“Iceland is a success story”

Emphasising quality

Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kazuma Takigawa

A member of Iceland’s parliament since 2003, Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson has had many roles throughout his political career, including minister of health and social security from 2007 to 2009 and chairman of the EU–Iceland Joint Parliamentary Committee from 2013 to 2016. Currently, he is Iceland’s minister for foreign affairs. He sat down with Eurobiz Japan during his visit to Tokyo at the end of May, and spoke about meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Minister for Foreign Affairs Taro Kono, promoting Icelandic firms’ exports to Japan, and how Iceland has developed over its 100-year history as an independent nation.

What are the objectives of your visit to Japan?

The main theme is to strengthen bilateral cooperation between Iceland and Japan. We have had trade connections for decades. By far, Japanese cars are the most popular cars in Iceland. Japan is, I think you could say, very popular in Iceland. For example — and it’s a surprise to many — the second most studied language in the universities is Japanese, after English.

I’m here to help Icelandic firms promote their exports. It has been a joyful experience to witness how many Icelandic firms there are now participating in the Japanese market — and in how many fields. It’s very good for Icelandic firms because it’s so focused on quality. And that’s exactly the export we are coming with. We emphasise quality in hi-tech, and in tourism, which is exploding between the two countries right now.

We also have something to offer when it comes to food. We now have an agreement between MS Icelandic Dairies and Nippon Luna, which is a company owned by Nippon Ham. You will be able to buy Icelandic skyr soon. It’s a healthy food we’ve had since the time of the settlers, since before healthy dairy products became trendy. That’s something that I hope will be a huge success. Also, we have been doing quite well with exporting Icelandic lamb to Japan.

Could you tell me about your meeting with Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono?

We talked a lot about trade. I’m very pleased that he is an advocate of free trade and multi-lateral trade systems. We discussed the challenges the World Trade Organization [WTO] will be facing in the near future. I think it’s extremely important that we keep the WTO system when it comes to things like dispute settlements. And I was very pleased to hear his views on this, too.

I’m looking into a bilateral economic partnership of free trade between Iceland and Japan. Of course, this is the first meeting we’ve had. We’re just starting our talks, but we will hopefully see this in the near future. In my experience, when you’re taking part in international politics, you need to show patience.


What are some areas of cooperation between Iceland and Japan?

We have cooperated very closely with the Japanese on our geothermal plants. I think most, if not all, of the turbines in our plants are from Japanese firms. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is the largest contributor, but there’s also Fuji Electric and others. We’ve just come from a meeting at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, which has been assisting Iceland in the financing of our geothermal energy. If you simplify the geothermal sector in Iceland, it’s Icelandic expertise and Japanese manufacturing and technical skills.

Another area we need to work on together is the Arctic. Iceland will be leading the Arctic Council from 2019 to 2021, and I think it’s very good that the foreign affairs minister and other ministers of this administration in Japan are getting more interested because it’s a big challenge and will affect the whole world. We are seeing that the decline of the ice caps is more rapid than we had thought. And it means we need to be very careful when opportunities arise to utilise natural resources. In our view, sustainability is the key. Not only with the environment, but also socially and economically. We have to have agreements at the international level.

What is happening on the level of cultural exchange?

I have this problem when I talk about trade that I don’t distinguish between businesses and culture. Culture is already an important export from Iceland. When you’re selling tourism or all kinds of hi-tech equipment, when is it culture and when is it business?

We’re meeting some production companies in the entertainment industry while we’re here. Dentsu, for example, has been shooting commercials, TV shows and films in Iceland for quite some time. The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra will be coming here in November with Vladimir Ashkenazy and performing with this great Japanese classical pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii.

How important was the signing of the Tax Convention in January?

It’s very important, but it simply means that Icelanders will be able to work in Japan without needing to pay taxes in both countries. This agreement is a fundamental thing. If we are going to work more with Japanese firms, it means individuals need to go back and forth, and they shouldn’t have to face double taxation.

At this meeting, we also agreed on a working permit agreement for young people so they can work in both countries without problems. It seems to me mostly young people are behind the new firms connecting Iceland and Japan.

These are two very big steps in strengthening relations between the nations. If you have these kinds of agreements, you will get more trade and make more connections between people — and that’s exactly what we are aiming for.

How is the 100th anniversary of Iceland’s independence being celebrated?

We are celebrating this milestone with Denmark, in Copenhagen. Independence was done in a very peaceful way. The Danes are still good friends of ours, and we work very closely together. I think this is a good example for the rest of the world. Of course, we’re celebrating a lot at home, too.

Iceland is a success story. Over the past 100 years, we have gone from being one of the poorest nations in Western Europe to being one of the wealthiest. One of the main reasons for our success is that we have access to other markets and our markets are open. Free trade is so important. Iceland is a small market, but each small market counts. Protectionism — we have tried that over and over again in the past few hundred years, always with the same result: failure. And it’s not going to change. To the business leaders in Japan, my message is: promote free trade, and don’t forget that small is beautiful. 

“If you have these [kinds of] agreements, you will get more trade and make more connections between people — and that’s exactly what we are aiming for.”