Customers make withdrawals from an
ATM at a branch of Landsbanki in
Kopavogur, Iceland. (AP)

Did the United Kingdom Help Sink Iceland’s Economy?

November 03, 2008 08:34 AM
by Emily Coakley
Iceland claims that its recent economic collapse is due in part to actions of one of its longtime allies, United Kingdom.

‘People Are Very Cross’

The Financial Times on Friday reported that Iceland has asked British legal firm Lovells to explore “possible claims against the [U.K.] Treasury stemming from the Nordic country’s banking collapse.”

According to a spokesman for the law firm, “Lovells has provided advice to the Icelandic government on English and international aspects of the financial turmoil in the country,”

At issue: in early October, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown invoked antiterrorism legislation to freeze some £4 billion in United Kingdom accounts held by Landsbanki, an Icelandic bank that was failing, according to The New York Times.

The British treasury then seized assets of another Icelandic bank’s British subsidiary, Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander. According to The New York Times, “The British government’s seizure of [KSF’s] assets precipitated the immediate collapse of its parent bank, Kaupthing, which the Icelandic government had been propping up and had hoped would survive.”

Icelanders have set up a Web site called Icelanders Are NOT Terrorists with an online petition, signed by more than 73,000 people, asking for an end to abuse of the antiterrorism legislation.

And an unnamed lawyer who is connected to the issue told the Financial Times, “People are cross. People are very cross.”
Last week, The Mail on Sunday reported that Britain’s Minister of Finance, Alistair Darling, knew some time ago that Iceland’s banks were in trouble. A leaked transcript of an Oct. 7 phone call with Iceland’s Finance Minister, Arni Mathiesen showed that Darling didn’t believe assurances from another Icelandic official.

“I was very concerned about the London banking position and they kept saying there was nothing to worry about. And you know, with the position we are now in, there will be a lot of people in this country who put money in and who stand to lose an awful lot of money and they will find it difficult to understand how that has happened,” Darling is quoted as saying in the transcript.

Vince Cable, a spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Treasury, told the Mail on Sunday, “If it’s true that the Government did know all about these problems and doubted Icelandic reassurances, this shifts the balance of responsibility. Mr. Darling has to explain himself.”

Background: Iceland’s economic troubles

In September and October, Iceland’s government took over the country’s three largest banks and halted trading on its stock exchange, according to findingDulcinea. In the past year, the country’s currency, the krona, has dropped by nearly half against the euro.

According to findingDulcinea: “Iceland’s banking sector dwarfed the rest of the economy over the past decade. The country’s banking sector is some eight or nine times larger than its gross domestic product. High interest rates beckoned scores in foreign deposits—far exceeding locally held accounts and exposing the country to the financial ills of the world at large. Kaupthing, for one, accumulated debts stemming from funding British transactions of more than $5.2 billion within five years.”

Iceland is currently in talks with the International Monetary Fund on the terms of an IMF bailout loan. The IMF is providing similar loans to several other nations that are flirting with bankruptcy, including Pakistan, Hungary and Ukraine.

Opinion & Analysis: Who are the terrorists, exactly?

Some in Britain were appalled by their government’s actions. David Vance, a self-described author and political analyst, writes on Tangled Blog that Brown’s actions, when he knew Iceland wasn’t a terrorist state, are emblematic of “this government’s attempts to marginalise our liberty in the guise of ‘fighting terrorism.’” Although it’s important to fight terrorism, Vance writes, “how can we trust a government that uses terror legislation so casually to punish Icelanders for the crime of imprudent bank practises?” 

On The Daily Telegraph’s Web site, Daniel Hannan wrote a blog post called “Gordon Brown, not Iceland, acted like a terrorist.” Brown, Hannan says, “has collapsed the economy of a Nato ally and damaged British interests into the bargain. It is he, not the Icelanders, who has failed to observe the norms of behaviour among civilised states.”

Related Topic: Gordon Brown’s popularity waning

As Britain’s new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has struggled to gain the public’s approval. But the recent economic crisis appears to have helped him somewhat.

“Mr. Brown has got his mojo back,” British paper The Independent wrote in an editorial. But, although his work during the financial crisis last month appeared to boost Brown’s ratings, other polls suggest that the approval has not extended to the rest of the Conservative Party, according to findingDulcinea.

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