Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Impact of International Co-Operation on Sovereignty

The University of Iceland, 15 January 2002
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Halldor Asgrimsson
[unofficial translation]

The concepts "sovereignty", "freedom", and "independence" are among the most important, and at the same time most sensitive concepts of public discourse. Many people have laboured under the delusion that their meaning is simply not to be dependent on others. However, any discussion of these concepts must take into account the changes in progress all around us. We cannot use them as if they were creations of our own minds, independent of the reality in which we live.

Bjartur í Sumarhúsum [a character in Halldór Laxness' novel, Independent People] lived in a world of his own, encapsulated in his following comments:

"You can take my word for it; having your freedom is worth more than having a high roof over your head" to which he added:
"For an independent man, seeking help from others is equivalent to surrendering to the arch-enemy."

We all know the fate of this proud man, one of the best known characters in Icelandic literature.

Developments in the Concept of Sovereignty
These important concepts are much bandied about in political discourse. They are often misinterpreted, and each of them could serve as a subject for extensive discussion, although I will limit myself to the concept of sovereignty and the important meaning we attach to that word.

In my opinion, among both politicians and scholars in this country, there has been a lack of open discussion on the concept of sovereignty in the context of the trends of recent decades in global co-operation. I welcome this opportunity to discuss this fundamental issue in the discourse on international co-operation. At the same time, I would like to use this opportunity to welcome the debate brought about by the publication of Professor Gudmundur Halfdanarson's book, The Icelandic Nation State: Beginnings and Boundaries,

Professor Halfdanarson's book illustrates the fact that the concept of the sovereign nation is too complex to be confined to the same analysis and definitions as almost a century ago. The sovereignty which provided exciting opportunities naturally also entailed a framework of restrictions designed to secure it. That framework was based on the environment and views of the time.

I have regarded it as my duty to encourage public discussion of the position of Iceland in Europe, but I also think it is no less important to discuss the issue of sovereignty in the context of Europe.

This discussion must be widened in order to give the public a clear view of the various obligations by which modern states are bound, undertakings rising out of international agreements and obligations grounded in the general rules of international law.

What is Sovereignty?
The basic question that I will attempt to answer here is what is involved in the concept of sovereignty.

According to one definition under international law, a community of people is sovereign if it controls land, is self-governing and recognised by other states as a sovereign state. The recognition entitles a nation to participate in the community of sovereign states with all the attached rights and obligations. This entails the right to membership of international organisations and participation in bilateral or multilateral treaties with other sovereign nations.

A sovereign state thus has the right to decide its own affairs without interference from other states. It can decide its own constitution, form of government, administrative and other legislation, with the exclusive right to enforce such legislation within its territory. However, the powers of a sovereign state in this respect are limited by the rules of international law, whether such rules originate in treaties or general principles of international law. To give an example, human rights are recognised as principles of international law and are therefore not interpreted on the basis of local conditions or internal legal order. Sovereign nations are bound to observe these rules with respect to their citizens and other nations are permitted to intervene in the human rights affairs of other nations.

Sovereign nations can enter into agreements among themselves without thereby disrupting their status in the community of nations. States can negotiate on the assignment of certain aspects of government, e.g. to international organisations, but this does not mean that the state is no longer sovereign. In such circumstances I think it is more appropriate to say that a state is sharing part of its sovereignty with other states on a reciprocal basis.

Iceland became a sovereign nation in 1918. From the first of December of that year, the relations of Iceland with its old parent state [Denmark] were subject entirely to the rule of international law. However, an agreement concluded between the two states, the "Union Act", contained provisions to the effect that Denmark should retain responsibility on Iceland's behalf for certain matters, including foreign affairs, and for a time the Supreme Court of Denmark was the supreme court of Iceland; in addition, Denmark was responsible for the defence of Icelandic territorial waters. In spite of this arrangement, it is not disputed that Iceland became a sovereign state in 1918.

Normally, only sovereign states can become parties to international organisations. The states become participants and consent to abide by the rules of such organisations on certain matters for as long as they remain members. Their participation is based on the rules of international law, and therefore has no impact on their status as sovereign nations.

In the political discourse, however, sovereignty is continually being invoked for the purpose of restricting the scope available to states for participation in international co-operation. I cannot deny that I sometimes get the impression that this is the final recourse of people who have run out of arguments.

Trends in International Affairs
In many ways, the history of the world is the history of war. Two world wars separated by a short interval in the last century were the last straw, setting in motion a trend for states to take up close co-operation among themselves on common interests that they believed would ensure security and balance in the co-existence of nations. Among the organisations to grow from this soil were the United Nations, the Council of Europe, NATO and the European Union.

The United Nations play an important role for peace and stability in the world. The role of the UN has been expanded gradually in the course of time, and the organisation itself together with its agencies now performs a key role in various areas affecting the daily lives of most people without their being aware of it. Cases in point include the work of the UN on health, refugees and human rights, not to mention important milestones such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is of particular importance for Iceland.

