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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Foreign Policy Address to the Althing

Foreign Policy Address to the Althing, November 2, 1999
Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs


Mr. Speaker

The scope of activities in international co-operation is increasing at greater speed than ever before. This fact means that we Icelanders have to devote more attention to international co-operation than ever before. Globalisation is not passing us by; it is a process in which we are active participants and in which we want to be active participants. The ventures of Icelandic business enterprises into the foreign markets and their investments abroad illustrate the changed environment. The entire world is within the sphere of activities of Icelandic companies, and Iceland is no longer an island in the sense of being an isolated country. Iceland is in the mid-stream of international trends, which are the prerequisites for progress, just as the ocean currents render our country inhabitable.

The number of international meetings which concern Icelandic interests is constantly growing, and ignoring them is not an option for Iceland. No one will guard our interests except ourselves. Participating in this co-operation involves a great deal of work and a great deal of expense, and in this work the Foreign Ministry has a leading role to play. However, international co-operation increasingly touches on the scope of activities of various other ministries, as indeed it touches virtually all aspects of society. This makes the co-operation more complex and more political in nature and calls for the involvement of all ministries concernced with specialised fields. Subjects such as the environment and natural resources increasingly concern, directly and indirectly, the national interests and national security.

The globalisation process will continue, and with it our traditional international co-operation will grow in importance, for example within the United Nations, NATO, Europe and the Nordic collaboration.

Obviously, in a speech of this nature time will not permit me to cover all aspects of foreign affairs. I have therefore decided to distribute a report on foreign affairs with my speech next spring in the year 2000, as was done on 4 November 1997.

Enlargement of the EU
The proposed enlargement of the European Union is the most important issue in the area of European affairs. All the work of the Union is affected by this issue, and the enlargement process will also affect the EFTA states which are not involved in the process, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The Commission of the European Union has proposed that no distinction should be made between the six countries with which formal negotiations have begun and the other six which have been waiting on the sidelines. It is foreseeable that at the Helsinki Summit the decision will be made to conduct parallel negotiations with all twelve countries and at the same time strengthen relations with Turkey without formal negotiations.

The optimistic plans of some states for membership of the European Union as early as 2002-2003 are unrealistic. It will hardly be until the end of next year that it will become clear when the first states will be admitted. In addition, it is worth mentioning that the EU itself will have to make up its mind what changes will be needed in the infrastructure of the Union before the enlargement can proceed. An intergovernmental conference on this subject will begin next year. Although there are plans to conclude the conference before the end of next year, this is by no means certain. However, the time is ripe for us to prepare for relations with a much larger European Union.

There are further changes ahead which will affect the position of nations engaging in extensive co-operation with the European Union. Among other things, the single currency, the Euro, will be fully implemented in the year 2002. Although Iceland has never applied for membership to the Union, and no such application is in preparation, membership has never been dismissed. The decisions of our partners in EFTA in the next few years will have an effect on this position. I have therefore decided to commission a neutral study on the work of the European Union, item by item. In the study it will be possible to analyse what Iceland's position would be without any agreements, then the benefits of the EEA Agreement, Schengen and other agreements for Iceland, and finally what the direct effects would be if Iceland were to become a member state. I hope to be able to submit the report to the Government early next year. It is not the intention to make direct proposals, but to clarify our position in changed circumstances. A study of this kind should create a basis for enlightened discussion in the coming years.

2. The EEA Agreement
Implementation of the EEA Agreement has been successful, and in fact more successful than many people dared to hope when the number of EFTA countries was reduced. The weak position of the Commission of the European Union has proven a great disadvantage, as the Commission is the intermediary of the EEA/EFTA countries regarding all affairs covered by the Agreement since we do not have access to the political forum of the Member States of the Union. In cases where there has been reason to change the decisions of the European Union or adapt such decisions to conditions in Iceland before they are integrated into the EEA Agreement, Iceland has often had to fight an uphill battle. This is offset by the fact, however, that it has been easier for us to present our views in the technical preparations of the initial stages.

