Slovenia-Iceland: 25 Years of Friendship

Zver giving her lecture. Chair: Education Minister Illugi Gunnarsson. Photo: Olafur Engilbertsson.

On 19 December 1991, Iceland became the first Western country to recognise independent Slovenia which had formally seceded from Yugoslavia on 25 June. Previously, newly liberated countries like Ukraine and Lithuania had recognised the new state. On the 25th anniversary of Iceland’s recognition of Slovenia, 19 December 2016, RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson published an article in Morgunbladid, reflecting on small states and nations. He agreed with the definition by Ernest Renan of a nation: a collective united by its will to be a nation. On this definition, both Icelanders and Slovenians could be regarded as nations. Professor Gissurarson also pointed out that economic integration facilitated the formation of small states, because they could benefit from the international division of labour and free trade. The larger the markets were, the smaller the political units could be. Slovenian historian Dr. Andreja Zver gave a lecture at an RNH event in Iceland 16 September 2013 on the Slovenian experience of 20th century totalitarianism, as the country had been controlled by fascists, nazis and communists one after another. Still, mass graves from totalitarian times are being discovered in the country. Zver is married to one of the best-known politicians of Slovenia, former Education Minister Milan Zver, an MEP.

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London: Discussion of Fisheries Policy

RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, was the speaker at a luncheon meeting by-invitation-only of the Adam Smith Institute in London Monday 28 November 216, discussing the most efficient system in the fisheries. As the United Kingdom is now leaving the EU, it has to decide on a new fisheries policy in place of the CFP, Common Fisheries Policy. The guests included both members of parliament, former government ministers and two Icelanders, Icelandic Ambassador Thordur Aegir Oskarsson and Gunnlaugur S. Gunnlaugsson, Chairman of the Board of Isfelagid, one of the largest Icelandic fishing firms. Prof. Gissurarson gave a brief summary of the main arguments in his recent book, The Icelandic Fisheries: Sustainable and Profitable, published by the University of Iceland Press in late 2015 and also available online. Prof. Gissurarson also gave an account on the recent debate in Iceland on auctions: in August 2016, RNH held, with the Faculty of Economics at the University of Iceland and others, a conference on auctions and other types of allocating rights where two distinguished experts gave papers, Professors Gary Libecap and Ragnar Arnason.

Monday evening Prof. Gissurarson attended, with some others, a dinner at the House of Lords given by Dr. Matt Ridley, the 4th Viscount Ridley and author of best-selling books on genetics and evolution. The Public Book Club, in cooperation with RNH, published Ridley’s Rational Optimist in 2014. Ridley is a frequent visitor to Iceland, fishing salmon in the rivers and giving lectures. Tuesday 29 November, Prof. Gissurarson met with the UK Fisheries Minister George Eustice and his officials to discuss the Icelandic lessons from the system of individual transferable quotas. Gissurarson said that the problem with the Icelandic system was not technical or administrative: It was that others resented the profit which was being formed there. But if the system was to be fully efficient, then the quotas had to be fully transferable and permanent. Then the quota holders would try to maximise the long-term profitability of the resource.

On Facebook, Prof. Gissurarson commented on his meeting with the Minister: “We did not only discuss the serious matters at hand, but also some history. I told the Minister that the first English fishing vessel had appeared in the Icelandic waters in 1412, that the Danish king had thrice tried to sell Iceland to King Henry VIII, that in early 19th century Sir Joseph Banks had saved the Icelanders from famine, and that in Iceland in the summer of 1941 Winston Churchill had used the V-signal for first time in public (sailing out of Reykjavik harbour). I did not disguise my firm opinion that Iceland, a small country up in the far North, should be an ally of the UK: while there was a great difference in their size and power, both countries were in the North Atlantic, and not on the European continent.”


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Kyiv: In Memory of Stalin’s Victims

Participants in the conference. Göran Lindblad, President of the Platform, in the centre. RNH Academic Director Hannes H. Gissurarson 4th from right in first row. On each side of Lindblad are two visitors to Iceland, Pawel Ukielski from Poland and Sandra Vokk from Estonia.

At its annual gathering this year hosted by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance in the Club of the Cabinet of Ministers in Kyiv, 24­‐26 November 2016, the Platform of European Memory and Conscience discussed the removal of communist symbols and monuments (decommunisation) in Ukraine and elsewhere. Beside visits to Maidan, the St. Sophia cathedral and several museums, representatives of the Platform had meetings with Hanna Hopko, Chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Mykola Knyazhytsky, Chairman of the Committee on Culture of the Parliament, and Yevhen Nyshchuk, Minister of Culture. The Institute for Democracy, Media & Culture (Albania), the Traces of Memory association (Czech Republic), the Nation’s Memory Institute (Slovakia), the Witold Pilecki Center for Totalitarian Studies (Poland) and the Foundation to Preserve the History of Maidan (Ukraine) were elected new Members of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. On 26 November, the Platform participated in the official Holodomor commemoration, by special invitation of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and lit candles for the victims of the great famine organised by Stalin in 1932–1933.

At the meeting, RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson gave an update on the joint RNH-ACRE project of “Europe of the Victims”: In 2015, three works against totalitarianism were republished, by Bertrand Russell, by Elinor Lipper and Aino Kuusinen and by Richard Krebs. In 2016, five works were republished in the same series, by Nikita Khruschev, by Valentín González and Julián Gorkin, by Ants Oras, by Andres Küng and by Aatami Kuortti.

