With about 390,000 people, Iceland is Europe’s least populated nation, with around 65% of Icelanders living in and around its capital city of Reykjavik. Located about halfway between Greenland and Norway, it’s situated in the middle of the ocean yet is replete with Viking history, dramatically intense scenery, and Northern light viewing possibilities. In addition to its historical and geographical largess, it’s also known as one of world’s most literate and educated countries with Icelanders among the planet’s happiest people.
While in Oslo recently I had the opportunity to meet with Högni S. Kristjánsson, Iceland’s ambassador to Norway since August 2022. Trained as an attorney at the University of Iceland, Kristjánsson has served in a variety of Icelandic representative roles including Icelandic Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Geneva, Ambassador to Lichtenstein, and as a member of EFTA Surveillance Authority in Brussels, which monitors compliance with the European Economic Area (“EEA”) rules in Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, permitting participation in Europe’s internal markets.
Though not a member of the European Union (“EU”), Iceland’s relation to the EU is based on the 1994 EEA Agreement which unites the three EFTA states to the EU’s single market. Iceland is also part of the Schengen Agreement permitting EU members border free crossing of its respective citizens.
The conversation has been edited and abbreviated for clarity.
JLK - On October 20, 2012, an advisory referendum secured support of just 64.2% of Icelandic citizens to revise its Constitution, in order to among other things, reform its political class that aimed to strengthen democracy through introducing more effective checks and balances, increase transparency, improve judicial appointments, and implement election reform. Without a solid majority the constitutional reform eventually failed. Do you expect any progress on this in the foreseeable future?
HSK - It’s true there was not enough support for the measure to pass. Reforms of this nature need to be undertaken in a very careful, methodical manner and naturally requires significant preparatory work which is ongoing. It simply takes time.
JLK - There are about 10,000 Icelanders live in Norway. Are these mostly students or professionals?
HSK - It’s a mixture of both. Quite a few Icelanders came to study in Norway then ended up staying. Another group are those that came to Norway to work during Iceland’s economic downturn but remained. Then of course there are students that come and go. We are trying to make Iceland more attractive for skilled workers and professionals, by making it less cumbersome for them to work. Iceland’s current unemployment rate is only two-percent. Iceland needs both unskilled and skilled workers. From the late 1960’s onward, more and more foreigners have been moving to Iceland.
JLK - What’s the biggest challenge in relations between Iceland and Norway?
HSK - Relations between Iceland and Norway have deep roots and are very good. I would say that the biggest challenge we have had over the years, and still have, are with respect to fisheries. We share a number of fish stocks, e.g. herring, capelin, mackerel, and blue whiting. However, we have not been able to reach agreements on how to manage them.
JLK - Is Iceland’s fishing industry and its protection the main reason Iceland has not joined the EU?
HSK – It is clearly one of the main reasons. But in addition I would also mention the challenges of EU’s common agricultural policy (“CAP”) and the agreement implementing it [that became effective January 1, 2023] in order to achieve the European Green Deal. Also the fact that membership in the EU means the transfer of powers to the supranational organization, the EU.
JLK - What is the biggest social challenge at home?
HSK - Like many modern nations, the aging of the Icelandic population is becoming an issue. This of course is not unique to us.
JLK - On that note, Iceland’s largest hospital, Landspítalinn, has for many years faced serious difficulties, a situation that is viewed by some observers as an existential threat to Iceland’s healthcare system. Are reforms currently underway?
HSK - This question dovetails back to our previous discussion of Iceland’s aging population. It has become clear that Iceland does not have enough nursing or retirement homes. For example, if an elderly person is well enough to be discharged from the hospital but not able to live alone even with home care, the patient will remain in the hospital until he/she can care for themselves. That is costly and untenable in relation to resources. Plans are in the pipeline to remedy this situation and nursing homes are being built. The government is very much focused on the challenges.
JLK - I’ve read about the somewhat recent phenomena of the anglicization of Icelandic language chiefly due to the internet, but also resulting from immigration. Are you worried about this in relation to the preservation of the cultural aspects of Icelandic?
HSK - This is certainly an issue as you can see the English language sneaking in more and more like in shop names, restaurants, etc. It’s the government’s policy to protect and promote Icelandic. In fact, we are constantly creating new Icelandic words for those that didn’t previously exist, for example, items in new technology, such as computer components, cell phones, etc. We are certainly aware that we have to promote Icelandic among our population in order to sustain it. This is especially important with respect to immigrants from non-native English speaking countries. We want them to integrate and one element of that is the language. This is a standard part of the program we design for refugees. In addition, we provide assistance with integration and cultural assimilation to ease the transition, and to foster full participation in Icelandic life.
JLK - From the outset, Iceland has very strongly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Has Iceland taken any specific action?
HSK - As a member of NATO, we of course participate in all of the economic sanctions. Though we have no military [and haven’t for over 150 years] we felt strongly enough about the impropriety of the invasion that Iceland leased a private cargo plane to transport military equipment [procured by others] to Ukraine. This plane was used for this specific purpose on a number of separate occasions since Russia first invaded Ukraine.
JLK - Nearly all employees in Iceland are union members though this is not required. Has inflation boosted labor tensions at home?
HSK - No, in fact Collective Agreements were concluded earlier this year and are in force until the first half of 2024. Having said that, the current state of inflation and increased residential rental rates is a challenge for ordinary households.
JLK - Before COVID, tourism outperformed economically both Iceland’s fish and aluminum production industries. Do you think tourism will recover to its pre-pandemic levels?
HSK - Tourism in Iceland is already back to the 2018 levels. We expect close to 2.5 million visitors this year. Some debate now whether we have too many tourists.
JLK - I look forward to returning to Iceland, admiring her Northern Lights again and naturally, devouring more of Iceland’s delicious chocolate-covered black licorice confections.
HSK - Those are very popular indeed!
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Written by Julie L. Kessler
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