Discussions have been initiated with the Commission on Protocol 9, where claims submitted regarding improved market access for fish products have met with a rather negative response. Attempts will be made to take the matter further. Discussions have also been held with the EU regarding tariff reductions on Icelandic horses. Results will depend on whether it will be possible to prepare a counter-offer regarding tariff reductions for EU products on the Icelandic market. Discussions on Protocol 3 regarding processed agricultural products, which had not been concluded, are now in the final stages and the Protocol should take effect next year.

On the basis of the Schengen Agreement between Iceland, Norway and the European Union, the two non-member states have been given the opportunity to participate in the discussions and work of the Member States of the European Union regarding border control and related affairs. Defining precisely where and when Iceland and Norway should have access on the basis of the Agreement has proven a complex task and several issues of contention have come up. On the whole, however, the work has progressed well.

3. European Security and Defence
If we look back on our Security and Defence we are led to the following conclusion: Iceland's membership of NATO and its defence agreement with the United States have, over the past five decades, ensured the peace of the country and the nation. The changes that have taken place in security matters in the course of this decade do not release the government from its duty of securing national defence, nor do they give occasion to abandon the cornerstones of Icelandic defence policies. The security environment in our region of the world is still in a formation stage. The policy of the Icelandic government is to participate fully in the formation of this environment and to shoulder the responsibility this entails through active participation in the international defence and security co-operation. As revealed in the report of the Foreign Ministry on the security and defence of Iceland at the turn of the century, the policy of the government is to make Iceland's participation in the defence of the country more active. The first steps in this direction have already been taken. The measures taken include the construction of a 3000 ton coast guard vessel which, apart from traditional patrolling of territorial waters, will participate in exercises and marine surveillance in co-operation with the defence force in Iceland. Iceland's participation in the Defence Exercise Northern Viking has been strengthened. The role of the Foreign Ministry and the Coast Guard is more extensive than before, and the bomb disposal unit of the Coast Guard participated in the exercise for the first time. The Viking Unit of the State Police Force was also directly involved in Northern Viking for the first time. Next summer, the Civil Defence, Exercise Co-operative Safeguard, will be held again in Iceland for the second time under the auspices of the Partnership for Peace. The focus of the exercise will be on rescue at sea.

In the effort to promote enlightened debate in this country on defence, a Conference on the Future of Defence in the North Atlantic will be held next fall, hosted by the Foreign Ministry and the NATO Supreme Allied Command, Atlantic.

4. The Western European Union, the European Union and NATO
The taking of effect of the Amsterdam Treaty next May will transform the security and defence of Europe in the next few years. The widening of the scope of the provisions of the Treaty on the new security organisations of the EU will be discussed within the EU in the coming weeks. The assumption is that the relevant decisions will be made at the EU Summit in Helsinki in December. The aim of the European Union is to strengthen the common foreign and security policy in such a way that a common defence policy is formulated simultaneously, and for this purpose the Western European Union (WEU), or certain tasks of the WEU, will be integrated into the European Union. The implementation of these provisions of the Treaty began at the EU Summit in Cologne in early June, where the foundation was laid for the establishment of a special Security Committee and Military Committee. The course of events in former Yugoslavia, most recently in Kosovo, has revealed the discrepancy between the defence capability of the European states, including the combined contributions to defence, and their ability to take independent action when necessary. At the same time, attention has been focused on the large share of the burden borne by the United States in the action taken in former Yugoslavia. The attempt to effect changes is not only geared toward strengthening the common foreign and defence policy of the European Union: it also illustrates the will to correct the discrepancy.

