In Focus: Bjarni Benediktsson

bjarni benediktsson

A snap press conference On Monday, October 10, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson called a snap press conference. The call came on the heels of an opinion authored by the Parliamentary Ombudsman that concluded that the Minister of Finance’s role in the ongoing privatisation process of the Íslandsbanki bank – which had been nationalised following the 2008 […]

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Iceland to Strengthen Support for UN Aid in Gaza

Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced that it will contribute 70 million ISK [$504,000; €477,000] to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in response to a UN call for increased aid to Palestine.

This contribution is in addition to Iceland’s regular funding to the organization, which is one of Iceland’s cooperation partners in humanitarian matters.

Iceland Travellers in Israel Brought Safely to Jordan

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated: “The terrible escalation of events in the Gaza Strip primarily affects ordinary citizens. The number of victims is in the hundreds of thousands. Iceland has condemned the actions of the terrorist organization Hamas and reminded Israel of the importance of adhering to international law, including human rights. Such words matter, but by making a significant financial contribution to help the victims of this crisis, we go beyond words and can alleviate the suffering of those who are suffering and are victims of these circumstances. I hope that the world’s nations will stand together in ensuring the safety and well-being of the civilian population in their response to the current situation.”

Iceland has cooperated with UNRWA for decades, and the organization provides humanitarian assistance and protection, basic education, health, and social services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, as well as those displaced in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNRWA is the main United Nations agency responding to the current crisis, providing assistance to both refugees and others affected by the conflict.

Last September, the Minister of Foreign Affairs signed a framework agreement with UNRWA for the continued support of Icelandic authorities to the organization for the next five years. With the additional contribution announced today, Iceland’s funding to the organization for this year matches the contributions specified in the binding agreement for coming years.

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Bjarni and Þórdís Swap in Ministerial Reshuffle

bjarni benediktsson

Changes to the government were announced on Saturday, October 14. Former Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson is now Foreign Minister and former Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Gylfadóttir is now Finance Minister.

The ministerial swap was announced at Edda, the new Centre for Icelandic Studies, and the ministers formally took on their new roles at Bessastaðir, the presidential residence.

Read more: Bjarni Benediktsson Sits for Last Parliamentary Session as Finance Minister

The ministerial swap is considered especially significant given the current political and economic situation, including upcoming wage negotiations, high inflation, and the still-unfolding aftermath of the controversial Íslandsbanki share auction.

Bjarni resigned from office on October 10 when the Parliamentary Ombudsman issued an official statement criticizing his handling of the March 2022 sale, in which a group of “qualified investors” were given priority to purchase Íslandsbanki shares. Among these qualified investors was Benedikt Sveinsson, the father of the now-former Finance Minister.

According to the weekend announcement, another minister is needed to reach an agreement on the sale of Íslandsbanki. Bjarni claims to have found majority support in parliament to continue selling the state’s stake in Íslandsbanki, though he has acknowledged that opinions like those presented by the Parliamentary Ombudsman have made it difficult for him to lead this effort.

Trading places

Finance Minister Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stressed the importance of finalising the sale of Íslandsbanki in her first statement to the press. She expressed her excitement for the tasks ahead in her new position, stating that “the tasks I take upon myself are always on my mind.”

According to the new Finance Minister, the fight against inflation and better utilization of public funds are among the most pressing tasks ahead. She also stated that she is ready to take on a leadership position within the Independence Party, Iceland’s centre-right party and a member of the current governing coalition, when the time comes.

Bjarni stated to RÚV that he was excited to take over duties at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time,” he stated, adding that he was focused on “not worrying too much” over the past few days.

A revolving door

Ólafur Þ. Harðarson, a professor of political science, stated to RÚV that the news did not come as a surprise.

According to Ólafur, although there has been some tension within the coalition, he believes that the government is stronger now than if Bjarni had left the government.

However, Ólafur stated that it is unusual for a minister to shoulder responsibility by resigning and moving to another ministerial position.

“Some have said that such a revolving door policy is unprecedented in the Nordics,” he stated. However, he highlighted Denmark as a recent example of such ministerial reshuffling, adding: “Such practices are not without precedent, though it is not common practice throughout the region.”

