Newspaper: Viðskiptablaðið www.vb.is; Journalist: Jóhannes Stefánsson; Published: 10 July 2014; Page: 20-22
Bjartur lives also inside Brits
The British Ambassador to Iceland admires Icelanders´ creativity. He says that Icelanders have a strong nationalism which is reflected in the discussions on the European Union in similar ways to the UK. Iceland´s reputation has improved substantially and it is important that Icelanders discuss whether they want to offer liberal trade or keep the constraints.
“This interview is over!” This is how Viðskiptablaðið´s interview with Stuart Gill, the British Ambassador to Iceland, starts. The reason is that the Ambassador was asked about the English football team and the World Cup, which is now on. The Ambassador then laughs and leans back in a sofa in his office. The Ambassador was appointed Her Majesty´s Ambassador to Iceland in October 2013 . Gill is 55 years old, has two children and is born in Sussex and raised in Brighton.
He is married and lives with his wife in the Ambassador´s Residence which is next to the British Embassy on Laufásvegur in Reykjavík. “This is the shortest distance I´ve ever had to travel to work”, says Gill with and Oxford accent and smiles.
Admires Icelanders´ creativity
“You are very friendly”, Gill says. “One of the things I had heard before I came here was that it is very difficult to get to know Icelanders. I haven´t been aware of that at all. People have been very open to me. You are also very creative and that can be seen very clearly in the culture. You can´t but admire a nation where one in every ten publishes a book during their lifetime. The creativity also breaks out in the music”, he says.
Gill then adds: “You also have incredible industry, whether it is the creative industry or the high tech industry. We like very much what we see here. It cannot also be forgotten, even though this is not the main thing, that no one has road rage here. We Brits are maybe not doing so well in that area”, the Ambassador says and laughs.
Bjartur of Summerhouses can be found in many homes
But do you think there is anything weird or quirky about Icelanders?
“No, I wouldn´t use those words. Part of my job is to get to know the culture here and that´s why I tried to talk to as many people as possible at the beginning. One piece of advice that I was given again and again in order to understand Icelanders was to read Independent People by Halldór Laxness. Even though Bjartur of Summerhouses is of course a stereotype, and I don´t like stereotypes, I still found him helpful in understanding your cultural heritage more clearly”, the Ambassador says.
“You are an island State with your own resources. And you defend your resources. You have difficult times during Winter when it is cold and dark, and these things come together and shape the personality of Icelanders”, Gill says.
“It is maybe especially interesting in this context that people tend to mention Bjartur of Summerhouses quite often in relation to the European Union, which is one of the matters I´m following closely”, the Ambassador says. “I especially remember the words of a business man who I invited to the Residence. We were having dinner when he said “Look, when it comes to the European Union, as a business man I want to be a part of it. As an Icelander, I on the other hand don´t want it”. This was very informative for me”, Gill says.
The Ambassador feels that the importance of independence can be felt clearly in the political debate in the UK as well as in Iceland. “David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, gave a speech not so long ago on UK´s European Union membership. He said that when he was talking about the national spirit of Brits: “We are an independent island State”, and I thought to myself: Wait a minute, who is he talking about? The will to be independent is thus very strong in both nations”.
Nations´ connection with their independence can though appear differently. “It can be crystallised in protective and isolationalistic nationalism which some might think rather shortsighted. I can sometimes see these perspectives in the political debate. But Iceland is a very international country in many ways. The geographical location of the country is very important. People go abroad more, not just the younger generations. Icelanders go to universities in the UK, they do business in the UK and go there for holidays”, Gill says.
The future of Europe is important for both nations
You mentioned the European Union. There are many similarities between the things that are happening here in Iceland and in the UK regarding that matter. Voices of scepticism about the European Union are now very loud in the UK. What do you think Iceland needs to do?
“It is correct that there are many similarities between the debate in Iceland and in the UK. But just so it is clear, our Prime Minister announced last year that it was the UK government´s policy to stay in the European Union. It is a force for good. Things like the internal market have clearly had a good impact on us. Also, there has been peace in Europe, and that has in many ways been because of the establishment of the European Union”, Gill says.
But not everything is good when it comes to the European Union. “There are many things which are not right in the Union. There is not enough flexibility, the internal market isn´t good enough and there are some problems with democratic accountability. There are thus too many people in the UK who feel like the European Union is something that “happens to them” instead of feeling that they are a part of it”, the Ambassador adds. David Cameron has announced that if he will still be the Prime Minister after next year´s election, British people will be able to vote on whether they want to continue to be a part of the European Union or not.
“This is a debate which has also started here. I think even though it is the Icelandic government´s position that they are not interested in joining the European Union and have stopped the negotiations, there are opportunities to have mature discussions on this matter, both in Iceland and between Iceland and the UK on how the European Union should look in the future”, Gill says.
“In this regard, I think that Icelanders and Brits have a similar stance, that they are looking for something that is maybe a little bit more flexible and for something that takes different circumstances into account”, the Ambassador says.
He then adds: “It is though correct to add to this that we are not saying to Icelanders: “We want you take make a decision in this matter.” When you are ready to make a decision, fine. When that happens, we want to continue this discussion. That is our opinion,” Gill says.
Brits wouldn´t accept a naming committee
When asked whether Icelanders should increase liberalisation of trade to make it easier for Costco to come to Iceland, Gill says that it is not his role to tell the Icelandic authorities what they should do regarding this matter. “The case though raises some important questions on opportunities to invest, competition and the liberalisation of trade on the one hand, and regulation, security and protectionism on the other hand. This is a debate that I´m following closely”, Gill says.