Parallel with these developments within the European Union, individual member states have submitted proposals on how the European States can be enabled to take increased responsibility for their security and defence. Within NATO, the decision has been made to reinforce further the European security and defence co-operation, i.a. in support of possible action taken by the European Union. Although the leaders of the European Union set themselves the task in Cologne of making decisions on the transfer of certain tasks of the WEU to the EU before the end of the year 2000, there is still great uncertainty regarding how and when the policy of the EU will be formalised. This uncertainty has in some ways caused difficulties in the implementation of undertakings regarding the support of NATO. As the current situation is, there are no formal relations between the Alliance on the one hand and the EU on the other. Based on the current prospects, the associate member states of the WEU will lose their earned rights without any concessions being made in return.

It is uncertain whether the leaders of the European Union will succeed in Helsinki in discussing the participation rights of other states in the work of the new security institutions. On the other hand, it is desirable that any decisions on such institutions will from the start entail provisions on participation rights. This would ensure direct participation without curtailment of the independent decision making powers of the EU. Through a system resembling the associate membership to the WEU, the EU could promote an extensive consensus on the European security and defence policy, including support for the legitimacy of any action that needs to be taken. Also, participation rights of European member states outside the Union would facilitate all co-operation between NATO and the European Union and prevent an unacceptable division into camps within the Alliance.

For the above reasons, the relevant Icelandic embassies in the member states of the EU have been instructed to present the viewpoints of the Icelandic government once more before the Summit Meeting in Helsinki. The foreign ministers of the associate member states of the Western European Union have been invited to an informal meeting with their colleagues from the EU states within the next few days. Our viewpoints reflect our will to preserve Icelandic interests. Iceland is a European state which has contributed to the common security and defence of the continent for over half a century and deserves a seat at the table where discussions are held on the long-term security and defence of Europe. This does not mean that the common defence commitments of NATO are less important than before; on the contrary, this is the way to preserve and strengthen the transatlantic link.

It is a widespread opinion that it would be desirable maintain a balance between the enlargement of NATO and the European Union. Although this has not been the case, it is possible that the formulation of a new common defence and security policy within the European Union could have an effect on the enlargement process of both organisations. As before, we will emphasise the inclusion of the three Baltic States among the states that are invited to join in the next round.

There is little doubt that the NATO Summit in Washington is among the most important events in security and defence that has taken place since foreign affairs were last discussed here in the Althing. The meeting illustrated the unbroken unity of the member states and partnership states when the measures of the Alliance against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were at their peak; the revised security policy of the Alliance was approved at the dawn of the new century; the enlargement process of the Alliance was confirmed through decisions on practical preparations for applicant states; also, concessions were made to the European Union regarding European defence and security.

5. Nordic Co-operation and Neighbouring Regions
Iceland leads the work in the Nordic co-operation this year. Holding the chair of the Nordic co-operation gives us a welcome opportunity to exert increased influence. We have held ministerial meetings and meetings of government officials. In connection with these meetings we have been visited by numerous people, and such visits serve to strengthen the ties of friendship.

We have hosted two meetings of Nordic Foreign Ministers. One of these meetings was held at Egilsstaðir and included ministers from the Baltic States and Canada. The participation of the guests reflects the co-operation that the Nordic co-operation has engendered. The Baltic Council, the Barents Council and the Arctic Council are rooted in this co-operation.

The Northern Dimension of the European Union has in recent months been prominent in the discussions on the activities of the Barents Council and the Baltic Council, as clearly the points of emphasis are similar. It is a matter of great satisfaction that the EU should offer countries in the northern region which are not member states to participate in the formulation of the policy on the northern dimension. A special ministerial meeting is planned in Finland on the twelfth of this month.

The Barents Council and the Baltic Council will no doubt be able to assist the European Union in implementing its policy on the Northern Dimension. The same is true of the Arctic Council. The activities of the Arctic Council in environmental issues ? previously known as the Rovenimeni Process ? are extensive and detailed. It also deserves mention that the Transatlantic Link which result from the participation of the United States and Canada in the Arctic Council must have a great influence from a political point of view. For us it is a favourable course to establish a connection between the Arctic Council and the Northern Dimension of the EU.

