Address by Prime Minister, Mr Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, at Austurvöllur, 17 June 2013
"We Icelanders wish to participate in international cooperation and to work with nations all over the world, sharing our experience, knowledge and strengths but at the same time learning from others and benefiting from their strengths."
My fellow Icelanders, I welcome you here on our National Day.
“Who has a fairer native land,
with mountains, dales, gleaming sand?”
– These words were written by Unnur Benediktsdóttir Bjarklind, who published under the nom-de-plume Hulda, on the occasion of the foundation of the Republic of Iceland in 1944.
This patriotic poem, which is so familiar to us, has been closely associated with our history ever since the foundation of the Republic. The poem celebrates independence, the beauty of our country, the Northern Lights (which are now a tourist attraction), peace and the Icelandic people, whom Hulda describes as upright, prosperous and wise. The author's own story encapsulates the essence of Icelandic culture and reminds us how proud we should be of our history. It is the story of a woman who grew up in Þingeyjarsýsla in the late 19th century and whose first schooling took the form of private teaching by her parents in good circumstances, with access to the library of the Þingeyjarsýsla Literary Society. It is a remarkable thing what great importance we Icelanders have always attached to our history and literature, often despite difficult conditions, so preserving our language and national culture. This was clearly seen, for example, among the Icelanders who emigrated to the New World in the late 19th century. Among the thousands of other immigrants to Canada and the northern United States, it was always noticed that the Icelanders were in a special position in terms of literacy and the priority they gave to education.
It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of education for our tiny nation. Knowledge and skills are, and always will be, the basis on which we build our progress.
Icelanders have witnessed immense progress since the foundation of the Republic; progress that has been achieved through unified effort, progress that is based not least on know-how, optimism and the fact that the nation has had the courage needed to embark on programmes of long-term development. Today we find ourselves facing both threats and inexhaustible opportunities. Inevitably, external conditions, economic and political, will have an effect on our standing and well-being. We have unique natural resources which, together with the geographical location of our country, offer a great potential. Our most valuable resource, however, lies in our people themselves.
Inventiveness is an inexhaustible source, with manifestations in all occupations, culture and the arts. Many Icelandic companies have developed unique products and services that are sold all over the world, and it is a great pleasure to see start-ups establish themselves and reap the attention they deserve internationally.
To be able to harness inventiveness and skills we must give attention to the structure of our educational system. In this it is of particular importance to consult parents, teachers and the social partners regarding the development of Iceland's educational system with the prosperity and future of our people as a whole as our guide.
We must safeguard our social cohesion, and education plays an important role in this. Iceland has not been marked by class division in the same way as many other countries, and this is one of the many advantages of living here. But we cannot take it for granted that this will always be the case. For this reason we must be careful not to end up with two or three nations living in the same country.
In this connection we should think of the divide between the metropolitan area and the rest of the country. There are various indications that this divide is becoming deeper; this is a trend we must resist by taking steps to ensure a comparable quality of life, standard of living and access to services irrespective of where people live. We should strive to structure our public services so that they are open to all. In this, matters concerning people's lives, health and safety must be given priority.
Social cohesion in Iceland is clearly displayed in times of crisis, and many things in our society attract attention and admiration abroad. Many people here do volunteer work selflessly and in the interests of us all, for example the scout rescue teams which, I think it is safe to say, are probably without parallel anywhere else in the world.
As a consequence of our history, we have little tolerance for injustice. In his book Íslensk menning (‘Icelandic Culture'), Sigurður Nordal tells the following story. “An old French historical source relates how a messenger was once sent to a band of Vikings who had drawn up a large fleet off the coast. He asked which of them was the leader of the band. They answered him, saying: ‘We are all equal'.”
Icelanders, as descendants of the Vikings, are highly individualistic and have difficulty putting up with authorities, let alone oppression. This was clearly demonstrated in the Icesave dispute, in which the people rejected an agreement it considered unfair. This position was later upheld by an international court, which showed that the people's sense of justice was a reliable indicator to follow.
