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Prime Minister's Office

Dinner for Diplomats - March 2005

Mr. President, Madame Moussaieff. Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to start by thanking the president and his wife for inviting us to Bessastadir this evening, and for their excellent hospitality and splendid dinner.

“Iceland is a small island far away from other countries” was a notion I, and my generation, grew up believing in and which shaped the way we perceived the world around us. We were also accustomed to thinking that Icelanders in the Middle Ages lived in great isolation and in the long and dark winter nights the sagas were told and later written down. From isolation and poverty sprang our greatest heritage, the Eddas and Sagas.

However, recently, Helgi Guðmundsson professor of linguistics has challenged the way we usually think about our history. His theory, simply put, is that Iceland was an important trade route for luxury goods, not the least from Greenland, such as walrus ivory. This makes sense, reflecting on European history; art and science, as they usually flourished at times when great wealth accumulated, such as in Florence and in the golden age of the great Dutch painters. It is also widely accepted, that having books written was extremely costly in the 12th century, as must have been the case in Iceland where the most powerful chieftains were busy commissioning the lavishly decorated manuscripts of the Sagas.  Culture can only flourish in societies that are prosperous and they become prosperous by being open to trade with other countries and peoples. To mount voyages of exploration to North America as early as the Vikings did you would have needed considerable wealth and vision. (And probably also a healthy portion of foolhardiness and a great belief in luck - maybe hence the famous nickname of Leif the lucky!)

In short, Iceland’s history shows that the country has flourished in times of trade when the country was open to the outside world and its possibilities.

A comparison can be made with today’s Iceland where the trade flourishes, not only with our nearest neighbours but also with the world at large. The spirit in which our new generation of investors perceives the world now, is in a sense comparable only to the spirit and sense of adventure that Icelanders had in the Viking Age. And like the Vikings, they may not all be welcomed at first!

Globalisation has made our world more free but more complicated at the same time. International crimes, human trafficking, smuggling of arms and narcotics, and not the least the threat of international terrorism have changed our lives.  The vicious attacks on the United States on 9/11 and the atrocities in Moscow and Beslan have shocked us. Furthermore, a year ago today, 11 March, terrorist bombs shook Madrid killing almost 200 and injuring nearly 2000 innocent people. “Democracy for a safer world” is the main theme of the Madrid conference, which was concluded today and cumulated in a commemorating march through the city.  “Democracy” was also very much the essence of the NATO Summit I attended in Brussels recently.

At the Summit, efforts were made to iron out trans-Atlantic differences. And at times we Icelanders do indeed think that we are somewhat well poised to observe such diplomatic endeavours, from a rather neutral angle given our geographic and perhaps political position out here in the North Atlantic!
I think most will agree that George Bush’s visit to Europe and his outreach there was a success. I believe NATO is stronger after the meeting. But I also note that there were a few representatives left in the NATO HQ when the convoys left for downtown Brussels.  The issues on the agenda of the bilateral meeting of the US and the EU were security issues. This is something that in my view undermines NATO – the Alliance.  I therefore stressed at the Summit, that all security issues of common interest and concern to NATO nations, Europe and the US and Canada, should be dealt with within the Alliance and not in any other partly overlapping fora. 

Few issues seem to evoke as much reaction and emotion as the mere mention of a membership of the European Union in Iceland. It is the policy of the Government to closely follow developments in Europe and to consider how these can affect our interests. This is the task of the committee on Iceland and Europe that the Prime Minister appointed last August. Here I believe Iceland has to take into account a few possible scenarios. I fear that the EEA agreement will eventually cease to exist in its present form. This will most certainly be the case if either Norway or Iceland joins the EU.  Having said that, the European Union has changed. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister and I, only last week, discussed the decision of his Government to hold a referendum on the new EU constitution in September. Denmark has been a rather sceptical member of the Union with the Danish people voting down the Maastricht treaty and the Euro. The Swedish people have not opted for the Euro as a few other member states. Despite calls from some parts of Europe for speeding up deeper integration, there are other views being aired as well.

Whatever will be the outcome of the work we all face ahead, what is most important is that we make choices before we are left with options created by outside circumstances. Thus we intend to shape our own vision, in a modern more peaceful Viking spirit.

I started off with by mentioning the theory that Icelanders brought valuable goods from Greenland to Europe. The theory claims that this can also explain why foreign kings and earls their courts endured the reciting by Icelandic poets of endless poems of heroic tales that no one really understood. The treasures that came with it were what mattered. I  will not make you endure my speech any longer, we are here to enjoy the dinner and each other’s company.

Mr. President, Dorrit, I speak on behalf of all of us here when I once again thank you for this delightful evening. Ladies and Gentlemen, I ask you to rise from your seats and drink to our hosts.

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