The Nordic countries enjoy a strong position in Europe. In the course of this year they have led three important European institutions. Iceland has led the Council of Europe; Norway leads the OSCE and Finland leads the European Union. We have utilised this position with the support of Denmark and Sweden, and this has been a unique opportunity to influence the course of affairs in Europe.

It is Iceland's desire to strengthen the multilateral relations with Russia. Co-operation with Russia has become a fixture of the regional co-operation of the Nordic countries within the three councils that I mentioned before. Russia has also been invited to participate in the meetings of the Nordic countries and the Baltic States, e.g. the meetings of foreign ministers and defence ministers. At a recent meeting of the foreign ministers of the Nordic countries and Germany in Berlin, emphasis was placed on the importance of this regional co-operation, in particular as regards Russia.

6. The Council of Europe
The six-month presidency of Iceland in the Ministerial Committee of the Council of Europe will be coming to an end soon. I would like to offer my special thanks to the members of parliament and the media for the interest that they have shown this work. One of the duties of the state holding the presidency is to assume the leadership in the affairs of the Council and to represent the Council vis-à-vis states and institutions. For this reason I visited Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Ukraine and participated in the Sarajevo Conference on a stability convention for South-eastern Europe.

The budget of the Council has not increased in real terms in recent years. It is clear, however, that the Court of Human Rights requires increased funding to deal with the cases awaiting resolution. The number of cases is growing as a result of new member states and the fact that the member states are more aware than before of the existence of the Court and the commitments of the member states pursuant to the Human Rights Convention. During the term of our presidency, attempts have been made to find a solution to this problem. I am optimistic that a solution will be found.

7. The Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe
The Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are to some extent working on the same tasks in the area of human rights, but in addition, the OSCE is involved in a number of other matters. It is important to avoid duplication of effort in the work of these institutions.

Soon, the European Union will begin work on a new European Union Convention on Human Rights This Convention should not weaken the work of the Council of Europe and the OSCE regarding human rights. The European Court of Human Rights will continue to fulfil its role and ensure legislative unity regarding the foundation of human rights on the Continent. I emphasised this point particularly in the consensus meetings of the Council of Europe and the European Union last October.

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the Helsinki Convention was approved and a foundation laid for the activities of the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE). The work of the Organisation has since multiplied, as it extends to security in its widest sense: human rights, disarmament, military action, culture and economic and environmental affairs.

In two weeks, the OSCE Summit will be held in Istanbul, and there are hopes that it will be possible to approve three instruments which will reinforce conflict prevention and the role of the Organisation in bringing about peace and reinforcing stability on the continent. The OSCE is the only organisation of which all the states of Europe and North American countries are members.

I have said before, here in the Althing, that it is necessary to monitor closely the environmental debate in progress within the United Nations. This debate encompasses the utilisation of natural resources, including the Oceans, but no distinction is made between environmental issues, on the one hand, and natural resources, on the other.

The UN Committee on Sustainable Development came together last spring and among the topics of debate were the oceans. Iceland participated in the debate and staged a successful promotion of the Icelandic fisheries control system and the position of Icelandic fisheries companies regarding environmental affairs. In the wake of the meeting the decision was made that Iceland should become a candidate for membership of the committee next year.

At the beginning of the 54th General Assembly of the United Nations, which is currently in progress, Mr. Kofi Annan drew attention to the necessity of reaching a consensus on how and when the international community could intervene in conflicts occurring within the borders of sovereign nations. This is an urgent matter in light of the fact that most serious conflicts take place between conflicting parties within individual states rather than between states. Not only are civilians the main victims of armed conflicts, the violence is often directed against them. The right of sovereignty is one of the principles of international law, and the right must be respected accordingly. However, it is clear that the principles of international law regarding human rights are also inviolable and universal. These principles can come into violent conflict with one another, as we saw in Kosovo.

