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30 years of friendship

Congratulations, Lithuania!

Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson receives a bouquet of flowers on 11 February 2021 from Lithuanian Consul Inga Minelgaité. Photo: Mbl./Eggert Johannesson.

Iceland was the first country on 11 February 1991 to recognise Lithuanian independence, almost a year after its declaration...

This spring, Lithuania celebrates thirty years as a fully recognised sovereign state. Thirty-one years ago, on 11 March 1990, the newly-elected Supreme Council of Lithuania had unanimously passed a resolution by which the Republic of Lithuania was restored. She had been founded on 16 February 1918, but had been occupied and illegally annexed by the Soviet Union in June 1940. But it was just a first step to declare independence. The next step was to gain international recognition as a sovereign state against the fierce opposition of the Kremlin masters.

Lithuania, like the other two small Baltic nations, Estonia and Latvia, enjoyed much sympathy in Europe’s tiny outpost in the Atlantic, Iceland, especially within the staunchly anti-communist Independence Party. Already in late March 1990, almost immediately after Lithuania’s declaration of independence, Thorsteinn Palsson, Leader of the Independence Party, proposed a parliamentary resolution about Iceland’s recognition of Lithuania. He was strongly backed by Deputy Leader David Oddsson, who as a young law student had translated a book into Icelandic about the Soviet oppression of the Baltic countries. But in Iceland at the time a left-wing government was in place, and the Independence Party was in opposition. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jon B. Hannibalsson, a Social Democrat (and a committed anti-communist), rejected Palsson’s proposal, arguing that nothing should be done at the moment to increase tension between the Soviet Union and Lithuania. Hannibalsson added that anyway Iceland had never renounced her pre-war recognition of Lithuania as an independent country: therefore it was still in effect. In Lithuania however the discussion in Iceland was followed with interest, and in September 1990 Palsson was invited to Lithuania where he addressed the national assembly and met with President Vytautas Landsbergis.

In early 1991, Lithuanian leaders made it clear to Icelandic politicians that even if Iceland was a small nation, her formal recognition of Lithuanian independence would be very important and highly symbolic in dealings with the Soviets. Foreign Minister Hannibalsson now changed course and became a vocal supporter of the Baltic nations. In February 1991, the Icelandic Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs submitted a proposal for a parliamentary resolution on the reaffirmation of Iceland’s pre-war recognition of the Baltic countries. Against vehement protests by the Soviet Union which was still trying to suppress the Lithuanian independence movement, the proposal was passed unanimously by the Icelandic Parliament. On this basis, Iceland was the first sovereign country formally to recognise Lithuanian independence on 11 February 1991. In late April a coalition government of the Independence Party and the Social Democrats was formed by David Oddsson, with Jon B. Hannibalsson as Foreign Minister, and together Oddsson and Hannibalsson decided to resume diplomatic ties with all three Baltic nations, Iceland being the first country to do so.

To mark the thirty years since Iceland’s recognition of Lithuania on 11 February 2021 the Lithuanian Honorary Consul in Reykjavik, Ms. Inga Minelgaité, presented Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson with a bouquet of flowers and with a video in which 30 Lithuanians in Iceland appear, one for each year that has passed since this historic step was taken.

Perhaps this is also the occasion to recall the main arguments for small nations forming sovereign states and seceding from larger political units. Some thinkers have looked with disdain on such moves. In 1849 German philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote for example: ‘There is no country in Europe which does not have in some corner or other one or several ruined fragments of peoples, the remnant of a former population that was suppressed and held in bondage by the nation which later became the main vehicle of historical development.’ Engels specifically mentioned Gaels in Scotland, Bretons in France, Basques in Spain and Southern Slavs in the Habsburg Empire. They were all destined to perish, Engels confidently predicted. Ten years later, English philosopher John Stuart Mill echoed this sentiment: ‘Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial to a Breton, or a Basque of French Navarre, to be brought into the current of the ideas and feelings of a highly civilized and cultivated people—to be a member of the French nationality, admitted on equal terms to all the privileges of French citizenship, sharing the advantages of French protection, and the dignity and prestige of French power—than to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage relic of past times, revolving in his own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world. The same remark applies to the Welshman or the Scottish Highlander, as members of the British nation.’