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Election Results, Possible Coalitions and the US Elections

Wednesday 2 November, on his INN programme, former government minister Bjorn Bjarnason discussed the results of the 29 October Icelandic parliamentary elections with Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director. They also discussed possible coalition governments and the forthcoming US presidential elections. Professor Gissurarson said that the voters had sent two unequivocal messages to the politicians: They wanted Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson as Prime Minister and they were against a left-wing government. The most interesting news from the elections was, according to Professor Gissurarson, that the traditional Icelandic Left (consisting of the Social Democrats and the left socialist People’s Alliance, since 1998 known respectively as the Social Democratic Union and the Left Greens) had never been smaller. The Icelandic Left had historically enjoyed the support of about 30–35% of the voters. Its support had risen to 44% in 1978 and to no less than 51% in 2009, after the bank collapse. Now it was only around 21%.

It was clear, Professor Gissurarson added, that the Pirate Party had lost the election campaign. Ordinary people had not been comfortable with them. However, in this as in all election campaigns people tended to overestimate the capacity of government to improve matters. Neither economic growth nor happiness could be created or planned for by government; those were the achievements of individuals, with hard work, initiative and prudence. We should, Professor Gissurarson submitted, say to the state what Diogenes said to Alexander the Great when the Emperor hovered over the hermit and asked whether he could do anything for him. Diogenes replied: “Yes, you can move away from the sun.” Gissurarson said that Hillary Clinton was the least worst of the two main presidential candidates in the US, whereas Donald Trump was against free trade. Instead of building walls like Trump, we should build bridges. Moreover, Trump did not seem to have a pleasant personality. He did not, for example, show respect to women. Professor Gissurarson said that he was a liberal feminist in the same sense as John Stuart Mill: men and women should be equal before the law, and they should enjoy equal respect and dignity.

Bj0rnBjarna 02NOV16 from inntv on Vimeo.

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Video on Iceland’s Recovery

Iceland’s recovery after the bank collapse has been internationally noted. German film makers, The Freedom Today Network, visited Iceland in October in connection with the regional conference of European Students for Liberty in Reykjavik. They interviewed Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, independent investor Heidar Gudjonsson, parliamentary candidate Aslaug Arna Sigurbjornsdottir and entrepreneur Lukas Schweiger from Austria who lives in Iceland.

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Icelandic Nation Neither Guilty Nor Responsible

Prof. Gissurarson giving his talk.

The Icelandic nation as a whole was neither guilty nor responsible when in 2008–9, at the height of the international financial crisis, it seemed that transactions between the private Icelandic bank Landsbanki and depositors in the UK and Netherlands—the owners of the so-called Icesave accounts—would fail. These were transactions between private parties who bore full responsibility for them. The Icelandic government fulfilled all its obligations by establishing, in compliance with European law, an Insurance Fund for Depositors and Investors. This was the conclusion by Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, at a lecture he gave 28 October 2016 at the annual research conference of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Iceland. He argued against three of his colleagues, Professors Thorvaldur Gylfason, Stefan Olafsson and Vilhjalmur Arnason, who had maintained that the Icelandic nation was morally responsible for the Icesave accounts and that it consequently should compensate the British and Dutch governments for outlays on which those governments had unilaterally decided, which would have resulted in the Icelandic Treasury paying a hefty sum in interest on “loans” from those two governments, as well as paying a part of the principal, if necessary. (At the time when the arguments took place it was estimated that the Landsbanki estate would only cover 75% of priority claims; it turned out later that it could cover all such claims.)

Professor Gissurarson cpntended that Professors Olafsson and Arnason had misunderstood the Icelandic Emergency Act of 6 October 2008. It had not involved any discrimination between domestic and foreign depositors in the Icelandic banks: Instead, it had given all depositors priority claims, over other creditors, to the estates of the failed banks. It was of no relevance to the case that at the same time Icelandic politicians had issued declarations that domestic accounts were safe. Such public declarations had been issued in many other European countries as well during the height of the crisis and had created no legal obligations.

Professor Gissurarson then presented a philosophical analysis of the concepts of collective responsibility and collective guilt. He submitted that it was sometimes conceivable that one had to share responsibility for something that one had not brought about. For example, a skipper was obliged to help castaways by whom he passed, if possible. It was also conceivable, the Professor added, that one had some moral obligations as a result of one’s identity rather than one’s actions: it might matter who one was no less than what one had done. Examples could be obligations that a son had to his parents or an Icelander to her nation. But collective responsibility had some limitations. First, it should not be used to replace individual responsibility when it was clear that it existed, for example in ordinary business transactions. Second, the responsibility or burden should not be beyond the powers of the collective in question (as Lord Keynes had pointed out in the debate about German reparations after the 1st World War). Thirdly, the notion of collective responsibility should not be invoked to justify collective injustice, for example in demands for sex or race quotas to “correct” past injustices.

Mr. David Miliband and Prof. Olafur Hardarson at the University of Iceland in 2012.

The Icesave case had not been one of collective responsibility by the Icelanders, according to Professor Gissurarson. The Icelandic government had fulfilled all its legal and political obligations and not committed any unjust acts against those British and Dutch depositors who had preferred the high interest rates offered by Landsbanki to other options of using their money. If there was any collective responsibility or guilt in the matter, it was that of the British Labour government which had, quite unnecessarily, imposed an anti-terrorism law on the Icelanders and closed two British banks, Heritable and KSF (both Icelandic-owned), at the same time as it had rescued all other British banks. Later it had emerged that both Heritable and KSF were much sounder than many of the banks which had been rescued. Possibly there was also some collective responsibility or guilt involved in the actions of hedge funds which had planned and performed runs on the Icelandic banks. Finally, Professor Gissurarson expressed his great surprise that the Foreign Minister of the government which had imposed an anti-terrorism law on the Icelanders, David Miliband, had, when giving a lecture at the University of Iceland in 2012, got away with prohibiting any discussion, let alone criticism, of the behaviour of the Labour government in the autumn of 2008.

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