Pence Focused on Business and Defence During Iceland Visit
US Vice President Mike Pence met with President of Iceland Guðni Th Jóhannesson, Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, Reykjavík City Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson, and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir during his first visit to Iceland yesterday. Before continuing his journey to the UK, Pence also attended a U.S.-Iceland Trade and Investment Roundtable and inspected the Keflavík airbase.
Traffic delays and road closures
Police warned of temporary traffic delays due to road closures in connection with Pence’s visit. Locals were annoyed with the traffic disturbances but more perturbed by the heavily weaponised security detail Pence’s visit required, most notably the snipers visible on the top of surrounding buildings.
Roads were only closed to cars so pedestrians and bicyclists could move unhindered. Due to the road closures, Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson arrived at the meeting at the historic Höfði house on a bicycle and had a hard time convincing security officials that he was, indeed, the mayor. “I’ve never seen a mayor on a bike,” said a sceptic head of security. “There’s a first time for everything,” was the mayor’s answer.
Icelandic officials discuss business, defence, climate change, and equality with Pence
At Höfði, Pence met with President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and First Lady Eliza Reid. A former historian, the President told Pence about the history of the house, which was the location of the 1986 meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. He also told the Vice President that “I hope you will enjoy your stay. And I hope that you will get a sense of how we value a strong and healthy relationship with the U.S. and that you will also get a sense of the values we cherish here: freedom, diversity, international cooperation, respect for each other.” Pence mentioned that he was thankful for the presence of the US forces in Iceland at a time when China and Russia were increasingly active across the Arctic. Guðni’s reply was, “And we must try to avoid at all cost some kind of scramble for the Arctic, and we will work together there, and look back on history and look forward to the future.”
Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór and Pence conducted a U.S.-Iceland Trade and Investment Roundtable. In his official remarks, Guðlaugur told the Vice President that it was “no secret that I would like to explore the possibility of a free trade agreement with the United States.” Pence acknowledged that this meeting could be the first step in establishing such a deal but also stressed Iceland and the US’s defence cooperation and Iceland’s status as a founding member of NATO.
Addressing the press, Pence expressed his concerns about China and Russia’s increased activity in the region, congratulating Iceland on rejecting China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure investment project. While Iceland hasn’t agreed to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, no decision to formally decline participation has been taken. This was later confirmed by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who called Pence’s comment “not exactly accurate.” Pence furthermore warned Icelanders to reject the technology of Chinese company Huawei. He stated: “Huawei is essentially a Chinese company that, under Chinese law, is required to turn over all of the data that it collects to the Chinese government and the Communist Party.” Icelandic telecommunication company Nova relies heavily on Huawei technology.
Pence met with Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Keflavík. The meeting took place shortly after Katrín arrived from abroad, and as previously reported, scheduling conflicts made it difficult to find time for the meeting in the first place. In their opening remarks, Pence once again reiterated Iceland’s business relations as well as their desire for continuing security cooperation. Katrín added that she would want to discuss the climate crisis and gender equality, what she called the core of the government program. She told Kastljós later that day that gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights were a key component of the government’s policy and that there was no secret that she and the Vice President had different political viewpoints. Katrín emphasised that Iceland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council would put climate issues in the spotlight. She also stated that it was important to keep the Arctic as peaceful as possible, because she was of the opinion that “the climate danger was the biggest threat to the area by far.” According to Katrín, the other big issue what was discussed was defence matters but that nothing was discussed that wasn’t already planned.
Vice president Pence is known for his controversial conservative stances on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, and local opposition to his presence was evident. Early in the day, news broke that two people had been arrested for burning the US flag across the street from Höfði House. They were detained for a while and released later that day.
On a more colourful note, Reykjavík locals made their views on Pence’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues clear. Several companies and municipal government offices surrounding Höfði and in other locations around the city centre raised rainbow flags to indicate their support for LGBT+ rights.
Protesters gathered at Austurvöllur square later that day to protest Pence’s views on LGBTQ+ rights, climate change, as well as US immigration policies and military influence. The protesters’ slogan was“Let’s stand together in peace, freedom, and a green future,” and was co-organised by over a dozen local activist groups.
Sending a message to China
Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir, associate professor in international communication at the political science faculty of the University of Iceland stated to RÚV that China’s increased focus on the Arctic has made this area and the connection to Iceland more important to the US government, citing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit in February and Vice President Pence’s visit as evidence. According to her, US security interest weighed heavier than business affairs. Russian military activity in the Arctic is not what it once was, but China is focusing on the Arctic as trade routes open up due to climate change.
“Perhaps the US has some inkling that China is increasing its activity or this could be a preventative measure to make sure Chinese influence won’t take hold here.” According to Silja, Pence’s comment that Iceland had already declined participation in the Belt and Road Initiative could be seen as the US stating their will that Iceland stear clear of Chinese investment.
According to Albert Jónsson, expert in international relations, Mike Pence’s visit is a signal to China that this part of the world is under US influence. “I think this is mostly about sending a message to China. And it’s connected to the US policy in their increasing competition with China, a rising international superpower. Russia is included, but their activity in the Arctic is a known figure and has been for decades.”