It has long been recognised that the driving force of the world economy is trade. Many states are entirely dependent on international trade. It should not have come as a surprise, therefore, that the trend I described earlier led to co-operation and subsequently the establishment of alliances between states centering on trade and economic affairs. These organisations include GATT and OECD. In this regard it has been clear for a long time that co-ordinated rules are essential in international trade in order to secure a level ground for all.

This is the reason for the establishment of the World Trade Organisation, which is built on the foundations of GATT. In the co-operation within the WTO, Iceland will not be bound by the rules of the Organisation without first approving them. However, as in the case of any other organisation, it would not be tolerated if Iceland intended only to reap the benefits of the co-operation and not share any of the burdens with the other member states. Thus, we have in this co-operation curtailed our own powers to increase custom duties or subsidise agriculture, and we have also consented to permit the import of agricultural products to some extent.

From another perspective, the interests of Iceland and other small states in the existence of the World Trade Organisation is considerably greater than the interests of larger nations, as open global trade is so important to us. Larger states can, on the basis of their influence, attain their objectives by other means without recourse to international organisations. The same is true for various other aspects of international co-operation. Thus, international co-operation often provides a basis for access by smaller states to the playing field of the larger states. It is interesting to note in this context that a decision was passed in the World Trade Organisation just yesterday where certain tax incentives provided by the United States to export companies were declared inconsistent with WTO rules. A decision of this kind is obviously significant for countries like Iceland which are engaged in global competition with U.S. exporters.

A decision of this kind would never have been achieved without the existence of an international organisation like the WTO.

Iceland is a member state of EFTA, which has concluded a total of eighteen free trade agreements providing for the abolition of tariffs on certain goods. At the same time, these agreements restrict our scope for imposing tariffs on the other member states.

The development and expansion of international co-operation has progressed steadily. It is becoming increasingly clear to the countries of the world that there is no way for them to solve various problems without co-operation, indeed, without sharing their sovereign powers. The clearest example of this now is no doubt the environment, as it is now obvious to all the countries of the world that pollution has no respect for borders. It is no use for Iceland to combat pollution of the sea or overfishing except in co-operation with other nations. It could be argued, with some justification, that Iceland's sovereignty, that is to say its economic sovereignty, rests on the outcome of that struggle. A case in point is the Kyoto Protocol which was extremely important for Icelandic interests.

By the same token there is an increased tendency to channel the struggle against international crime into a joint effort where a group of states agrees on systematic measures in the struggle against the criminals. We can see signs of this tendency both within the EU and also in the United Nations. We have recently been harshly reminded how important it is for us to work together in this area, and the reaction to the recent acts of terror in the United States shows us in a nutshell how the international community is working together in this area.

Iceland's Position in International Co-operation
The trends I have been describing have had an impact in this country. Iceland is currently a member of about fifty international organisations and institutions, and within these organisations and institutions decisions are made which have a direct impact on our daily lives and surroundings.

Within the United Nations and the Council of Europe, member states have agreed on extensive human rights conventions. The Supreme Court of Iceland has set aside Icelandic legislation where it has contradicted the European Convention on Human Rights, and did so even before the Convention was ratified by Iceland. Because of the Convention it has been necessary to make extensive amendments to Icelandic legislation. At the time that these changes were made not everyone approved, but it is clear to us now that the changes made were for the better.

According to law, Iceland is under an obligation to implement the resolutions of the UN Security Council, even though we do not participate in the decision-making process of the Council. Experience has shown us that measures approved by the Security Council can be both far-reaching and controversial.

These are all examples of the extensive international co-operation of which Iceland is a part ? international co-operation which has an ever increasing impact on our lives and the policies of the Icelandic government.

The European Union
We cannot discuss sovereignty without mentioning the European Union, since the public discourse on sovereignty seems in particular to crop up in connection with the question of Iceland's possible membership of the Union.

I believe that no single aspect of Iceland's international co-operation has had a greater impact on our lives than the co-operation with the EU on the basis of the Agreement on the European Economic Area.

The policy of the Government in European affairs is clear. Membership of the EU is not on the agenda of the current administration. Discussion of European affairs, however, is on the agenda. I have taken the initiative in this discussion because I feel that it is my duty to promote open public discussion of our position in international co-operation. In my party, the Progressive Party, there has been much discussion of European affairs, with lines being drawn and policies formulated.

Whether we like it or not, we are too dependent on co-operation with the states of Europe to avoid this discussion. As a matter of fact, I do not believe that the debate on Europe will ever be brought to a conclusion, whether Iceland becomes a member of the EU or not. This is clear from the situation in Denmark, where the debate is a permanent fixture of daily life.

In my opinion it is extremely important that if Iceland should take a decision to remain outside the European Union, or to join the Union, this decision must be taken on the basis of an informed discourse involving an objective analysis of the advantages and disadvantages involved. I have tried to promote such discourse within my party and among the public, and this discourse must be continued.

