Speech by the Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, 17 June 2017
Fellow Icelanders: I would like to welcome you here today, on the anniversary of the Republic of Iceland, and wish you a happy holiday.
Seventy-three years ago, in June of 1944, the year our Republic was founded, about 300 children were born in Iceland, and our average life expectancy was about 67 years. Since then, our average life expectancy has risen by a full 15 years, a remarkable change in such a short time. No matter where we look, we have taken greater strides forward than anyone could have imagined: living standards, quality of life, social welfare, health, equal rights.
In recent years, new metrics for prosperity have been developed, and steadily increasing attention is given to them in international comparison. It is an established convention to measure economic variables such as GDP per capita or output growth. Now, however, scientists are devoting increased attention to other factors that are considered better indicators of satisfaction, security, and general well-being.
By nearly all measures, Iceland ranks among the top ten countries in the world in terms of comparative quality of life.
We are among the fortunate Nordic countries that have managed to create better, more just societies than have ever existed before. Those Icelanders who were present at that historical moment when Iceland declared its independence must certainly be proud of the progress we have made.
The Republic of Iceland is a success story. That is virtually beyond doubt.
The majority of humankind has lived through bounteous times during the post-World War II period. The average person on earth has earned more than three times more income, has been nourished by about a third more calories, has lost two-thirds fewer children, and can expect to live a third longer. This average person is less likely to have died in childbirth, in an accident, in armed conflict, or from hunger or disease. The global population has more than doubled over this period. In other words, life is steadily improving for the majority of humankind.
In spite of this, the overriding political message globally is that the world is deteriorating. Why should this be? Yes, there is certainly much room for improvement, for as we make progress we are inspired to do even better. We cannot accept war. We cannot sit idly by when environmental accidents are in the offing, natural disasters destroy large areas, or leaders of questionable wisdom abuse their power and bring famine and destitution down on their people –even if such things are less common than before. We simply must never compromise in our insistence on making our world better.
We see that it is possible to improve in so many areas, and we have examples before us to prove it.
We have long compared ourselves to other Nordic countries. We share with them a strong emphasis on democracy, equal rights and equal opportunities, human rights, and international trade. Iceland and its Nordic neighbours are considered rich countries in so many ways, both economically and socially.
We all feel how important it is to us to remain an open, peaceful society where all of us have the chance to make full use of our strengths. Our societies make a concerted effort to bring about continuous improvements in metrics of general welfare and social progress.
This view and the progress that has been made is one of our most important contributions to a better world: to be a role model for other countries in reducing inequality, enhancing well-being, and thereby contributing to prosperity, progress, and peace.
The Nordic countries have also resolved to contribute actively to efforts to address climate change. After decades of discussions, an international agreement to combat climate change was finally signed in Paris. This spring, when the future of the Paris Agreement was in question, the prime ministers of the Nordic countries issued a joint statement urging the president of the United States to remain a party to the Agreement. And even though that effort did not bear fruit, I believe it is important that we join hands with our partners under the Agreement in order to further the objectives laid down in it and work tirelessly to mitigate our detrimental impact on the planet.
One of the primary duties of governmental authorities is to provide for the safety and defence of the country and its people – to ensure national security.
Defence cooperation with other Western countries is therefore very important to us, but it is also vital that we, a country without a military, can contribute internationally.
The world is faced with a variety of threats, chief among them the geopolitical uncertainty stemming partly from terrorism. In recent months, Icelanders have had to send messages of condolences to our neighbours time and time again because of horrendous acts committed in their countries. Here in Iceland, the danger level is assessed as average, which means that we cannot rule out the risk of terrorist acts from either domestic or global causes. We must ensure that Iceland does not become a breeding ground for terrorist activity. We must do everything in our power to guarantee that we can remain a peaceful nation.
What matters most to all of us is that we continue to live in a safe environment. The authorities will do everything in their power to preserve the safety of the people, respond where needed, and evaluate current conditions on a regular basis. Our police force has carried out these tasks responsibly and steadfastly, in cooperation with international institutions, and is eminently worthy of the great trust we place in it.
As always, the future is unknown. Nevertheless, we can foresee that many jobs currently carried out by people will be automated before very long. As a result, it is said that a large share of the jobs our children will have in the future do not even exist yet.
