Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland
At the Japan National Press Club
Tokyo, 29 May 2018
Let me start by thanking the Japan National Press Club for having me here today. It is an honour for me. Japan is the first country I visit in Asia during my time as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Japan is a true inspiration to the rest of the world and, during my short time here in Tokyo, I have become fascinated by your country.
Iceland and Japan are likeminded nations and we share common values and principles. Our countries established diplomatic relations 62 years ago and have ever since worked closely together in various fields. Iceland regards Japan as a close partner in the global arena.
There are several things that connect our two islands together. Just two weeks ago one could walk through the park at Lake Tjörnin in downtown Reykjavík and admire the 50 Japanese cherry trees in blossom.
The trees were planted there 7 years ago by friendship societies in our countries and are a symbol of peace and friendship between Japan and Iceland. The yearly HANAMI in Reykjavík is becoming a strong tradition, even in the Arctic climate of Iceland, although we normally have to suffer rain or strong winds while enjoying the short period of cherry blossom in Reykjavík.
Our cherry trees are somewhat a symbol of the strong bilateral relations between Iceland and Japan. They have always been excellent and are growing stronger with increased international co-operation, growing tourism, student exchanges and business ties in various fields.
My address here today will focus on three aspects that are key factors in Iceland’s foreign policy and at the same time crucial factors in the global arena. Number 1, global free trade. Number 2, arctic cooperation. And number 3, defence and security.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am a firm believer in free trade. Iceland is an export driven economy and we owe our prosperity largely to a well-functioning global free trade environment. Therefore, it is of high importance to us to avoid all forms of protectionism.
Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Association where we join Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland in promoting free trade. We are also a part of the Agreement on the European Economic Area, or the EEA, which makes us a part of the internal market of the European Union. Through these agreements we expand our market from 330 thousand people up to over 500 million people all over Europe. This market access and free trade mindset has provided us with enormous opportunities.
I know that Japan is closely monitoring developments in Europe. Brexit is, of course, an important part of current developments, and I would like to highlight that negotiating a future arrangement with the United Kingdom is an absolute priority issue for Iceland.
Globally, the UK is our second most important trade partner, covering various products and services such as fish, aviation, tourism and different forms of investments – areas that today fall under the EEA Agreement. Therefore, we welcome the concrete steps taken in talks between the EU and UK and continue to encourage swift progress in the negotiations.
I have urged all parties in the ongoing negotiations to approach this important task with an open mind. Brexit is happening, and the negotiators have a responsibility to come to a workable solution that avoids negative effects on our economies. I have said it before and say it again: erecting unnecessary barriers is in no one’s interest, it is bad for our citizens and it is bad for our businesses.
During the negotiations Iceland´s short-term goal is to guarantee continuity for our businesses and citizens. We are now in dialogue with both the UK and the EU to guarantee a smooth transition. In the long run, our goal is to maintain a strong relationship with the UK following its departure from the EU. The objective is to ensure at least the same level of trade relations with the UK as we enjoy today – hopefully even better.
In our view it is also important, given the global challenges we face, that like-minded nations within the WTO join hands to safeguard the multilateral trading system. A rules-based, open and transparent system is of particular importance for smaller countries and provides for a more level playing field in international trade. Open and free trade creates peace, stability and improves living conditions.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Asia continues to grow and prosper and countries of the world, including Iceland, increasingly look towards this part of the world. Iceland and Japan have a strong and long-standing history of trade. We are confident that our good relations will continue. Japanese cars are popular in Iceland and Icelandic power companies import Japanese turbines, used to produce electricity. On the other hand, our most important export to Japan is seafood of various sorts. Eider-down and lamb meat are also important export products.
It is, however, not only in physical products that we have good connections. Mutual tourism has increased. Last year around 30.000 Japanese tourists visited Iceland, compared to only 1.500 in the year 2001, and around 2.000 Icelandic tourists visited Japan.
The signing of a double taxation agreement last January is a further proof of the will of both countries to further strengthen our relations. The agreement will contribute to promoting mutual investment and economic exchanges.