 

 

 

Zelenskyy Gifted Icelandic Lopapeysa from Foreign Minister

Icelandic sweater for Zelenskyy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was gifted an Icelandic sweater (i.e. lopapeysa) by Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs on Sunday. “I’m proud and honoured,” the designer of the sweater told Iceland Review this morning.

“A strange request”

Writing on Facebook yesterday, Icelandic singer Salka Sól described an unusual phone call that she received from the Assistant to the Minister for Foreign Affairs recently:

“I was asked to knit, for the President of Ukraine, an Icelandic lopapeysa, which the President would receive as a gift from the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I couldn’t say no to such a request. I called my collaborator Sjöfn Kristjánsdóttir, and together we knitted two lopapeysur over the space of five days with good help from Eygló (Gísladóttir). Zelenskyy received the sweaters on Sunday … we hope that he’ll be spotted wearing them soon; most of all, however, we hope that the war will end.”

In an interview with Iceland Review this morning, designer Sjöfn Kristjánsdóttir echoed Salka’s sentiments: it was the most unusual request that she had received.

“We were very surprised, but at the same time, incredibly proud and honoured to be handed this assignment. Zelenskyy is an incredible person, whom we have watched – like the rest of the world – from the sidelines. To be able to contribute, on behalf of the Icelandic nation, is amazing; it’s something that I’ll never forget.”

As noted by Sjöfn, the Icelandic lopapeysa is a legally protected product, having received a Designation of Origin status from the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority in 2020; sweaters with the traditional decorative pattern can only be labelled as “Icelandic sweaters” if they are knitted by hand in Iceland using Icelandic wool. “This sweater meets all the criteria,” Sjöfn observed, adding that producing two sweaters in the space of just five days was a lot of work.

“Of course, when two hyperactive women come together – they decide to make two sweaters. We knitted incessantly. I had a sick child at home; I made good use of sleepless nights.”

Witnessing the destruction firsthand

As noted in an article on Mbl.is, Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún, alongside other foreign ministers from the Nordic and Baltic countries, met with Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian ministers on Sunday.

The ministers discussed the situation in Ukraine, with representatives from the latter country calling for continued support. The ministers from the Nordic and Baltic countries also acquainted themselves firsthand with the damages wrought by the Russian military and laid a wreath of flowers in honour of the victims of The Holodomor (the Great Famine), which cost millions of Ukrainians their lives between 1932-1933.

“It’s important to witness the conditions of the Ukrainian capital with one’s own eyes,” Þórdís Kolbrún was quoted as saying in a press release on the government’s website, “even if our visit was brief. One is, first and foremost, faced with the terrible consequences of Russia’s incessant attacks on the country’s infrastructure. Keeping the electricity on, during the intense and tangible winter cold, is a constant battle: everything is covered in snow and the frost is biting.”

Ukraine
Salka Sól, Þórdís Kolbrún, and Sjöfn Kristjánsdóttir

Iceland Closes Airspace to Russia

Iceland

The Icelandic government has decided to close its airspace to Russian aircraft. RÚV reports that Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir announced the decision via Twitter on Sunday morning, “in solidarity with Ukraine.”

Iceland was one of several Nordic countries to close its airspace to Russia over the weekend; Denmark, Sweden, and Finland announced that they would be doing the same on Sunday. Britain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania have also closed their airspace to Russia and Germany has announced its intention to do so as well. It’s expected that Russia will face a total EU airspace ban shortly.

Iceland condemns Russia’s ‘brutal and unprovoked attack’ on Ukraine, sends €1 million in aid

Þórdís Kolbrún has made a number of public statements condemning Russia’s assault on Ukraine in recent days. On February 24, the first day of Russia’s invasion, Þórdís Kolbrún gave an official statement, stating that Iceland condemned “in the strongest possible terms, the brutal and unprovoked attack of Russia on Ukraine.” She continued: “Russia’s action is a flagrant violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, and is in full contradiction to the Helsinki Final Act.” That same day, she tweeted that Iceland would be sending €1 million [ISK 141.19 million; USD 1.13 million] in humanitarian support to Ukraine.