Perhaps it is best to do as little predicting as possible, though, because such forecasts may appear ridiculous to future historians if and when they read the Prime Minister's speech on Iceland's National Day in 2017.
This vision for the future is interesting, however, because new technology also brings innumerable opportunities, and we must do our best to approach these changes with an open mind. The past has been good to us, and there is no reason to be afraid. We have to make sure that our economy flourishes – because, as we have seen so clearly in the past century or so, free trade is the driver of progress – while we pursue our goal of welfare and equal opportunity for all. As before, the key is to believe in individual enterprise and to create conditions enabling more people who dare to do so to follow new paths and test the boundaries of convention.
It is extremely important that, when obsolete jobs disappear, we prepare our society and the workers who must seek new occupations as thoroughly as we possibly can. The labour market is continually evolving: jobs have fallen by the wayside and new ones have been created. When it became obvious forty years ago that the fish stocks in Icelandic waters had been overfished and that we would have to pull back, we began looking for new and successful approaches. The result was broad-based restructuring, a reduced number of jobs, wage increases, and technological developments that have boosted quality and value. Thousands of people have shifted to other jobs and created additional value for the economy, lifting it onto an even higher plane. This has been so successful that in terms of all key economic measures, we have never been stronger.
We will see vast changes in the global economy in coming years and decades. The economic axis is shifting to the east, with Asia on the rise and the power of the West diminishing. This will bring about a new world order, and it is important that we realise that these changes are imminent.
In all likelihood, the decades to come will be very exciting ones. What is most important is that we have the right attitude – that we harness these winds of change for progress and further improvements in our quality of life. The foundation for this is robust support for science, innovation, and research and development in Iceland.
We Icelanders love and honour our language. In a small linguistic area like ours, our language is of vital importance, but it is also highly vulnerable because all of our communications with the rest of the world take place in other languages. In the 18th century, Icelandic had become heavily inflected with Danish, but a “clean-up” campaign ensued and, with constant vigilance, proved successful. When foreign military forces settled here, many feared that our language would be endangered, and in the decades afterwards popular culture made an impact that many thought would corrupt the Icelandic language.
And there are still dark clouds on the horizon even today. Could it be that the helpful voice of Siri in our mobile phones, short videos on YouTube, and computer games have an even more profound effect than television broadcasts from the base in Keflavík, the Beatles, and the video revolution had in their day?
Continuously evolving technology is particularly appealing to children and young people, and it is inseparably linked to foreign languages.
English has become the professional language in a large number of disciplines and is therefore part of many people's day-to-day work. We must find ways to live with these developments.
I consider awareness of the danger to be of key importance – not fear of foreign languages or influence, but awareness that Icelandic is that “small flower of eternity” that we must nurture and protect. It is not a given that it will survive without care and cultivation.
The Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages opened its doors this spring, its name honouring our former president, who awed her fellow Icelanders with her gift for learning foreign languages. Vigdís has always stressed the importance of linguistic foundations – of knowing one's native language well – or, as she said in an interview with Morgunblaðið ten years ago: “The language one grows up with gives one the words and the eyes with which to view the world, but what one knows in foreign languages is always limited. “
We must think in Icelandic. We must embrace the challenge of having our own language and using it in everything that we do, and we must be untiring in creating new Icelandic words or revitalising older ones for new concepts and technologies. Icelandic must be a viable option in the tech world, and we must build up infrastructure and promote innovation in language technology, as is emphasised in the report and action plan from the committee on language technology, which the Minister of Education, Science, and Culture will introduce next week. The authors of the report stress that in view of the ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence and language technology, it is vital that the language tech plan for Icelandic be implemented as soon as possible. This way, we can participate in development and have the opportunity to use our own language, Icelandic, in the technology of the future.
In 2018, on the 100th anniversary of Iceland's sovereignty, the construction of Icelandic House will commence. I am certain that the activities taking place there will be a boon for the field of Icelandic studies and a potent element of our campaign to guarantee the growth and success of the Icelandic language.
But despite the authorities' willingness to construct buildings and make plans, this work – cultivating and nurturing our language – takes place mainly in our day-to-day interactions. To this end, we should enjoy having wide-ranging conversations with our children, using turns of phrase that expand and enrich their vocabulary, and get them to join us in keeping the Icelandic language alive and well. It is our responsibility, each and every one of us, to pass this part of our national heritage on to coming generations.
I wish all of you a happy holiday.