We cannot stand idly by when criminal acts such as genocide are being committed. It is unacceptable that the Security Council of the United Nations cannot reach a consensus on decisions regarding the resolution of such matters. The Nordic Countries have participated actively in discussions on reforming the organisation and composition of the Security Council, but unfortunately without success. The timely initiative of Mr. Kofi Annan in this matter must be followed up and a consensus reached. A consensus on the intervention rights of the international community on the basis of human rights and humanitarian law is crucial to the future of the United Nations which are principally responsible for maintaining world peace and security. The organisation must adapt to the changed environment and establish a policy on how it intends to confront conflict where civilians do not enjoy the protection of their own government and instead face persecution and death. It is important to bear in mind how to strengthen the preventive role of the organisation, which Mr. Annan has made a priority issue.

Systematic work has been in progress over the past months on strengthening the co-operation of Iceland with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. The diverse activities of the Organisation in the area of agriculture and fisheries are important to Iceland. This includes the discussions on the special status of agriculture in world trade and the rational utilisation of marine resources on the basis of effective fisheries control.

In further support of these interests, Iceland is now for the first time making a bid to represent the Nordic countries in the Executive Committee of FAO. In the next few days, members will be selected to serve on the Committee for a term of three years. In connection with the prospective membership of the Executive Committee, the decision has been made to appoint a special delegate to work in Rome.

Furthermore, the Government, in co-operation with FAO, is preparing to host a conference on sustainable fisheries in Iceland in the year 2001. An attempt will be made to discuss most aspects of fisheries and their role in the food supply of Mankind and their impact on the ecological system of the Earth. The result of the conference could be a declaration setting a precedent which would firmly support the viewpoints that Iceland has maintained.

At this time, the fifth conference of the member states of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is in progress in Bonn. Among the subjects of discussion are the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol and preparations to enable the sixth conference of member states, scheduled for 2001, to approve rules on trade in emission quotas and other aspects of the so-called flexibility provisions.

Our goal in the current meetings is to gain recognition of the fact that the technical discussion of the Icelandic proposal has been concluded so that a decision can be taken in the matter at the next conference of member states. The proposal is meant to ensure that we can continue to utilise our clean renewable sources of energy and thereby contribute to a more hospitable climate on Earth.

179 states have ratified the UN Convention on Climate Change, which took effect in March of 1995. To this date, 84 states have signed the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, but only 16 have ratified it. No OECD state has ratified the Protocol and none of the states that have undertaken commitments under the Kyoto Protocol have plans to ratify it while there is uncertainty about the implementation of the flexibility provisions, compliance and sanctions for violation of the Protocol.

The year 1999 is the first year that the decision of the government to increase funding for the Icelandic Development Agency is implemented. The increase between the years 1998 and 1999 was ISK 57 million and another increase of ISK 60 million is foreseen in the budget for 2000. There are plans for increased activities in the health and social sectors and increased co-operation with non-governmental organisations.

Despite the fact that a substantial increase has been made to bilateral assistance to developing countries, i.e. the projects of the Icelandic Development Agency, almost a tripling of contributions in the years 1998-2000, Iceland still lags behind its neighbouring states in its contributions to development.

It is extremely important to relieve the debt of the poorest countries of the world and the effort to do so (HIPC) was the main topic of discussion at the Annual Meeting of the World Bank last autumn. The Icelandic Government has decided to participate fully in the effort, as have the other Nordic countries. Many of the poorest countries of the world are trapped in the vicious cycle of debt and interest payments with which they have been unable to cope. The objective of the effort is to break this vicious cycle. I have hopes that the effort will not only help poor people to fend for themselves but also act as a catalyst to world trade. Our contribution to the effort will amount to approximately ISK 200 million, which will be largely channelled through the World Bank over a period of a few years.

In the policy declaration of the government last spring a clear will was expressed to continue to increase the diversity of the economy and the export sector. Our valuable expertise has excellent potential in the world if it receives support. This was the idea behind the appointment of business specialists in the embassies in our most important markets. Their work has already returned tangible results.

