HM Ambassador Michael Nevin in an exclusive interview with Icelandic Times
It’s Friday morning 26th of July at the UK Embassy in Reykjavík as I sit down with Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Iceland. It’s been an eventful week for Mr Michael Nevin. After Theresa May resigned as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson went before the Queen and was sworn into office as Queen Elizabeth’s Prime Minister. Boris is the 14th to serve the Queen, the first one being Sir Winston Churchill.
Boris delivered his first speech in the House of Commons as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson had made clear promises: “We take back our country,” claiming Brexit is about Democracy on this highly controversial issue. “Do you think you can do it?” “I think we can do it,” Boris had proclaimed going as far as stating: “It’s a do or die!” Will the UK lose its soul by remaining in the EU? There is a new sheriff in town. Mr Johnson promises to deliver Brexit in accordance with the 2016 Referendum and for the United Kingdom to be out of the European Union by the 31st of October 2019.
“The new PM has a clear sense of purpose on Brexit. He believes we’ve been going around in circles for three years. The nation has been boxed in and his mission is to change the dynamics. The UK can’t go around in circles anymore and must leave the European Union in accordance with the results of the Referendum. The PM’s message is clear. Boris Johnson has previously said that not only is it in the best interests of the United Kingdom but the European Union and the European nations as well that the UK goes its way,” Mr Nevin says.
Belfast boy who applied for the Reykjavík post
Mr. Nevin is from Belfast in Northern Ireland. He arrived in Iceland in September 2016. He had been High Commissioner to Malawi and before that a political counsellor in the embassy in Kenya. Mr. Nevin applied for the Reykjavík post before the Brexit referendum and when he arrived, the final Icesave payment had already been made. Both nations have put the issue of Icesave firmly behind them. Relations are very good, including the fact that approximately 300,000 UK citizens visit Iceland every year. “We share the same democratic values and we have the same DNA, so let’s work together”, Mr Nevin stresses. The Ambassador puts forward a point of view not commonly perceived by the public but credits Boris as saying that, “The UK outside the EU could be a better partner in Europe rather than being sceptical and uncomfortable within the Union. The UK going its own way can reduce a source of friction within the EU – a platform for a better relationship between Britain and the EU.”
“The United Kingdom will pursue trade agreements of its own, re-engage with old friends and establish broader relationships with all nations and the Commonwealth. The PM wants to project not ‘little Britain’ but quite the contrary, an independent partner on the world stage. A “global Britain”. He emphasizes recapturing the positive spirit of the British people”, Mr Nevin says.
Some MPs advocate the European Economic Area model. But the view in government is that it would not suit the United Kingdom, though it has worked well for Norway and Iceland, he says. Icelanders seem quite pragmatic on the issue. The country has been a member of the EEA for a quarter of a century and it seems that people are broadly happy with the arrangement, with 95% of Iceland’s exports to the EU free of tariffs. However, there seems to be a feeling amongst some in Iceland that the EU may be over-reaching institutionally. The question is whether the EU is overreaching regarding the balance of Sovereignty, as is being claimed by some in the debate on the 3rd Energy Package.
Britain outside the EU changes dynamics
I point out that it changes the dynamics for Iceland to have Britain outside the European Union. An independent United Kingdom and the Arctic shipping routes opening up clarify dramatically the vision of Iceland as an Atlantic nation at the crossroads rather than isolated in the High North, as was the case through past centuries. Everybody knows that the UK is a seafaring nation. Indeed British seamen learnt their trade, so to speak, in the 14th Century by sailing to the High North and fishing in the volatile Icelandic waters. They went on to sail the seven seas. Historian Björn Þorsteinsson (1918-1986) gave the 14th Century its name as The English Century.
In fact, Þorsteinsson claims that brimstone from Iceland played a crucial role in the Tudor’s coming to power. In the final battle in the War of the Roses at Bosworth in 1485, Henry VII defeated Richard III as he had gunpowder with Icelandic brimstone imported through Bristol as his adversary had no brimstone from Sicily. Richard III paid the ultimate price. The victorious Henry VII went to Bristol to show his gratitude to the people; among them 49 Icelanders of 51 foreigners living there. That’s how Iceland played a part in the rise of the British Empire.
One of Winston Churchill’s first acts as PM in May 1940 was to send troops to Iceland in the High North due to its strategic importance to Britain. The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest during World War II. “We like to think we came as friendly protection against Nazism rather than occupants,” says the Ambassador with a smile. The Americans arrived in July 1941. Iceland gained Independence in 1944 and played a crucial role during the Cold War as a NATO partner. And though Britain and Iceland fought the Cod Wars and the British Embassy was stoned in 1973, the friendship remained intact.
Iceland at the cross-roads as the Arctic opens
I point out that Political Scientist, Jón Kristinn Snæhólm, has put forward the idea of co-operation across the Atlantic: The Trans-Atlantic-Trade-Area, consisting of the UK, USA, Canada, Greenland, Iceland and even Norway – though unlikely as the Norwegians have looked more to Europe than the Atlantic since Oslo’s influence grew in the 14th Century under Danish rule in the days of the Kalmar Union. The Ambassador points to a map in the corridor of the Embassy with the Polar region as a focal point and Iceland’s ideal position at the crossroads. “This map with the Arctic as a focal point certainly brings a new perspective,” he says and continues, “As neighbours, the UK and Iceland are developing stronger bilateral arrangements. Both Britain and Iceland have prospered on trade and depend on trade. Both countries share the same values and are looking for partners in Europe as well as globally.
On Whitehall’s radar
Iceland has come very much on Whitehall’s radar. That has led to increased staffing in the Embassy in Reykjavík. Mr Nevin gives foreign minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson credit for broadening the relationship between the countries. He points out that the minister’s report to Iceland’s Parliament in Spring 2019 states that, from January 2017 to April 2019, there were 17 Ministerial and Parliamentary meetings between Iceland and the UK and 300 meetings between officials. In preparing his forward plan for 2017, Mr Nevin says that he originally planned for a minimum of two Ministerial meetings.
“The perception of Iceland has changed in Whitehall, which no longer looks upon the size of Iceland but rather as a neighbour and equal partner, partly because of Brexit. There is increased awareness in Whitehall not only towards Iceland but the Nordics and the Baltic as well, as a region.”
Iceland’s seat at the table in the Arctic Council
Then there are the geopolitics of this new world, with opportunities that go with it; trading opportunities, deep-sea mining, oil-drilling, fishing and with mackerel and herring going into new territories. But most importantly is preserving the environmental balance in the Arctic and the impact of climate change. The Arctic Council, with Iceland having a seat at the table, is important as ever to meet challenges of Global Change in the Arctic. “Although the UK does not have a full membership status at the Arctic Council, it is an Observer and very active in publishing papers on Global Change in the Arctic, it has an Arctic station in Svalbard, 4th most peer-reviewed research papers and 5th in terms of Arctic research funding. To manage geopolitical interests globally, there needs to be adherence to the international rules-based system. That is very much in Iceland’s best interest. The Chinese, as always, have long term plans for the future and Russia is more challenging,” Mr Nevin says and continues, “The Icelanders are very innovative with international companies such as Össur, Marel, CCP, to name just a few. You are deeply rooted in your culture and language which provokes envy and admiration where I come from. In Northern-Ireland, Wales and Scotland there is a struggle to re-learn our old Gaelic language. I firmly believe that your language will continue to thrive. There is a lot of interest in the Icelandic Sagas. In August 2018 there was a Saga Conference in Reykjavík attended by 63 UK scholars. That says a lot,” Mr Nevin concludes.