Japan has a very ambitious trade agenda, as witnessed by the recently finalized negotiations with the EU on an Economic Partnership Agreement. I hope that Iceland and Japan can continue a dialogue in a similar direction.
Our two countries share a vision for an open and rules-based global economy built to the highest standards. A priority for Iceland is to increase trade between our countries. A future trade agreement, which would include the elimination of technical barriers and tariffs, would, no doubt, boost our trade and deepen our cooperation in other fields.
In light of growing tourism, Iceland is also interested in finding ways to connect our two countries together in an even stronger way. I look to our Nordic friends in both Finland and Denmark who have a long history of connecting their countries with Japan with direct flights.
I hope that one day Iceland and Japan will become like these Nordic neighbours, offering direct flight connections to Tokyo. Icelandic airlines have shown interest in direct flights between Iceland and Japan and this could further strengthen our bilateral relationship through trade, people-to-people contacts and more tourism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This brings me to another area of common interest – the Arctic: a key foreign policy priority for Iceland. There is broad political consensus on Arctic issues in Iceland and a goodwill in the political environment towards the Arctic Council and the upcoming Chairmanship of Iceland from 2019 to 2021. This is extremely important for our work.
Iceland welcomed Japan's observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013 and we look forward to working within Japan in the Arctic during the Icelandic chairmanship. We also welcome the fact that Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India and China have all obtained observer status in the Arctic Council and in the run-up and during our chairmanship, Iceland will be inclusive and transparent in our approach towards observers. We look forward to our co-operation.
The Arctic, however, is not only about our important work within the Arctic Council. Landmark negotiations on potential future of Central Arctic Fisheries, with active participation from Iceland and Japan alike, were recently concluded with sustainability, international law and scientific evidence as our guiding light. This agreement is a perfect example of how we want our co-operation to develop in the Arctic.
For Iceland, sustainable development in the Arctic is key and will be our guiding principle as we prepare for our chairmanship in the Arctic Council. This applies to economic, environmental and societal aspects alike.
Sustainability is, however, not only important in the Arctic, but also globally through the Paris agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. These are all inter-connected. We all know the phrase “What happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic”, which is very much true. On the challenging side, higher temperatures in the North can result in higher sea-levels in the South. On the opportunity side, alternative sailing routes in the Arctic cut distances and open up various avenues for further co-operation.
This should not be seen as a future scenario for future generations to address. Intercontinental cargo shipping between the Pacific and the North Atlantic, through the Arctic, is already taking place and increasing year by year. This provides for opportunities for the vibrant and growing economies in East- and Southeast-Asia, which can draw strength from their trade and commercial networks, but also for Western-Europe and the East Coast of America to link up with the Asian powerhouses.
The Arctic is a vast area where emission of greenhouse-gasses is minimal, but the consequences of climate change are faster and more visible there than any other place on Earth. Changes in the Arctic do not only pose opportunities, but also challenges at the same time.
One of the key challenges we are facing in the Arctic is maintaining the balance between economic development and environmental protection. Sustainable development, for the good of all Arctic inhabitants, is of course what we are striving for.
The effects of climate change on the delicate ecosystems of the Arctic are worrying. It is important that the member states of the Arctic Council take the lead in drawing attention to this globally - in co-operation with the Council’s observers. Here, we are pleased to continue working with Japanese scientists who are conducting important research in the region.
It is also vital that the Arctic continues to be a region of peace and stability despite the Arctic Council Members’ tensions elsewhere in the world. The Arctic offers a unique opportunity for the states concerned to demonstrate that they are able and willing to cooperate actively in a constructive manner. Or as we sometimes put it: “High North – Low Tension”.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This brings me to my third point – security and defence.
Iceland is located centrally in the North-Atlantic with Greenland to the West and the Faroe Islands, the United Kingdom and Norway to the East. The Arctic Circle touches Iceland´s northern tip and straight lines can be drawn through the Atlantic respectively to the North and South Poles.