Emphasis has been placed on co-ordinating the work of the government in institutions responsible for international promotion and marketing activities for the Icelandic industries. An effort has been made to promote consultations among the employees of the institutions engaged in such activities. The results of this effort were apparent, for instance, in the joint participation of the Overseas Business Service of the Foreign Ministry and the Export Council in the Icelandic Fisheries Exhibition last September, and the co-operation of the Trade Service and the Tourist Council in promotional work in the United States. Through a co-operation contract with the Institute of Regional Development, an attempt has been made to ensure that services to exporters extend also to businesses in rural areas.

The competition for people's attention is growing fiercer all the time. The Overseas Business Service of the Foreign Ministry and the Tourist Council co-operated on a poll in the United States which revealed that Iceland was virtually a tabula rasa in the minds of Americans. These are unplowed fields in the promotion of our country. It has now been decided to link the words Iceland and Nature under the trade mark Iceland Naturally and an annual funding of ISK 70 million will be used to promote this concept. Icelandic companies in the United States will also contribute substantial amounts of money.

It is assumed that a new round of negotiations will be launched at the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle next 30 November ? 3 December. The most important tasks of the upcoming negotiations will be the review of the agreement on agriculture and negotiations of free trade in services. Other prospective tasks include copyrights and intellectual property rights and the reduction of tariffs on industrial products and fish products.

On the part of several member states of the WTO, including Iceland, emphasis has been placed on including trade and the environment in the next round of negotiations. Those discussions could prove among the most important for us. The discussions will include sustainable development and the rational utilisation of natural resources. Opportunities to influence the course of events could arise as a result of our experience in the protection, renewal and utilisation of marine resources. We have emphasised that the discussions should lead to some sort of agreement in this area. In the preparation for the ministerial meeting in Seattle, we have taken the position that such an agreement should contain provisions on the discontinuation of government subsidies in fisheries. We have pointed out that government subsidies can have an anti-competitive effect and promote overexploitation. Iceland's ideas have received widespread support.

The importance of the unselfish work of the Icelandic consuls abroad can hardly be overestimated. Their existence and their activities are important for the understaffed Foreign Service and it is important to promote the relations of the Foreign Ministry and our 215 honorary consuls. It is important to increase the contact of the consults with Iceland. For this reason, preparations are currently under way for the fifth Conference of Consuls which will be held in Iceland in the year 2001.

The Icelandic Foreign Service celebrates its 60th Anniversary next April 10th. The Ministry is currently working on proposals on how to commemorate this event. I would like to use the occasion to inform people about the role of the Foreign Service and the interests it is intended to protect.

The Government has decided to use the millennium in various ways. This applies, for instance, to Iceland's participation in EXPO 2000 in Hanover in Germany, which is one of our most important trading partners. Icelandic affairs are favourably received in that country. The theme of the exposition, which centers on Man, Technology and Nature is especially well suited to the image of Iceland. Icelandic know-how will come into its own in the setting of the Exposition. Icelanders will also richly celebrate the millennium in the Western World, and commemorate two events in particular: the discovery of the Western World and the adoption of Christianity in Iceland. The Foreign Service has assisted in the numerous events planned in Canada and the United States by the Millennium Commission of Iceland. This is one of our most ambitious projects ever as regards the promotion of our country, and at the same time emphasis is placed on strengthening our ties with the descendants of Iceland in North America.

Iceland will remain in the mainstream of the international community if we so wish ourselves. But we can also become isolated if we are not alert.

A progressive foreign policy is one of the mainstays of prosperity and progress. We must not allow narrow-mindedness and fear of participation in international co-operation to govern our actions.

Boldness and open-mindedness have traditionally characterised the foreign policy of Iceland. If this spirit is allowed to dominate in the formation of our policy for the near future, we will fare well.


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