A girl with a dual citizenship, Harriet Cardew, was recently denied an Icelandic passport. The reason was because the name Harriet hadn´t been approved by the naming committee. Harriet had thus to go to the British Embassy which issued an emergency passport so she could leave the country. Gill makes the point that it had been done as a part of the Embassy´s normal service to British citizens.
When asked what the Ambassador thinks about a naming committee, he says that he feels like it is connected to Icelandic history, heritage and culture. “I want though to mention that I don´t want to get drawn into a debate on this issue”, the Ambassador says. A similar arrangement would however never be agreed to in the UK. “That would never happen”, Gill says. “We have a liberal approached on how parents name their children”, he adds.
The Icesave result was a surprise
“When I came here, there were mainly three things I knew I had to focus on. Firstly it was Icesave, secondly the mackerel dispute, and thirdly the membership negotiations between Iceland and the European Union. This had all changed a few months later. Icesave changed because of the outcome of the EFTA court, which removed the state to state relationship difficulties. My predecessor had spent four years before me working on this”.
Did the result surprise you?
“I think it surprised many people, and if I´m allowed to say so, many Icelanders were surprised. But this was the court´s decision and the bright side of this is that we can now move forward”, Gill says.
“Regarding the mackerel dispute. Fine, Iceland didn´t end up as a contracting party in the end, but that dispute is at least over between the UK and Iceland”, Gill says. He hope, though, that Iceland will at some point be a part of the agreement.
“Then thirdly it is the European Union. It was of course never a dispute between the nations, but the matter has developed like I mentioned before”, Gill says.
“So the relationship between the nations has changed a lot and is now more like a traditional bilateral state relationship. The emphasis will now move to business and investment between the states”, Gill says. He mentions that he has been given special instructions from the British government to focus on business and investment.
When it comes to the relationship between the two nations, he says that even though there have sometimes been disputes between Iceland and the UK, the relationship has been more characterised by friendship and that there is an underlying close cooperation between the two nations. “We go to each other´s universities and more tourists are coming here than ever. Brits are now the biggest group of tourists by nationality coming to Iceland, and there are more coming”, Gill says and adds: “You speak great English, you read British newspapers and you support English football teams”.
Iceland´s reputation has improved substantially
The Ambassador says that there are many opportunities for Icelandic companies in the UK and vice versa. The tourist industry is an example of that. “No other country in the world has as many direct flights to Iceland as the UK. Easyjet and Flybe are now offering flights from nine destinations in the UK to Iceland. That tells a certain story”, Gill says. He also mentions geothermal energy, closer cooperation in the fishing industry, which employs thousands of Brits already, and the food industry.
“The single biggest opportunity now is a thousand kilometre long interconnector between Iceland and the UK. This is a two billion Pound investment in the longest interconnector in the world today. It would create revenue for Iceland and be beneficial for the industry in the UK, but in the end it is all about diversity in electricity production and green energy”, the Ambassador says.
Some Icelandic companies, and even Iceland as such, didn’t have a very good reputation in the UK shortly after the economic crash in 2008. Has this changed, and are any opportunities for them there?
“This is not a problem anymore, we have some fantastic Icelandic companies in the UK. Companies like CCP, Össur, Marel, Eimskip and now recently Meniga and Mentor. They see the benefits in operating in the UK and we of course welcome them“, Gill says and smiles.
The liberalisation of trade can be thanked for the success of the UK
What is the most important message from the UK to Iceland? What is it that you would like to see the Icelandic government do?
“Continue doing business with us. Continue investing”, Gill says and adds: “The main reason why the UK has been so successful in attracting foreign investment is the liberalisation of trade, how easy it is to do business. The European Union and the access to a market of 500 million people in 28 countries and to hold down the tax burden, is also important here. We try to do everything possible not to burden companies and we are as open to foreign investment as we possibly can be”, the Ambassador says.
Should the Icelandic government be looking into something specific?
“Look, I would be very happy for the Icelandic government if it would learn from us, but we can also learn from you. I mean, I think that it is not my role to tell you what you should do. You have your own restrictions and have your own policy issues. But there is clearly a debate going on around these matters, which I am closely following, for example regarding the abolition of the capital controls. It would be one of these things that would have an impact in attracting foreign investment and more. This is thus something that is very important”, Stuart Gill says at the end of the interview.
Text box on page 21: Scotland not to separate itself from the United Kingdom
In September this year, Scots will have a referendum on whether they want to separate themselves from the United Kingdom and become an independent nation. The British government doesn´t like that idea very much. “This is a very big and a historical decision which will have an impact for a very long time. The decision shouldn´t be taken lightly and must be based on important issues. And we are talking about a break-up of the United Kingdom if Scotland will became independent; both the UK and Scotland would be worse off”, Gill says. “It is not a secret that the British government doesn´t want Scotland to become independent. It is our position that Scotland would be more successful as a part of the UK and that the UK´s interests are dependent on Scotland being a part of it. This is very clear to us and I hope that this will be the result in September”, Gill says.
Have you met the queen?
I have met her, and it was a privilege and an honour. I was granted an audience as a new Ambassador, and my wife and I had the chance to meet her in February last year. We talked for a long time, she is a remarkable lady. She is 88 years old and has been doing a fantastic job. She mentioned specially her visit to Iceland in June 1990, which she remembered very clearly.