In 1944, English historian Alfred Cobban expressed similar hostility to national self-determination. ‘To take examples, can it reasonably be believed that the national demands of Wales, White Russia, Alsace, or Flanders, would be met, or should be met, by the granting of political independence? Should French Canada self-determine itself as a separate state? Would it be better for the national liberty of the Maltese if they abandoned the British connection and endeavoured to set up as a completely independent state, regardless of the ambitions of their Mediterranean neighbours? Can Iceland afford to be without economic links with some larger and more prosperous state?’ Cobban did not turn out to be much of a prophet. Belarus (‘White Russia’), Malta and Iceland are all now independent states, and there are active independence movements in Flanders and Quebec (‘French Canada’). Indeed, sovereign states proliferated in the twentieth century: their number went up from 76 in 1946 to 195 at present (193 members of the United Nations, and the Vatican City and Taiwan).

The main argument for the independence of small nations is of course identity. Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905 because the Norwegians wanted to be themselves: they did not think of themselves as Swedes. Finland seceded from Russia in 1917 because the Finns did not want to be Russians despite the impressive achievements of Russian high culture. Iceland seceded from Denmark in 1918 because the Icelanders wanted to keep their identity as a distinct nation, with their own language and literature and shared memories of more than a millennium. They did not want to be Danes even if at the time Denmark had double the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita of Iceland, and even if Danish society was highly civilized. Instead they, as Mill put it, preferred to sulk on their own rocks. Likewise, the three Baltic nations declared their independence in 1918, as soon as they could, although their sovereignty immediately after that was only to last for twenty-two years. It goes without saying that this kind of nationalism is non-aggressive: the nation in question wants a state for herself, not to subdue others. French historian Ernest Renan aptly called nationality a daily plebiscite. It consists in the will of a group to share a country; and the membership in the group, and consequently citizenship, is both by chance and choice. Therefore the argument is not only about identity, but also about identification. You are a citizen of a nation-state because you identify with your fellow citizens.

Another argument for independence is simple self-preservation. Your group usually knows better than distant rulers what is best for it. This rule is not without exceptions. The people of Hong Kong were better off under British colonial administration than they are now under their fellow Chinese. But I shall only mention one example from Icelandic history. In the early 1970s, the fertile fishing grounds off Iceland were being depleted. Half the total catch was harvested by large foreign fishing fleets. For Iceland, heavily dependent on the fisheries, it was a matter of survival to take control, and in 1975 she unilaterally extended her EEZ, Exclusive Economic Zone, to 200 miles. Our neighbours refused to recognise the extension, and a ‘Cod War’ with the United Kingdom broke out. The gunboats of the Icelandic Coast Guard however made it nearly impossible for British trawlers to harvest fish in Icelandic waters, even if they were under the protection of the mighty Royal Navy. After a year Her Majesty’s government relented and recognised the extension. Subsequently, Iceland developed a sustainable and profitably system in the fisheries, based on ITQs, individual transferable quotas. If this small nation out in the Atlantic had not shown this audacity in protecting her interests, the fishing grounds off Iceland would probably have suffered the same fate as the Grand Banks off Newfoundland whose fisheries have collapsed.    

A third argument for the independence of small states is, perhaps surprisingly, efficiency. It is hardly a coincidence that small states tend to be more prosperous than big ones: in Europe, the richest countries in terms of GDP per capita have long been Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Even the wealthy United States is a union of fifty states which form a common market. The reason why small states tend to be prosperous is that they usually maintain open economies and thus they avail themselves of the division of labour which according to Adam Smith is the main source of wealth. Indeed, the economic integration of the post-war years (globalisation) may have made possible the proliferation of small states because they could now benefit from international free trade. Moreover, small states usually are more homogeneous than bigger ones and consequently more socially cohesive. Government is more transparent and closer to the ordinary citizen. Hence it is relatively cheaper to keep law and order in small states, and they also tend to avoid costly military adventures. Therein lies however the chief weakness of small states: they are vulnerable to bigger, heavily armed predatory states. Therefore the post-war Atlantic Alliance was crucial for Europe, and therefore Lithuania and the two other Baltic states joined NATO as soon as they could. Lithuania, like other small European countries, needs a Europe which is an open market rather than a closed state, and an Atlantic Alliance strong enough to deter potential aggressors.