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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Opening Address at the conference Brexit - Looking Forward

Opening Address by H.E. Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson,
Minister for Foreign Affairs
at the conference Brexit - Looking Forward
Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, 29 August 2019

I would like to offer a warm welcome to everyone, especially those travelling from abroad. We are very pleased to have such an impressive group of experts on Brexit gathered here in Iceland.

Iceland is a great place to discuss Brexit. We can say that we are in a neutral middle ground, namely the part of the European Economic Area outside the European Union.

Through the EEA Agreement, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are able to trade freely on the internal market and participate in other areas of mutually beneficial cooperation. 

This year, the 25th anniversary of the EEA Agreement has given us an opportunity to look back and see how the agreement has worked for us, here in Iceland. While the EEA is not perfect, it strikes a balance for Icelanders who in general do not want to join the EU but at the same time seek close cooperation with the EU member states. 

For Iceland, it has brought opportunities and fostered prosperity without us having to join policies of the EU which do not suit our economy or approach, like the common agricultural and fisheries policies. The EFTA States are also free to make free trade agreements with whom they wish and have actually been very successful in that regard.

To me, this freedom to trade lies at the heart of Brexit. I have been following UK politics closely for decades and the origins of Brexit lie in their quest for more freedom, not less. We all know that when it came to the Brexit campaign and the referendum, less liberal policies got in the mix and had a great impact on the outcome. But we should keep in mind, where the idea of Brexit comes from.

I have often been asked if Iceland would welcome the UK into the EEA and I have remained open to exploring that option. While it seems that this option is off the table, the EEA Agreement at least offers some important insights into the debate, given its success and longevity. And I think we can all agree that practical solutions are what we need right now. 

The reality is that, unless something unexpected happens, the UK will leave the EU in two months. Whether there is a deal or a no deal, the future relationship between the UK and the EU will need to be negotiated. And it’s important to get that right. There is a lot at stake not just for the UK and the EU but for other close partners and friends, such as Iceland.

I’m an optimist at heart. I think it’s possible for the UK and the EU to build a new mutually beneficial partnership. And that, my friends, is why you are here today. To explore possible solutions to this important challenge. 

We are all extremely lucky in that we live in times of peace and prosperity. European countries are close friends and trading partners today and it is easy to forget that wasn’t always the case. The EU has played a significant role in this vital development and I respect and acknowledge that. 

That being said, a membership of the EU is not right for everyone. We should be able to find ways to allow trade, cooperation and friendship to continue without everyone having to fit into the same mould. 

I know it is difficult to detangle a relationship which has been developing along a certain path for almost half a century. This has never been done before. I am convinced it can work especially if negotiators on both sides show creativity, flexibility and good will towards each other. 

People often talk about Brexit as a divorce. That automatically conjures up feelings of animosity and dispute, which can cloud our judgement. At this hour, it is important for all involved to remember the strong bonds that tie us together and the advantages that a good solution would generate. 

Those who know me know that I’m a big football fan so I´d prefer to use a football analogy instead. We have national leagues and we have the World Cup. Brexit must drive us to work together for common solution, much like a national team where rivals become allies. We must be resourceful enough to find a way to play together to achieve optimal results. 

In a time where free trade and liberal values like human rights and democracy is under threat, it is imperative that like-minded states stand united to defend our common values. So, let’s play some beautiful, dynamic and fast-paced football to ensure that we “never walk alone”.

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