Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson who is the longest serving President in Icelandic history (1996-) and currently on his 5th term recently gave his annual New Years Address to the people.
Icelandic version accessible English version accessible here
Through seasonal metaphors that link the crisis with a long winter now turning into spring Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson states that the hardship has been faced in a spirit of familial solidarity. As it has often been the case in official discourse concerning the crisis it is associated with natural catastrophy and thus indirectly with a force majeure rather than emphasizing individual or collective responsibility.
Professor of History Gudmundur Halfdanarson stepped forward after the president’s speech with a criticism of the alledged homogeneity and consensus of the nation behind historical and current developments. The President e.g. refers to a justified demand of a united Icelandic nation being the basis of the Flatey Book and Codex Regius being repatriated to Iceland in 1971 as well as a continued warm relationship with Denmark.
In an interview with the national radio Halfdanarson points out that the President’s statement about the Constitution, Home Rule, Sovereignty, the Republic being the results of the consensus of the Icelandic nation is close to a misrepresentation of facts. Halfdanarson points out that the nationalist myth of a unified homogenous nation although being a well-known ideal is hard to obtain – fortunately he adds. In current Icelandic society it would appear that one needs a very firm believe in this ideal – or myth as Halfdanarson calls it – in order to interpret the existing political climate as being characterized by unity.
The President gave a clear impression of his firm insistence on this ideal in describing the outcome of the Icesave affair as the nation’s victory achieved through unity. Considering the complex process where the President went against the decision of the Parliament in 2010 and the referendum in the spring of 2011 came out 40,2% versus 59,8% in favour of the President’s position on the matter. ”Resorting to disputes and conflict” Grímsson states has not proven a fruitful path and the nation needs to navigate according to this lesson, he continues. It seems noteworthy that the President lashes out against the media for adding fuel to a bonfire of negativity and disagreement considering the weak state of critical and independent Icelandic media and its importance as the watchdog of democracy. The President concludes about the dangers of internal conflict: “A nation that becomes embroiled in the cut-and-thrust of criticism and quarrelling and loses its memory of the power of unity is on dangerously thin ice.” This statement could easily be reversed to a defence of the fact that a society without a thorough unravelling of difficult issues and taboos of the recent past and without a sometimes strident press and a sphere for democratic exchange of views (sometimes leading to confrontation) is on dangerously thin ice as well.
The President’s call for unity also concerns the battle against poverty in Iceland in the form of solidarity within the people, which is not, he stresses, to be manifested merely through the annual Christmas aid. Unity is also highlighted as the force behind the regional buildup of the Arctic that is a clear goal in Icelandic foreign policy.
For some time now the Arctic has an Icelandic action area envisioned as a new geopolitical center. This optimism has been a game changer in the West Nordic region and has planted the seeds of a new strong relationship and identification between the former Danish dependencies: “The rise in the importance of the Arctic will bring our band of brother- nations, Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland, many new challenges, and make the west-nordic union into an important unit in the design of the new world order.” Also the tights with Russia, the united States, China and Europe are to be strengthened, he highlights, not least if vision of a new international harbour in Finnafjörður that the President mentions is to be realized. The President emphasizes that Iceland has moved from a position as isolated to that of a much- sought-after partner in “the New North”.
After the President’s Address the director of Iceland’s Center for Arctic Policy Studies Kristinn Schram has commented on the fact that the changes in the Arctic region were characterized as a blessing for Iceland. In a number of interviews Schram recommended a balanced view of the future of the region. The frailty of the ecosystem, the difficult conditions e.g. caused by ice and harsh weather must also be taken into account, he states. Schram furthermore suggests that the sheer optimism and possible exaggeration of the importance of Iceland’s position in the Arctic could be harmful and encourages a continued focus on existing basis for the Iceland economy such as trade with Europe and the fishing industry.
Agreeing to sometimes disagree about core issues, values and interpretations could be a good starting point of maintaining a balanced view on the importance and opportunities of Iceland’s position in the Arctic region when it comes to loss and gain of climate change, investments, financial prioritization, environmental protection, and risk taking seems – not least in light of the missteps and ordeals of the last decades. Perhaps a balanced view on these issues and a continued discussion and critical investigation of the past and present (including discourses) should be amongst the primary concerns of a nation that luckily seems to insist on disagreeing about past and present as well as about the future.