Sigurðardóttir is known for her diligence and perseverance. „She holds no fancy foreign diplomas - she has a Commercial degree from the Commercial College of Iceland - nor extensive family or financial connections like many Icelandic politicians, but has diligently worked her way up the political ladder through hard work and determination," explains Iris Erlingsdottir, an Icelandic journalist for The Huffington Post.

Thus, no matter how tempting it is to read Obama-appeal into Mrs Sigurðardóttir's lesbianism, it is not merely her open attitude towards homosexuality that gets her the nomination today. "Being gay is not an issue in Iceland," explains Frosti Jónsson, chairman of Iceland's gay-and-lesbian association. "There are so many openly gay prominent figures in both the public and private sector here that it doesn't affect who we select for our highest offices. Our minds are focused on what counts, which is the current situation in the country." And the situation is rather grim, since Iceland virtually collapsed last year under the weight of billions of dollars of foreign debts, owed by its now nationalised banks (see → "Ver Aelum Öll": You Make Me Sick!). Geir Haarde, the former prime minister, had to resign due to mounting protests over the government's poor handling of the economy - demonstrators pelted his car with eggs and police were forced to use tear gas on the streets for the first time in fifty years. Compare this with an opinion poll taken in December 2008 which gave Ms Sigurðardóttir a 73 per cent approval rating and it becomes clear why she was badly needed to mend the mess. Now the question remains: how to do it?

"In my opinion, our best option is to join the European Union and adopt the euro," she announced boldly in a news conference two days after her appointment. Although with issues such as the Lisbon treaty and the dispute over Iceland's fisheries still unresolved, this goal might prove more elusive than anticipated, EU membership does nevertheless seem to be an economic lifesaver for Iceland now. Not an obvious choice for some, however - Finance Minister Sigfusson has recently started chumming up with his Norwegian counterpart in the hope that Norwegian krona could become an alternative to the euro. Ms Sigurðardóttir's clear commitment to joining the Eurozone despite other options thus sets a clear political goal that could lead to Iceland's accession negotiations. With the European elections coming up, this new EU-warmth from the icy island may give some food for thought to the EMP-wannabes on how to reinvigorate the Lisbon Treaty to allow enlargement. And a speedy and relatively unproblematic accession of the country that has already adopted most of the EU's aquis communautaire anyway could destroy the myth that the EU has exhausted its capacity for expansion. It may also encourage the Nordic states to rethink their choices: with Iceland joining and financial markets still wobbling, staying outside becomes increasingly risky, both politically and economically.

Another change will come in domestic economic policy. "Today is the end of laissez-faire economic policy in Iceland, which is severely wounded after years in which such policies have run the government," Finance Minister Sigfusson said. Planted in left-of-centre politics, Sigurðardóttir is known for voicing support for social issues such as a robust welfare system, gender equality and rights for the disabled and elderly. The nation's current post-meltdown retreat from the right gives her some confidence that she is "the right woman for the job". To have such a vigorous advocate of equality and respect for those most vulnerable praising accession to the EU could give a boost to the EU's reputation and morale, since it is chronically accused of withdrawal from "ordinary people's issues". The question now remains as to whether the vortex of Iceland's politics will let Sigurðardóttir stay in office or, instead, suck her back in after the interim period elapses.

In any case, watch out guys - oestrogen might be making a come-back!

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