The next day, she urged the Council of Europe to suspend “Russia’s right of representation in the Council of Europe with immediate effect.”

According to information from the Foreign Ministry, Iceland will also be revoking special privileges that have been afforded Russians coming to Iceland via existing bilateral agreements, such as simplified visa processing for Russian diplomats, businesspeople, politicians, and government representatives. The ministry has emphasized, however, that these moves are “not directed at general Russian tourists, students, or others,” whose visa applications will continue to be reviewed as per usual.

Iceland’s airspace patrolled by NATO

Iceland’s airspace is patrolled by NATO as part of an ongoing mission, called Icelandic Air Policing, which is meant “to establish air surveillance and interception coverage over Iceland and maintain the integrity of NATO airspace.” NATO members maintain a periodic presence of fighter aircraft from the former US military base at Keflavík. Icelandic Air Policing typically involves member nations deploying fighter aircraft to patrol Iceland’s airspace three times a year, for periods of three to four weeks at a time.

Russian Embassy Criticises Foreign Minister’s, President’s Tweets

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson.

The Russian Embassy in Reykjavík has expressed disappointment in Tweets authored by the President of Iceland and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Embassy has called the Tweets, which declare support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, “one-sided” and “subjective.”

Supportive tweets

On February 15, Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir took to Twitter to encourage Russia to “deescalate” and “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine. The Tweets followed the Minister’s meeting with Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, in which the pair discussed “the serious security situation in Europe.”

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson retweeted the Minister’s message a day later, extending a greeting to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine on the newly declared Unity Day: “Iceland is united with (its) NATO Allies to call on Russia to deescalate and respect the sovereignty & territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

The Russian Embassy responds

Yesterday, the Russian Embassy in Reykjavík responded to the President’s and Minister’s Tweets, saying that it had been “deeply disappointed with Reykjavík’s one-sided and subjective comprehension of the real situation in the region.”

The Embassy holds that the escalation at the Ukrainian border is to be traced to the failure of Ukrainian authorities to comply with the Minsk II agreement – which has proven difficult to implement, owing in no small part to profound differences in interpretation between Moscow and Kyiv – and the “active participation” of Western countries in the militarisation of Ukraine.

The Embassy called on Iceland to take a “more balanced and constructive approach” towards matters of European security.

Rising tensions

Tensions have been growing between Ukraine and Russia over the past few weeks. According to the US, Russia is believed to have amassed approximately 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, demanding that Ukraine be permanently denied membership to NATO and that NATO remove all soldiers and weapons from Eastern Europe. NATO has rejected these demands on the grounds of the principle of self-determination.

US President Biden stated yesterday that it was “highly likely” that Russia would invade Ukraine in the coming days; the Russian authorities have denied that they harbour any such plans.

(This article was updated at 9.40 AM)

Air Services Agreement Signed With Ukraine

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir and Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmyto Kuleba signed an Air Services Agreement between Iceland and Ukraine yesterday. This is the first international agreement Þórdís signs in her new role as Minister.

The agreement was signed in Stockholm where Þórdís Kolbrún is attending a Ministerial Council of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Dmytro Kuleba signed the agreement on behalf of Ukrainian authorities. This is the first air service agreement between Iceland and Ukraine, and it addresses commercial flights between the two countries.

“Air Services Agreements are among the most important international agreements ensuring transportation to and from Iceland, as well as facilitating access to international markets for Icelandic flight operators,” stated Þórdís Kolbrún. “The global pandemic has shown how fragile this environment can be for outside effects. Even though we’ve had to adapt to changed situations, we will of course continue to take the interests of flight operators into account when making agreements such as this one.”

Icelandic Seafood Export Bypasses UK Due to Brexit Delays

fishing regulations iceland

Icelandic seafood exporters have needed to adapt to a changed situation in the UK by shipping seafood to Europe through Rotterdam instead of Immingham, Fiskifréttir newspaper reported today. Hopefully, the changes are temporary. Iceland’s seafood export to the UK is one of the issues still up for discussion in Iceland’s trade deal with the UK, which is still to be finalised.