Without hesitation, Iceland took the view that the debts of the insolvent banks should not be imposed on the public, and was undaunted by threats from various quarters. As a result, people across Europe look to Iceland as a model in the struggle with the consequences of the economic recession which many nations in Europe are now tackling.
They are watching to see what we are doing here, and we will strive to set them a good example.
We Icelanders wish to participate in international cooperation and to work with nations all over the world, sharing our experience, knowledge and strengths but at the same time learning from others and benefiting from their strengths. On the other hand, we will not let an international institution tell us that it is not possible to do more for Icelandic households at the same time as it reminds us of the importance of settling the final account following the economic crash.
It was the self-confidence of the Icelandic people that created its welfare.
Jón Sigurðsson, the Fjölnismenn and other leaders in the independence campaign referred to our history to show Icelanders that they should be proud and that they had good reason to believe in themselves. They knew that to achieve results, you have to believe that they can be achieved. Iceland has come a long way since then by believing in itself. Iceland's success story will continue if we do not lose faith in ourselves.
In recent years, on the other hand, voices have been heard saying it is not appropriate to make much of Iceland's strengths, and even trying to play down our history and past achievements. It is being argued that everything that happened was more or less inevitable. That too much emphasis has been placed on our successes and too little on things that have not worked out well.
This has even been followed up by casting doubt on the value of sovereignty.
The idea of sovereignty means that Icelanders must really believe that they will be best off if they are in charge of their own affairs and have full control over their resources and take responsibility for their destiny.
It is not possible to say “Of course I support Iceland's sovereignty, but ... the world has become so complicated for a small nation; but international trade has become so great; but supranational federations have become so powerful ...” What about adding that maybe we can't govern ourselves after all? Perhaps the best thing would be to bring in the discipline of a foreign power?
Icelanders knew all these things when they campaigned for their independence. The difference is that conditions were more difficult in every way in those days than they are now.
In the 19th century, when a handful of nations practically ruled the whole world, a people only 50,000 strong on an island in the North Atlantic believed that it should be independent and enjoy rights on a par with nations whose populations were numbered in the millions, colonial and military powers that ruled the world.
This conviction is something we must never lose.
Recently, though, we have even seen people feeling embarrassment when there has been talk of nurturing Icelandic national culture. Even though this attitude is not typical of Icelanders as a whole, it must be a matter of concern when something as valuable and important as the history and culture we share as a nation is used as the butt of jokes.
Those who adopt this tone could learn a great deal from the Vestur-Íslendingar [the ‘Western Icelanders', the communities of Icelandic descent in Canada and the USA]. They have no doubts about the value of Icelandic national culture. Even though they are separated from the old country by thousands of kilometres and the lapse of more than a century and several generations since they left, the Vestur-Íslendingar derive pleasure and strength from their ancestors' culture and history and feel a sincere affection for Iceland.
Pride in one's own origin is important; knowing the value of one's own culture is the pre-requisite for being able to appreciate in full the culture of other nations and treat them with appropriate respect and, last but not least, for standing on a firm base in the international community.
Iceland may never fall prey to doubts about its value and ability as an independent nation.
Few people would probably have believed, back in 1944, or even in 1994, that in years to come, experts would be consulted and asked whether it was appropriate for the President of Iceland to express his views on national sovereignty in a speech. Fortunately, what the experts said gave no cause for criticism, yet this did not prevent those who find this a sensitive issue from then putting their own interpretation on it.
Opinion on whether to join the European Union is divided. Most of those who are open towards the idea of membership are also clearly convinced of the importance of sovereignty. The position of those who question whether membership of the Union would put Iceland in a stronger position must be respected. But there is one thing that Icelanders can all agree on. This is that at the moment, the European Union needs to convince Iceland of its true nature.
The EU took part in the attempts to force Iceland to submit to colossal economic burdens which were contrary to law, and took a step without precedent in its history by taking part in a court action against Iceland. Now the EU must demonstrate that it is a union based on law and equality, and not on power reflecting the size and interests of the large entities within it.
