The Democratic Legacy of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the Former President of Iceland

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson opened the Arctic Circle Assembly at the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre on 6th October 2016. This was his first formal appearance since leaving the presidency after serving twenty years in office. The first twelve years of Grímsson’s presidency were relatively conventional but in the last eight years—after the financial crisis of October 2008—he blazed new trails and carved out a unique position among the world’s leaders.
882261He challenged the international financial and supranational authorities by putting the controversial Icesave conflict to a national referendum. Instead of bowing to the international financial powers that brought down Greece, for example, the President of Iceland stood tall before the political elite and an imposing army of journalists who criticised the Icesave decision. He led the defence of his country, which stood alone against the outside world but then prevailed both ethically as well as before the courts.

Democracy won.

With the Arctic Circle Assembly, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has created an international democratic forum on Arctic issues, previously discussed in dark backrooms during the Cold War. The Arctic is currently under increasing threat due to global warming; the Arctic ice cap is melting with frightening speed. The Arctic Circle Assembly is a forum without precedent where politics, science, think tanks, companies, environmental organisations and indigenous communities meet to shine the spotlight on the Arctic region, which has previously received scant attention. The Arctic Circle Assembly is an innovation in international collaboration. It is a cradle of democratic discourse where silence previously reigned.
In his work as the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has put democracy first, bringing the power to the people.

World Leaders at Arctic Circle

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson opened the conference at Harpa as Chairman of the Arctic Circle Assembly, having previously served as its Honorary President. In attendance were approximately 2,000 conference guests from more than fifty countries. The conference marks a turning point, being a forum where politicians and the public meet to deliberate; people who want their voice to be heard on issues of vital importance to the world. In only a few years, Iceland has become the primary destination for international discourse on the Arctic region; a focal point for democratic debate. The country has thus made a prominent niche for itself internationally.
“It is sometimes forgotten that the Arctic is a big part of our planet. It is approximately the size of Africa when you add it all up, and for centuries, it was completely unknown to the so-called ‘enlightened’ part of the world, the distant home of its indigenous peoples. In the second half of the 20th century, it became one of the most militarised parts of the world. So it wasn’t really until the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century that this big part of the planet became open to international cooperation,” says Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, in a conversation with the Icelandic Times.


National Press Club, Washington, April 2013
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced the founding of Arctic Circle at the National Press Club in Washington in the spring of 2013. “The Arctic has suffered from a lack of global awareness and, as a result, a lack of effective governance. In the past, the region did not matter to the world’s decision-makers and was largely forgotten. Now, with sea-ice levels at their lowest point in recorded history, the world is waking up to the challenges and opportunities the Arctic presents for its citizens, as well as those who live in lower latitudes,” said Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson in Washington on 15th April 2013.
Around 1,300 people from thirty countries attended the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik in the autumn of 2013. Speakers included Eric Schmidt, founder of Google; Aleqa Hammond, the Prime Minister of Greenland; and Artur Chiligangarov, Vladimir Putin’s special envoy on the Arctic. A year later, Sauli Niimistö, President of Finland, was the main speaker at the Arctic Circle Assembly, and in 2015, François Hollande, President of France, came to the conference and gave a keynote speech shortly before the Paris Climate Conference. Attending the conference in Iceland were 2,000 people from more than fifty countries. The presidents travelled to the Jökulsá á Sólheimasandi glacial river, where evidence for climate change can be viewed.
With Arctic Circle, Iceland is, for the first time, the setting for major international collaboration. The country has previously held summit meetings. Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, and Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, met in Reykjavík in 1986. Richard Nixon and Georges Pompidou, presidents of the United States and France, met in Iceland in 1973. The most famous chess duel in history took place in Laugardalshöll stadium in 1972 when Bobby Fischer snatched the World Chess Championship from the Soviet Boris Spassky. These were unique events to be sure—but Iceland had never before been the annual destination for one of the largest conferences in the world.olafur-ragnar-grimsson

A Shining Example
In October 2016, Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of the Scottish Government, were the main speakers at the conference. “Iceland is a shining example but you can do more”, said Ban Ki-Moon at Harpa and pointed out that, during the summer, Arctic sea ice the size of England had melted. “Ban Ki-Moon has a clear view of the future and has shown much statesmanship and courage”, said Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. Arctic Circle has certainly become an effective forum for democratic discourse where the world’s leaders make themselves heard.
In 1996, the Arctic Council was established by the governments of eight nations: the United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark on behalf of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Some people view Arctic Circle as a challenge or counterbalance to the Arctic Council but Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson says that this is a misunderstanding.
“We see the Arctic Circle Assembly and its forums as an assistance to the governmental work of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is a formal intergovernmental body, where only those who are formal representatives have a voice and a seat at the table. That is the way it is in organisations of this kind. But we thought that the future of the Arctic required a meeting hall where everybody could sit at the table, where everybody could participate, be in the orchestra and the choir, and every voice could be heard,” says Ólafur Ragnar. “Arctic Circle is a model for how politicians and the public can sit around a table together. Democracy has been given a new forum.”

