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Prime Minister's Office

7th World Consular Congress

Address by the Prime Minister of Iceland Davíð Oddsson
7th World Consular Congress
Athens 24 November, 2003

It is a great pleasure and honour for me to be invited to address the 7th World Consular Congress.

Having the opportunity to meet consuls from all over the world is especially enjoyable and instructive for an Icelandic Prime Minister, because Iceland relies more on the service of consuls than most other countries.

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Denmark agreed to the declaration of Iceland as a sovereign state on the 1st of December 1918. This entailed that Iceland became a separate kingdom whereby the King of Denmark was also the King of Iceland - two crowns worn by the same monarch. As a sovereign state Iceland determined its own foreign and security policy, but for practical reasons the implementation was entrusted to the Danish foreign service and the Danish military. The 9th of April 1940 was a turning point for Icelandic foreign policy and the Icelandic foreign service. On that day German forces occupied Denmark and, consequently, the Danish government was no longer able to honour its obligations towards Iceland as far as foreign and security policy was concerned. This led to the appointment of an Icelandic Regent who assumed the role of head of state in the absence of the King and prompted the establishment of the Icelandic foreign service.

After the establishment of the Republic of Iceland in 1944, a new era of international relations began for our country in the post-war period. Iceland joined the United Nations in 1946, was a founding member of NATO in 1949, signed a bilateral defence treaty with the United States of America in 1951, joined the OECD soon afterwards and began participation in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, signed the GATT Treaty in the nineteen-sixties and joined the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1970. In 1994 Iceland became part of the European Union's single market through the treaty between EFTA and the European Community establishing the European Economic Area (EEA).

In recent decades Iceland has made enormous economic advances and now enjoys one of the highest living standards in the world. This is not least due to the fact that Iceland has always had to take part in international trade and competition in global markets. Major economic reforms have also been made in recent years to strengthen Iceland's international competitiveness.

Iceland has only 15 embassies as well as permanent delegations to NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and to international agencies in Geneva. Most of these embassies are in Europe. Although Iceland lies, geologically speaking, where the continents of Europe and America meet, the Icelanders regard themselves entirely as a European nation. This is logical in light of our history and culture, and we have greater economic and political interests in Europe than anywhere else. But we also operate embassies in the United States, Canada, Japan and China, and in Mozambique in connection with our development aid programme in southern Africa.

I consider that the next step in the development of Iceland's foreign service will be to open an embassy in one of the accession states which are now joining the European Union, where we have new trade opportunities because of the enlargement of the Community and thereby of the European Economic Area.

The importance of consuls for a small state such as Iceland is obvious, and is in fact increasing. Consulates are now maintained in more than 200 cities and towns around the world and their number has increased considerably in the last ten years. Iceland is one of several states whose honorary consuls by far outnumber its career consuls. In fact Iceland has only two consulates headed by career consuls, in Winnipeg and in New York, where the consul is also Iceland's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.

Although Iceland has a small population and is situated far away from the continents, it has flourished over the past few decades and now ranks with the most prosperous nations. And I do not hesitate to say that one of the greatest treasures that Iceland can boast is the people who have undertaken to safeguard the country's interests around the world. In more than twelve years in the office of Prime Minister of Iceland I have had the opportunity to meet many of our consuls. And I am always delighted to see what outstanding people have been appointed to handle these tasks. All their conduct is characterised by selflessness, goodwill and integrity. I expect the same is true of other consuls. They have to pass through the eye of the needle, not once but twice. They need to stand up to the scrutiny and demands of both countries and have a distinguished and flawless career behind them. You who are here today are therefore worthy representatives of the finest human values the world over. It is an obvious honour for me to be able to share your company here.

It can be argued that globalisation will eventually increase the general importance of consuls. Broadly speaking, globalisation means that what happens elsewhere has an impact where you are, and vice versa. From a historical point of view this is not a new development, but there is a great difference between the modern age and the past in this respect.

This is not least the result of rapid advances in communications and information technology, which in the long run can be expected to have a profound effect on life and society all over the world.

Many people fear that globalisation will undermine the nation state, which will gradually lose its influence in favour of multinational corporations, financial companies and non-governmental organisations. Thereby, the argument turns, this process would also diminish the supreme function and duty of states as the main entity serving the needs of citizens.

But nation states will remain individual entities within the global network, with their own rights and powers. No entities in the international system fulfil people's material and intellectual needs in the same way as states. Hence, nation states have the opportunity both to take advantage of the benefits of globalisation and to channel it in specific directions.

Another fear is that globalisation will cast nations in too uniform a mould, at the expense of cultural diversity. I do not see any particular reason for such fears. On the contrary, people may be expected to feel a greater need to belong to a group with a common heritage, purpose and values. There is nothing to suggest that a healthy nationalism will cease to be a strong force in world affairs.

Advances in communications and information technology are rapidly cutting the costs involved in geographical distance, and it is becoming much less expensive and quicker to deliver or acquire information anywhere in the world. This is no longer a privilege of only the large and the rich. Another result of globalisation is to give economic, commercial and cultural issues a more prominent place on the agenda of international affairs. This agenda has become more diverse and a growing number of bodies besides nation states and their organisations are now involved in shaping it.

All these issues open the way for contact between nations at all levels from individuals to governments, and also between nations that are very different and separated from each other in their respective parts of the world.

Consular work is therefore clearly more important now than ever before. Above all it is based on three principles: assisting the citizens of the countries that the consul represents, fostering trade contact, and taking part in strengthening cultural relations between the respective countries. With greatly increased travel, more open and growing global trade, and easier access for presenting ideas worldwide, this triple function of consuls will become even more important than ever.

And although globalisation largely has its roots in new communications and information technology, as I mentioned earlier, nothing can ever replace human contact. Yet another important quality of consuls is their unique knowledge of local conditions and their invaluable personal contacts at the local level. Usually the consuls come from the cream of their own society, distinguished, honourable and trusted people, whom it is a privilege to be able to call one's friends.

I would like to thank the Board of Directors of the Consular Corps in Greece for inviting me to join you today and for this opportunity to address your distinguished Congress.

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