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.”

 

 

 

A Matter of State

Evrópuráðið Harpa Reykjavík Pólítík

It’s a cold spring day in Reykjavík and winds buffet optimistic tourists in flip-flops. Above, the sky hangs low, an endless expanse of grey. Normal enough for May. Today, however, bulletproof, black limousines loiter in front of Harpa and reports of cyberattacks filter out of Alþingi. A helicopter belches shimmering-hot wakes of exhaust as it […]

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Iceland Opens Embassy in Poland

minister of foreign affairs iceland

Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir is in Warsaw today for the opening of Iceland’s embassy there.

In a statement to Morgunblaðið, the minster said: “”The deep respect and friendship that exist between Iceland and Poland is of great value to Iceland, and it is with pride that I take part in opening our embassy in Warsaw on the day of Icelandic Sovereignty.”

In her statement, she also pointed out that Poland has had an embassy in Iceland since 2013, and that some 20,000 Polish citizens reside in Iceland, accounting for 40% of all immigrants in Iceland.

Read more: Iceland to Open Embassy in Warsaw this Autumn

The minister also stated:

“Today the Icelandic embassy in Warsaw will be opened, on the day Icelanders celebrate their sovereignty in 1918. Around the same time, at the end of 1918, an independent and sovereign Poland was rising from the ruins of the First World War. Iceland recognized the Republic of Poland in January 1922 – exactly a century ago – and diplomatic relations officially began in 1946.

Since the end of the Second World War, the relations between the countries have been strong and growing in many areas. The most important thing in my mind is that a large number of people from Poland and of Polish origin have enriched Icelandic society by settling here for a longer or shorter period of time. […]

Poland has had an embassy in Iceland since 2013, and our relations on many joint platforms are exemplary. However, it is not just to maintain reciprocal relations I made the decision to open an embassy in Warsaw, but I recognize the fact that Poland is one of the leading countries in Europe in cultural, political, scientific and economic terms.”

Read more about Iceland’s Polish community here.

 

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.

All Icelanders to Receive Gift Certificate for Domestic Tourism

Icelandair Marina Hotel

Icelandic residents 18 and older will each receive a voucher worth ISK 5,000 ($36/€33), redeemable at hotels and tourism companies around the country between June and December of this year. Minister of Tourism Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir said the measure was “first and foremost symbolic,” but that it would make a difference to smaller companies. The measure was first announced as part of the government’s first economic response package to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Icelandic Travel Industry Association and the Icelandic Tourist Board held an information meeting presenting the measure this morning. The voucher will likely be distributed via a smartphone app to all adult residents, who number around 250,000. The total cost of the measure will therefore be around ISK 1.5 billion ($10.8 million/€9.8 million).

The credit will be redeemable for accomodation, transporation, dining, and activities within the tourism industry. It will also be transferable, though no individual will be allowed to redeem more than 15 vouchers. Tourism companies will also have a cap on how many vouchers they may accept, though the cap is relatively high at 20,000 vouchers, or ISK 100 million ($723,000/€656,000).

Tourism Minister Þórdís Kolbrún stated that the government recognised the measure was not in and of itself enough to save struggling companies. “We realise that 5,000 krónur to all Icelanders 18 years and older does not change whether companies live or die. This is first and foremost a symbolic measure. But it will matter, especially for companies with smaller capacity.”

Processing Time for Asylum Applications Will Be Shorter

Asylum seeker protest Reykjavík

Minister of Justice Þórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir authorized the Directore of Immigration to shorten the processing time for refugee applications and designated additional funding to the office to make this possible, RÚV reports. She emphasized that children’s application should be given first priority, “[b]ecause ten to twelve months is a long time. In reality, it’s longer for children than for adults because they are quicker to put down roots,” she remarked.

New regulations may not prevent planned deportations

Þórdís Kolbrún announced this decision on Friday in the wake of protests earlier in the week against the planned deportation of two Afghan families with children. On Thursday, a crowd of an estimated 1,000 protesters marched from Hallgrímskirkja church to Austurvöllur square in front of Alþingi to show solidarity with single father Asadullah Sarwary and his ten and nine-year-old sons, Mahdi and Ali, as well as with single mother Shahnaz Safari and her 12-year-old son Amir and 14-year-old daughter Zainab. Both families are currently set to be deported back to Greece, where they already received international protection status, but where the Red Cross has deemed living conditions for children with this status to be unfit.

Þórdís Kolbrún said she could not comment on whether Friday’s decision would have any impact on both family’s deportations. “I can’t answer exactly what the result will be, as the decision isn’t mine. We are only reviewing the system and presenting specific suggestions.” Following Friday’s change in regulations, the next step will be to appoint someone not involved in parliament to oversee a specially designated parliamentary committee on issues relating to foreigners.

“We need to take a humane approach to the reception of immigrants and refugees”

Iceland has not deported refugees to Greece on the basis of the Dublin regulation in nearly a decade. There are, however, additional regulations regarding people who have received international protections in Greece, as the Afghan families set to be deported have. People who receive international protection in Greece do not go through the asylum system there, which has been deemed to be unacceptable.

When asked to comment further on the Left-Green leadership’s policies on asylum issues, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said: “Our policy is based on the idea that we need to take a humane approach to the reception of immigrants and refugees. This is the same standard as what we have for immigration law: if we think that it isn’t working like it should, then it’s important to examine it and that’s what we’re doing.”

Katrín noted that international organizations are not in agreement about the living conditions of people who have been granted international protection in Greece. “The Red Cross has now come forward with its concerns about the situation in Greece,” she explained. “The reason it was sent to Greece is that [Iceland is a member] of the UN Refugee Agency. We follow their instructions.”

Þórdís Kolbrún has requested a meeting with the Red Cross to further discuss the living conditions for people with international protection in Greece and says that this needs to be situated within the broader context of living conditions in that country in general. “…[I]ndividuals who’ve received international protection and are in Greece are, in reality, in the same situation as Greek citizens who require social assistance,” she said. “This needs to be looked at in that context as well.”

Þórdís Kolbrún Gylfadóttir New Minister of Justice

Pictured above: Iceland’s cabinet. Þórdís Kolbrún sits far left. Photo: Golli.

The current Minister of Tourism, Industry, and Innovation Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir will add the title Minister of Justice to her duties. Þórdís will take on the post temporarily, replacing Sigríður Andersen after she stepped down in the wake of a decision by the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled that Sigríður’s appointments to the Court of Appeal had been unlawful and impeded individuals’ rights to a fair trial.

This turn of events was revealed earlier today after a closed meeting was held by MPs of the Independence Party.

Þórdís Kolbrún is a member of the Independence Party and has been a member of Parliament for the Northwest constituency since 2016. She has held her role as Minister of Tourism, Industry, and Innovation since January 2017, when she became the youngest woman to became an Icelandic minister, at the age of 29. Þórdís Kolbrún is vice chairperson of the Independence Party and replaces her fellow party member Sigríður Andersen.