Provocative, funny and thoughtful – the North Atlantic pairing of Jón Baldvin and Bjørt Samuelsen seem to prompt a subtle change of policy direction from the Scottish Government. Days later it announced the option of joining the EEA in any post-independence scenario would be added to their policy option list. Not bad for a long weekend in Edinburgh. But then Jón Baldvin is used to making an impact.
Like most Icelanders (with a part Norwegian/ part Celt DNA) Jón Baldvin has lived at full throttle in a great many places. He began his higher education in Scotland rather than his beloved Iceland, with an MA in Economics from Edinburgh University in 1963. Why did he choose Edinburgh?
A close friend, Dr. Hermann Pálsson, a prominent Icelandic scholar of Gaelic languages and culture and a professor at Edinburgh University, advised me to do so. But there was another and a more practical reason. The tuition fee at the time was less than 20 pounds sterling. Although I spent my summers as a deck-hand on board Icelandic deep-sea trawlers, earning a lot of money, the generosity of Scottish tax payers helped me make the right decision.
Jón Baldvin then moved to Sweden and studied labor-market economics in the context of the Nordic model at Stockholm University, before returning home to do teacher training at the University of Iceland in 1965. “It was never a question of not returning home. We were four brothers. All studied abroad, all returned home.”
For many Scots, life as a teacher means the end of having controversial views – in public at least. Not Jón Baldvin. From 1964 until it closed three years later, Jón Baldvin was editor of Frjáls þjóð (the Free Nation newspaper). Under his direction the paper even-handedly opposed the presence of American bases on Icelandic soil during peacetime and the United People´s Socialist Party for their meek subservience to the Soviet Union.
Jón Baldvin continued as a teacher and journalist until 1970 when he became founder and rector of Ísafjörður College, in his hometown, the only FE college in the remote Westfjords region (1970-79), managing to fit in a year at Harvard before becoming editor of the Social Democratic Party-supporting newspaper Alþýðublaðið for three years (1979–1982).
He was a member of Parliament (Althingi – 1982-98), leader of the Social-Democratic Party (1984-96) and Minister of Finance (1987–1988) before settling into the job he most relished – Icelandic Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade (1988–1995).
That was when family connections became particularly useful:
My eldest brother was the first one from Western Europe to graduate from Moscow University after the war. His expertise in Soviet affairs and contacts with dissidents came in handy, when I got involved as foreign minister of a NATO-country, in support of the Baltic countries´ independence struggle.
That momentous foreign policy move by tiny Iceland occurred in 1991 when Jón Baldvin recognized the independence of Lithuania – the only western foreign minister to arrive on the scene when Soviet troops tried to suppress the secession bid by attacking the TV station, killing 14 Lithuanian civilians and wounding 600 others. Jón Baldvin quickly began the process of establishing diplomatic connections between Lithuania and Iceland, and the Baltic state became a member of the United Nations six months later and a member of the EU in 2004. Today, in the grounds of the Lithuanian Parliament, one of the remaining barricades from January 1991 bears the inscription ‘To Iceland – they dared when others remained silent’. For his personal role in recognizing Lithuanian independence, Jón Baldvin was awarded the Commander’s Grand Cross of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke and made an honorary citizen of Vilnius – and, more recently, an honorary doctor of Vilnius University.
A few months after his bold trip to Lithuania, Jón Baldvin made Iceland the first nation to recognize the independence of Estonia and Latvia. He was later given the Estonian Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana, 1st Class, and today, a plaque commemorating Iceland’s support sits on the wall of the Foreign Ministry in Tallinn. Its address makes an even greater statement of Estonia’s enduring gratitude – Islandi väljak – ‘Iceland Square’. His important role in firming up the teetering steps of the new Republic of Latvia was recognized with the Order of the Three Stars (3rd class). Recently, Iceland´s role in support of the Baltic nations´ struggle for restored independence has been made the subject of a documentary film, “Those Who Dare…”. This was a joint project of Icelandic and Baltic film producers. It has been shown on TV in many countries, especially in the Baltic and East European region. Perhaps it would be of interest for a Scottish audience?
In December 1991, Jón Baldvin once again became the first foreign minister in the world to recognize a new sovereign nation as Croatia declared independence. Had he become a sort of patron saint of small nations struggling to escape from imperial control? Why?
Well, I had become convinced that the breakup of the federation of Yugoslavia was inevitable. The international community should recognize that fact and, accordingly, assist in the establishment of the constituent republics, in an orderly manner – to avoid the outbreak of a bloody civil war. But, as usual, the major powers had different agendas. Subsequently they failed to prevent a cruel civil war in Europe´s backyard.
Later, Jón Baldvin served as Iceland´s Ambassador to the United States and Mexico (1998 to 2002), in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (2002 to 2005) and as ambassador to Ukraine from 2004 to 2006.
But was it wise for the Foreign Minister of such a small country to run the risk of conflict with the Soviet Union by openly supporting Baltic freedom? In a recent interview Jón Baldvin said:
The leaders of the West at the time were not following up on their rhetoric about democracy and national self-determination. Why not? Because they had, unwisely, placed all their bets for ending the Cold War on the political fate of President Gorbachev. Nothing should be said or done which undermined his position. If he were to be deposed, the hard-liners would come back. And there was a lot at stake. We might return to the Cold War – and even risk armed conflict in Eastern Europe.
That’s why President Bush [Sr.] made his notorious ‘chicken speech’ in Kyiv in late 1991, appealing to the Ukrainians “not to succumb to extreme nationalism,” but to remain loyal to the Soviet Union in the name of peace and stability. This speech by an American president would have been music to the ears of [Vladimir] Putin, who has long mourned the demise of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geo-strategic disaster of the twentieth century.
This was why [German] Chancellor Kohl and [French] President Mitterrand jointly wrote a letter to [Lithuanian] President Landsbergis, appealing to him to postpone their declaration of independence and instead negotiate with the Soviets without preconditions. This is why US high officials gave the same message to the Baltic freedom fighters in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.
And this is why, since the voices of the leaders of the Baltic independence movements were not listened to, I tried to lend my voice to theirs in Western forums – especially NATO. This is why I responded, alone among NATO foreign ministers, to Baltic leaders’ appeal to come and stay with them in January 1991, when the Soviets had decided to use force to crack down on their independence movements and to bring about regime change.
This is why, when the hard-liners’ attempted coup d’état in Moscow August 1991 had failed, I decided to use that window of opportunity – the power vacuum and confusion in Moscow at that time – to invite the foreign ministers of all three Baltic states to Reykjavik to formalize the recognition of their restored independence. By doing so, I hoped to start a process that would become irreversible. That turned out to be right. To my mind, this is an example of ‘the solidarity of small nations’ which, under the correct circumstances, can succeed when the leaders of major powers fail. (Kourosh Ziabar, Fair Observer 2015).
All of this took place before Jón Baldvin took the step that brought him to the attention of Scotland in 2016, masterminding Iceland’s entry to the EEA in 1994 as Chief negotiator on the European Economic Area Agreement 1989-93.
Here Jón Baldvin reflects on Iceland’s decision to join EFTA in the 1970s and the EEA two decades later and explains how Iceland achieved exemptions on fishing and agriculture – the pros and cons of that – and the temporary post-crash desire to be in the Euro. By the way, Jón Baldvin welcomes the idea of an independent Scotland joining the EEA. The question is: Will Scotland manage to get a deal in EU negotiations, including exemptions from the common fisheries and agricultural policies, as Iceland managed to do in the early nineties, with strong support from their EFTA-partners?
Jón Baldvin’s answer – “You can only find out at the negotiating table.”