Even if Iceland were to join the Union, with all the changes that would entail for the structure of our government, Iceland would unquestionably remain a sovereign state. It is equally clear that sharing our sovereignty with the joint institutions of the EU to the extent involved could not be effected without amendment of the Constitution. It is also clear that this could not be done without referring the matter to the nation.

Iceland's membership of the EU would therefore not have the effect that Iceland would no longer be a sovereign state. If this were the case, there would be only a small number of truly sovereign states in Europe in the near future. Does anyone actually believe that Denmark, Sweden and Finland are no longer sovereign states?

I am not saying this to make light of the measures that would need to be taken before Iceland's membership could become a reality, but to point out that the European Union is an alliance of sovereign states which have come to a decision to share their sovereign powers on a reciprocal basis in order to achieve common objectives that they believe they cannot achieve except in co-operation with other European states.

It is a feature of the European co-operation involving membership of the EU that all the nations participate fully in the decision-making process. This is not true of the Agreement on the European Economic Area, to which we are a party. We enjoy more equality in the first stages of the decision-making procedure than in the later stages, which is where the decisions are actually made. The trends within the EU in recent years have made this even more disadvantageous, as powers and influence have shifted increasingly from the Commission to other organs of the EU, i.e. the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, where Iceland has no representation. This severely distorts the equality of the parties who in the end will be bound by Community legislation.

It can be argued that membership of the EU would secure Icelandic sovereignty better than the EEA does now, since as members of the EU we would participate in the shaping of our own destiny and in the formulation of the rules that the citizens and enterprises of this country are bound to observe. In this respect the co-operation within the EEA is deficient.

It is not least for this reason that I have maintained that the EEA Agreement is now testing the limits of our constitution. Also, in my opinion, the Agreement has various supranational features, as manifested in the role of the EFTA Surveillance Authority in certain areas. The EFTA Court has issued clear signals that the EEA Agreement entails state liability comparable to that of the European Union in the event of improper or inadequate implementation of EEA rules; within the European Union this obligation is regarded as an aspect of supranational powers.

But it is not only the EEA Agreement that comes into question here. The countries of the world are increasingly joining forces in addressing certain interests, including the environment, crime, trade, etc. The effect of this trend is, in reality, that the scope available to each nation to take its own measures is more limited than before.

This fact also tests the limits of our constitution in its current form. There is both a political and an academic consensus that there are limits to the extent to which sovereignty can be shared with alliances of states or multinational organisations without amendment of the Constitution.

I have agreed with scholars who have drawn attention to the need to make changes to the Constitution in order to meet these trends and provide a sounder basis for our participation in the constantly expanding international co-operation.

Where do we stand?
From what I have been saying, we can draw the following conclusions.

Iceland is an active participant in diverse international co-operation. It is clear that Iceland is already sharing its sovereign powers with other states which are participants in this co-operation. Most scholars believe that this has not involved violation of the Constitution.

On the other hand, the Constitution places an undefined limit on the lengths to which we can go in this respect without amendment to the Constitution.

In any assessment of our sovereignty and its status in light of international co-operation, we must ask ourselves whether Iceland is actually involved in shaping its own destiny. However, we are now faced with the fact that our destiny is more or less decided for us in some areas, as we do not have access to the decision making process. This is primarily a result of the EEA Agreement. It is certainly a cause for some concern if we are at the limits of the scope allowed by the Constitution in this respect.

It can be argued quite convincingly that the member states of the European Union are better placed than Iceland as regards sovereignty since they are active participants in the formulation of the rules they are expected to observe. The opinion was widespread in Sweden and Finland at the time that the EEA Agreement was in preparation that participation in that Agreement entailed greater encroachment on sovereign powers than membership of the EU

I have the feeling that we tend to speak of sovereignty in a too narrow sense, without taking into account everything that has taken place in the world in recent decades, and without regard to the decisions that Icelandic leaders have been taking in recent decades, whether on membership of NATO or the EEA.

From all that I have been saying here, it appears clear that Icelanders are not alone in command of their destiny. National interests in times of globalisation consist in working together in a variety of areas for the purpose of achieving common objectives and to that end sharing sovereign powers that used to be regarded as the inalienable powers of individual states. Thus, the perception that individual nations have of their sovereignty has changed substantially.

Bjartur í Sumarhúsum, the hero of Independent People, wanted to be an independent man and created his own ideology encasing the essence of this independence. This ideology was a creation of his own imagination and not comprehensible to everyone. In his world it was better to be poor and independent of others than to be better off and share one's fate with others. Bjartur paid for this ideology with all his possessions and his means of subsistence.

The prosperity and quality of life of Icelanders rest on our ability to engage in diverse relations with other countries from our position as a sovereign state.

It is important to assess Icelandic interests in the light of changing times and to refrain from creating a frame around our position which has no relation to the reality in which we live or the course of events all around us.


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