In the light of the extensive debate that has taken place about the implications of EU membership for fishing, Icelanders must also watch and see whether the EU will treat Iceland with greater fairness in disputes over our fishing within our own economic zone. To apply illegal sanctions against a small nation for catching fish in accordance with scientific guidelines and within its own economic zone, at the same time as larger nations are making catches from the same stocks without any criticism being voiced, would hardly promise well for a common fisheries policy.
Finally, the EU must feel the need to convince its own citizens of its true nature, not least the Greeks and those in other countries who have suffered hardship in recent months. The Union must prove that the interests of the ordinary man are the guiding principle in solving the problems of the Euro zone.
I hope that we can become a model for others by tacking the problems that concern us all as a unified people. But what is it that makes us a nation, other than the fact that we live together on a particular island in the North Atlantic? And what is our contribution to world culture? Just before the Republic was founded, Sigurður Nordal wrote: “If we ask what contribution Iceland has made to world culture that other nations should respect, then the first choice is obvious. In material culture, technology and industry, and even in the visual arts of all types, Iceland has been rather backward for most of its history. But in literature and the art of the word, Iceland has preserved, and created, things of permanent value.”
The Icelandic language and the art of the word – these are probably our most important heritage. This is why it is our duty to support the Icelandic language.
“In your own, your inmost mind,
in joy just as in sorrow, you'll find,
Iceland's melody plays on,”
wrote the poet Grímur Thomsen.
We have created a many-faceted modern culture in Iceland, and while influences and styles from many places form part of the mix, with good results, the basis of our culture today still consists largely of our language. Whether, over the centuries, the nation was wreathed in flowers or choked in thorns, we never forgot to describe our plight and express our thoughts in words. The language is our permanent working material which preserves our storehouse of memories, our triumphs and sorrows, our hopes and our dreams.
But a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Sigurður Nordal wrote those words about Icelandic culture. Iceland's contribution to international culture has broadened and become more varied in the past few decades. In academic knowledge, culture, technology, industries and the arts, Icelanders have made their mark in the international arena.
Recent years have seen a growth in our awareness of the special position of Iceland's natural environment in the global context. The growing numbers of foreign visitors to Iceland bear witness to this. We should welcome them with open arms, not merely because they bring us foreign-currency earnings but because hospitality is an important part of our national culture. Travellers who return to their homes with good memories are also the best form of publicity for Iceland.
But this also brings us to one of the greatest challenges of the present time. What is the best way to preserve the extraordinary beauty of our country without putting excessive restrictions on our utilisation of its natural resources? We must proceed with caution here and strive to establish the broadest possible consensus about the balance that must reign.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today we commemorate the foundation of the Republic of Iceland in 1944. This day, which was also Jón Sigurðsson's birthday, is an important part of our culture. On this day we join together in honouring the memory of those who in centuries past fought for our country's freedom and our nation's progress. We also recall the fact that freedom and democracy are still not within reach for millions of people in the world at large.
Every day you make achievements, great and small. Students who are graduating; farmers, many of whom went through an unusually difficult winter; fishermen harvesting an important natural resource; people who manage or work in companies of all types across the country; workers in the health services and the police, who ensure our health and safety; teachers and experts in the schools who see to the education of our children and the employees of companies and institutions who serve us on a daily basis with skill and dedication.
I should like to thank you, and indeed the whole nation, for your contribution. It is greatly appreciated. A community is a cooperative venture in which all jobs should be greatly appreciated and all citizens should enjoy equality of rights and scope. Iceland has such opportunities, resources and human talent that everyone should be able to live in prosperity.
Now begins summer and the period of longest daylight, a time of growth and enjoyment in our daily lives. I hope you all have an enjoyable summer, both in work and at play.
Ahead of us lie great challenges of various types which we must tackle as one man. It is my hope, and I believe, that in cooperation we will manage to take important and purposeful steps forward, achieving greater welfare for all the people of this country.
May the Icelandic people enjoy prosperity in the days to come.
“With steaming springs and bracing breeze,
Majestic glaciers, azure seas,
To thrive, upright, enlightened, wise and free –
By furthest ocean's rim.”
Let us celebrate our National Day together.