Icesave Put to a National Referendum
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was Chairman of the People’s Alliance (Alþýðubandalagið) from 1987 to 1995 and a minister in the government of Steingrímur Hermannsson from 1988 to 1991. He was elected President of Iceland in 1996 and re-elected in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. The first twelve years of his presidency were rather traditional but, in the wake of the financial crisis of October 2008, the Icelandic nation was faced with a previously unknown dilemma that threatened its finances and sovereignty. The country was under heavy international pressure to accept the Icesave liabilities of Landsbankinn in Britain and the Netherlands.
The Icelandic government agreed to accept the liabilities of the private bank but Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson twice vetoed the pertinent bill and put the matter to a national referendum and both times the people upheld the President’s veto. The nation was condemned by many countries, receiving harsh criticism from the Nordic area, for example. Grímsson defended the country in the face of this international pressure. The matter was referred to the EFTA Court where Iceland won the case brought by Britain, the Netherlands and Brussels.
Can it be said that you have truly changed the office with Arctic Circle and particularly with the controversial issue of Icesave?
“It has been my position not to issue judgement on my time as president. On the one hand I conducted the presidency in a traditional way, but on the other hand I did things which had not been done before. I exercised the power of the president to refer controversial issues to the people of Iceland. Many criticized me when I did that, but I fundamentally believe that the democratic will of the people should be the decisive voice. I think now, looking back, they realise it was the right decision, that the people of Iceland could be trusted in this way. I think that our democracy will never be the same after the nation experienced that. Before, the so-called leadership, the decision-making elite, claimed that they alone could be trusted to take the right decision. But Icesave showed that the government of the time, the decision-making elite, took the wrong position and the people of Iceland took the right decision.”olafur-ragnsr-grimsson

Active in International Collaboration
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson says that in addition to Arctic Circle, he has taken the presidency in a new direction internationally. In connection with this, climate change and sustainable energy come to mind but also participation in various projects and institutions. “Before, the presidents had made state visits, maybe given speeches or lectures but had not been active players in this wide-ranging international cooperation,” he says.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson says that Arctic Circle demonstrates that the President of Iceland can create new instruments for constructive international cooperation in a way that benefits the country and the international community, and gives the young people of Iceland an opportunity to annually participate in international cooperation, which is very beneficial. “So I hope that all this will show people that although the presidency has formal duties, it can be used in constructive dynamic ways to further cooperation, and thereby give Iceland a stronger voice among nations.”

The Icelandic Nation Would Not Be Shackled
Iceland has become a stronger international voice through Arctic Circle; does the same apply to Icesave?
“Yes, absolutely. That is the objective conclusion. The reputation Iceland gained from holding the referendums and trusting the people for these important decisions for this financial crisis, was unique. In most countries it was argued that democracy should not be allowed to interfere with the financial markets. Everybody knows how the people of Greece were not allowed to vote on these issues,” says Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.
harpa-olafur-ragnar_dsc0803He says furthermore that the reputation of Iceland has grown as a result of Arctic Circle; each year, the country is a meeting place for representatives from important nations, including the United States, Russia, Canada, China, Germany, France, Britain, Japan and Korea. This is important recognition that Iceland can serve a special role in the international community._dsc0478_dsc0498_dsc0281
“Last year at the Assembly there was an interesting proof of this. Matt Brzezinski, the highest official in the White House on the Arctic, expressed in an open session of the Arctic Circle Assembly how cooperation between the United States and Russia in the Arctic had been constructive and positive despite disagreements on Ukraine and other international issues, how important it was that the United States and Russia could continue that constructive dialogue. Without the Arctic Circle Assembly, the evidence of such constructive cooperation between the United States and Russia would not be as clear as it was made by Brzezinski in front of this vast audience of the Arctic Circle Assembly,” says Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.

In icelandic see here

Texti: Hallur Hallsson