Since settlement in the 9th century, Iceland has always been a country without armed forces of its own and there is consensus, most recently expressed in our 2016 National Security Policy, that Iceland remains a country without a military.
The development of technology, particularly submarines, and later aviation, including long-range aircraft, changed our situation dramatically and Iceland suddenly became a strategic hub. First indications of these developments appeared during the First World War and they were firmly in place when the Second World
War broke out.
On the eve of the Second World war, Iceland’s neutrality was interrupted by the United Kingdom, which occupied Iceland in May 1940 to prevent Nazi-Germany occupation and, thereby, secure the North-Atlantic sea lines. Later, the United States military forces replaced the British force in Iceland and remained in Iceland until 2006 when the US naval air base in Keflavík was closed down.
Iceland became a founding Member of NATO in 1949 which, along with the bilateral defence agreement with the United States from 1951, still forms the most important pillars of Iceland´s defences. Later, in 2007-2008, Iceland negotiated bilateral security cooperation agreements with its closest neighbours: Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United Kingdom.
The Cold War hammered in stone the strategic importance of Iceland for transatlantic security and represented the birth of the trans-Atlantic link. The optimism realised by the end of the Cold War has in recent years dramatically receded and Iceland´s strategic importance re-emerged.
Russia’s willingness to use its modernized armed forces unilaterally abroad have given every reason to worry. The annexation of Crimea and Russia’s direct support for separatists in the Eastern-Ukraine were game changers, both when it comes to respect for international laws but also for post-Cold War European stability and security architecture. Furthermore, the recent Salisbury chemical attack and Russia‘s intervention in Syria, including their defence of the Assad regime, even in the face of repeated use of chemical weapons, has also contributed to the current climate of distrust.
In the North Atlantic, we experienced a Russian military come-back already 11-12 years ago. Paradoxically, when the last US forces permanently based in Iceland had been withdrawn in 2006, Russia on virtually the same day chose to resume its strategic bomber flights. In recent years we have seen an increase in Russian submarine activities in the North Atlantic.
As a result, the US and Allied forces have been increasing their military presence in Iceland on rotational basis – both through air-policing and submarine surveillance. And at the same time, NATO has been turning more attention to the North Atlantic – through assessments and its command structure. Our co-operation has also evolved and now covers alternative threats and challenges like cyber and hybrid threats and the fight against terrorism.
Iceland takes its NATO commitments seriously and is a reliable and trustworthy Ally, which contributes to its own and Alliance common security. This is reflected in our National Security Policy, which enjoys cross-party support and sets the framework for the security and defence policy of our broadly-based coalition Government.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Before I end my remarks to take a few questions, I would like to highlight the importance of people-to-people exchanges to stimulate better understanding between countries.
Walking around the streets of Reykjavík one cannot only see Japanese cherry trees, but also hear many of the world’s languages being spoken, including Japanese. Iceland has become a popular destination for tourists who are interested our part of the world – the Arctic nature and the Northern lights, but also our culture and entertainment possibilities.
Every year we also see more foreign students attending schools and universities in Iceland. We have enjoyed close relations with Japan in the fields of education and student exchanges. This might be difficult for you to believe, but Japanese is now the second most popular foreign language taught at the University of Iceland - after English.
There is also great interest in co-operation between the people of our two countries in the field of art and culture, especially design and music. In November this year the Iceland Symphony Orchestra will visit Japan under the artistic direction of Ashkenazy and play several concerts, along with Japanese pianist Nobu, throughout the country.
Japan is known for your culture and cuisine world-wide and we see an opportunity in learning from you on how to export culture. But we have also been able to transfer some of our skills to Japan, notably in the field of sports where we try to punch above our weight.
The Icelandic handball trainer, Dagur Sigurdsson, is currently coaching your national handball team and I would be remiss if I did not mention football where our two nations will travel to Russia in two weeks-time for the World Cup – An achievement that we are very proud of and, who knows, maybe our teams will qualify from our respective groups and face each other on the pitch. That would be remarkable and yet another excuse for me to have some sushi and sake.
Thank you for inviting me and I look forward to your questions.