No one disputes that Iceland’s economic troubles are largely the country’s own fault. But there may be more to the story, at least in the view of Iceland’s government, its citizens and even some outsiders. As grave as their situation already was, they say, Britain — their old friend, NATO ally and trading partner — made it immeasurably worse.
By Sarah Lyall
The New York Times
The troubles between the countries began three weeks ago when Britain took the extraordinary step of using its 2001 antiterrorism laws to freeze the British assets of a failing Icelandic bank. That appeared to brand Iceland a terrorist state.
“I must admit that I was absolutely appalled,” the Icelandic foreign minister, Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, said in an interview, describing her horror at opening the British treasury department’s home page at the time and finding Iceland on a list of terrorist entities with Al Qaeda, Sudan and North Korea, among others.
In a volatile economic climate, in which appearance matters almost as much as reality, being associated with terrorism is not a good thing.
“The immediate effect was to trigger an almost complete freeze on any banking transactions between Iceland and abroad,” said Jon Danielsson, an economist at the London School of Economics. “When you’re labeled a terrorist, nobody does business with you.”
The Icelandic prime minister, Geir H. Haarde, accused Britain of “bullying a small neighbor” and said the action was “very out of proportion.” In a recent speech in Beijing, Sir Howard Davies, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England and now the director of the London School of Economics, said that Britain had used a “beggar thy neighbor” approach to Iceland.
And an online petition signed so far by more than 20 percent of Iceland’s population said the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, had sacrificed Iceland “for his own short-term political gain,” thereby turning “a grave situation into a national disaster.”
Iceland’s financial problems had been brewing for some time. This past spring, the country’s banks, bloated with foreign deposits and debts, began to falter. This fall, as the financial crisis deepened, the government took over two of the country’s three largest banks.
Britain’s government, alarmed about the tens of thousands of accounts held by its citizens, companies, local governments and charities, froze the British assets of one of the failed banks, Landsbanki. It also seized the assets of Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander, the British subsidiary of another Icelandic bank, Kaupthing.