Who Owns Iceland?

One of the last European territories to be permanently settled, Iceland has changed hands many times in its eventful history.

From the Vikings to Norwegian and Danish monarchs, many rulers have claimed the island nation for their own. But who owns the country today?

Nobody owns Iceland. The country is a sovereign republic with an elected government that answers to Icelandic citizens.

While the Icelandic government, Icelandic citizens, and foreign nationals can own property in Iceland, no single entity owns the country. 

This article describes how the Icelandic government works and explains why no one can claim to own Iceland. It also provides a brief outline of Icelandic history leading up to the present. 

Also, see 5 Places to Stay in Iceland to learn more.

How Iceland’s Government Works

Iceland is a multi-party democracy. [1] Executive power in the country, which is the authority to enforce laws, lies with a government headed by a Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister is chosen by the largest party or coalition of parties in the 63-member Icelandic parliament, the Althingi

A council of ministers helps the Prime Minster govern.

Representatives to the Althingi are elected every four years and make up the legislative wing of government, drawing up policy and law.

The country also has a head of state, the President, who is elected directly by the people every four years, much like the democracy of the United States. 

An independent judiciary checks the powers of the legislature and the executive branches of government. 

The Supreme Court of Iceland sits atop this judicial structure. 

The elected government of Iceland operates within a culture defined by a long history of both private property ownership and access to public commons.

This means that while Icelanders can own private property, many areas of the country are accessible to all people, including foreigners. 

Why Sovereignty Does Not Imply Ownership 

As a country governed by representatives of its people, Iceland is a sovereign republic.

However, this doesn’t imply that the government of Iceland owns Iceland. It’s merely the custodian of the executive power of the nation. 

Theoretically, the government of the day could use its executive power to seize control of Icelandic territory.

But, in practice, there are limits to its power as property and sovereignty are not analogous concepts. [2] 

Property owners can choose to do as they please with their possessions within the limits of the law.

However, a government makes the law but is also bound by it, which means that it cannot seize control of the territory if the laws prevent it.

Elected representatives are also governed by the will of the people, which they defy at the risk of being ejected from power at the next election.

Appropriating all national assets is likely to be met with resistance from the population of a democratic nation used to private property ownership. 

Alternatively, it could be said the people of Iceland own Iceland. 

In practical terms, this only means that they have the same rights as all other Icelanders.

While no individual can claim to own Iceland, to say that the country belongs to its citizens is an abstract statement with limited practical applicability.

Protected Territories in Iceland

Besides the government, both Icelandic citizens and foreigners can own private property in Iceland. [3] 

However, the government is a significant landowner.

Because of the unique features of Icelandic geography, it has historically acted as a custodian of the country’s territorial resources by incorporating them into national parks and other protected areas. 

To do so, it has needed to make these areas unavailable for citizens to own.

Iceland’s landscape includes active volcanoes, geothermal hot springs, and glaciers.

And Icelandic wetlands and forests support many rare species of wildlife, including many mass-nesting birds found only in the far north. 

In all, as much as 25% of Iceland consists of such territories, with some areas off-limits to the public.

The government has decided that this is the only way to protect fragile ecosystems and endangered species. 

However, many of these sites are accessible to the public. 

In acting as a caretaker for these national treasures, the Icelandic national government safeguards the wealth of the Icelandic people.

It protects vulnerable environments and species and makes encounters with others available to not just all Icelanders but also to many other people from around the world.

The History of the Icelandic Government

It is widely believed that Iceland’s Althingi is the oldest existing parliament on earth. [4]

Over the years, its power has waxed and waned, as the island was first taken over by the Norwegians and then the Danes.

Today, it continues to make laws that govern Iceland.

The Settlement of Iceland

Iceland was first settled by Norwegian Vikings sometime between 870 and 930 CE.

While other explorers may well have landed on its shores, they did not establish a permanent home here.

Today, many Icelanders trace their ancestry to the early Norse settlers of the region. 

The original Althingi, an open-air amphitheater where early Viking chieftains assembled to make decisions, can still be seen at Thingvellir National Park today.

The democratic tradition it seeded continues to thrive.

Norwegian and Danish Rule

When King Hakan Hakonarson ascended to the throne in 1262, the Viking Era ended. [5] After this, Norwegian monarchs ruled the country for over 500 years.

However, the Althingi retained significant powers to make local laws throughout this era.

Then, in 1814, Norway broke away from Denmark, and the Danes took over Iceland. 

They continued to rule it for over 100 years before Kristján X withdrew as the last king of Iceland in 1944.

Danish rule offered the Althingi less leeway than earlier, contributing to the emergence of Iceland as a sovereign republic. [6]

Sovereignty and Independence 

Although Icelanders celebrate Independence Day on June 17, a more accurate date would be December 1, now celebrated unofficially as Sovereignty Day. [7]

On this day in 1918, Iceland obtained independence from Denmark. 

However, Iceland continued to be in a personal union with the Danes until 1944, accepting the sovereignty of the Danish king.

Finally, on June 17, 1944, Iceland became a republic.

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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