Considerable delays and interruptions have occurred in seafood transport from the UK to countries in the European Union following the Uk’s final exit from the union at the end of last year. Icelandic shipping companies have been affected by delays and have had to adapt to the situation, especially regarding seafood products they have transported to Europe via the UK. Fresh fish has up until now been regularly shipped to Immingham in the UK, loaded on to trucks and driven to France. According to Eimskip representative Björn Einarsson, customers have stopped using the UK as a transit harbour for mainland Europe, due to delays in the Channel Tunnel and tariff issues at the UK-France border. Fresh fish is now shipping directly to Rotterdam instead of going through Europe. “People have adapted their shipping procedures so that the product goes straight to market in Europe through Rotterdam without passing through the UK.” According to Björn, this has not impacted distribution within the UK or export to the UK.

Samskip representative Þórunn Inga Ingjaldsdóttir states that it’s too soon to draw conclusions regarding the future only two weeks into the new year. “Delays surrounding Brexit were foreseen.” Exporters have been anticipating this moment for a while now as EU-UK negotiations stretched on. “We’d changed our system a while ago to be able to continue servicing our customers that ship directly to the European markets,” stated Þórunn Inga. She added that Samskip makes it clear that the situation is temporary. “We’ve worked hard to keep up delivery schedules and a high level of service with our customers and friends in the UK.”

In an interview with Viðskiptablaðið today, Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson discusses changes to Iceland-UK business relations due to Brexit. While temporary deals with the UK are in place, Guðlaugur notes that despite Brexit finally being a reality, there are still plenty of things to settle regarding trade. As part of the EEA, Iceland is bound in certain ways and until the EU’s Brexit deal was in place, EEA negotiations have been on hold.

When it comes to UK-Iceland trade negotiations, seafood is the most important. “If you were to generalise about the UK, they tend to eat fish caught by other nations while exporting the fish caught in their own fishing jurisdiction.” He mentions as an example the quintessentially British dish of fish and chips, which is, by and large, prepared using Icelandic cod. The UK is also Iceland’s largest export market for lamb. Guðlaugur Þór claimed it was important on this occasion to look at the big picture and continue working towards increased cooperation between nations in Europe, stating: “The UK needs Europe and Europe needs the UK. Cooperation is necessary for more fields than trade.” He added that the EEA states have had no trouble cooperating with the countries of the EU and therefore, there shouldn’t have to be any problems for the UK to continue to work closely with other European countries.

Meeting with US Secretary Cancelled

Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson’s scheduled meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been cancelled, RÚV reports.

Guðlaugur Þór had intended to seek an exemption to the US’s travel ban for Iceland. However as more and more countries close their borders and the US extends its travel ban to include the UK and Ireland (both of which were previously exempted), most such meetings have been cancelled.

In the days since the US closed its borders to foreign nationals from Europe’s Schengen area, other countries, such as Denmark, Norway, Poland, and Russia, have put similar measures in place. At the time of writing, there were no travel restrictions for tourists entering Iceland, but up to date information can be found on the Directorate of Health’s website.

Minister of Foreign Affairs to Seek Exception to Travel Ban

Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson will meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington DC next week, RÚV reports. Guðlaugur Þór had initially requested a phone call to discuss the terms of US President Donald Trump’s recent European travel ban but received an invitation to an in-person meeting on Thursday instead. Guðlaugur Þór will use the meeting to seek an exemption to the travel ban for Iceland.

See Also: Iceland Among Countries Facing US Travel Ban

After the ban was announced, Guðlaugur Þór attended a meeting at the US Embassy in Reykjavík and spoke with both US Ambassador Jeffrey Ross Gunter and his deputy to discuss the matter. Guðlaugur Þór’s assistant, Borgar Þór Einarsson, told reporters that it is likely that the US Secretary’s decision to invite him to a meeting stemmed from this discussion.

Borgar Þór said that the minister intends to lay out a logistical plan for how an Icelandic exemption could be managed. He also to emphasize Iceland’s “unique position” in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, namely that it is an island nation just like the UK, which has been exempted from President Trump’s travel ban.