Auðunn Atlason, Ambassador of Iceland in Vienna

  1. Ambassador Atlason was born in Reykjavík on 1971 February 4. He is married and the father of four children. He graduated from Freie Universität in Berlin in 1996, majoring in political sciences. He started working for the Foreign Service 15 years ago in 1999. Before he joined the Foreign Service he briefly worked as a journalist and then as a teacher and a part-time lecturer at the University of Iceland. He was an International Secretary at the Parliament of Iceland between 1997 and 1999. His first mission abroad was in Washington D.C. from 2002 untill 2006 as a Counsellor, and then he was the Deputy Chief of Mission in New Delhi between 2006 and 2007. Back in Iceland, he had different positions such as director and advisor in the Foreign Service. He was appointed ambassador in January 2013.

What are your priorities as an ambassador in Vienna?

My priorities are to represent my country at the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and at all the international organizations in Vienna, as well as in Austria and in other countries in the jurisdiction. We are a small country, so we have a number of other countries in the jurisdiction, including Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bosnia- Hercegovina and Macedonia. We have several international organizations and six countries to cover. My main job is to represent Iceladnd. What does it that mean? In a nutshell it means that I safeguard and pursue the interests of Iceland at any given time. If the government has an issue, which it wants to explain and/or get support for, it would be my job to talk to relevant individuals, such as in the Foreign Service offices, in these countries. It is also my job to promote trade. To open doors, network, analyze different situations etc. The same goes for cultural affairs where the Embassy does its best in supporting Icelandic artists abroad. Last but not least, we do consular services and assist Icelandic citizens who may be facing difficulties abroad.

One more thing about the priorities that I would like to mention: It is important to increase transparency in the work of the mission. To explain what we do here, day by day; basically what the foreign service does. This we can do better, for instance, by using social media. So please look us up and become friends with us on facebook.

Are there many Icelandic people living in this area?

Well, Icelanders are everywhere! But jokes aside, the number of Icelanders living in Hungary for instance is more than one hundred; most of them studying medicine in Debrecen. And we have a number of Icelandic citizens residing in Austria, too, as well as in other countries in the jurisdiction.

You deal with bilateral and multilateral issues. How can you put enough focus on both? Is it a challenge?

Sure, it is the challenge. The major challenge for all small countries is how to prioritize between different tasks, because all are important and all of them need attention. I think the trick is to set clear goals and work systematically – know what you do at any given time and in which order. For an Embassy it is also important not only to be responsive but also be proactive.

Now, at the OSCE, there is obviously a lot of attention paid to issues like the crisis in the Ukraine, so Iceland as other participating States have recently been very much involved in the OSCE activities. At the same time, we try to nurture bilateral relations as much as possible.

“So when financial assets disappear these real assets are still there – that is the difference of financial crises to many other crises”

An all-time favorite question – 2008, the year of the financial crisis. Iceland had very big problem then but by today Iceland has recovered. What do you see as the main reason that the country solved this problem?

True, Iceland was the first country to find itself in major difficulties in Autumn 2008 when the global financial crisis broke out. But many other countries followed, and actually more or less the whole world. Particularly European countries and the US have been hit by the effects of the financial crisis for a long time. But we were the first to go down, when our banking system collapsed. In many other countries banks were able to be rescued but in Iceland they simply went into bankruptcy, together with many of our biggest companies. Of course, that constitutes a major crisis, for any country, and this was obviously very painful for Iceland. It can be said that there are two main reasons why Iceland – and this is the good news – has recovered relatively quickly. First of all the Icelandic economy has strong economic fundamentals. We are relatively rich of natural resources, such as “green” geothermal energy and a sustainable marine resource. Icelandic nature and basically the country as a whole, has also become a strength in itself, as a major attraction to foreign tourists. When financial assets evaporate, and this is my second point, real assets remain. A financial crisis does not change that fact that people still have skills, diligence and experience, that infrastructure is still there and different resources (geothermal energy, fish, water, human resources etc.) can continue to be utilized.

Photo: László Göbölyös

So can I can say that in hard times the people of Iceland can cooperate to solve problems?

Yes and no, to be blunt. Surely, people came together and helped each other in different ways. But there was also a huge political controversy, anger and resentment on all sides, that is no secret. About what happened, who was responsible for it and what was the best way out. We benefitted from the support of the International Monetary Fund and from the support of many of our neighbors, although it was not easy for a relatively well-developed western European economy to have to rely on the support of the IMF. We were the first to do so, but a the number of countries also had to go the same way. In hindsight, I think more or less everybody agrees that the IMF coming to Iceland was not a bad thing. It was, in fact, good because it came with necessary financial support and provided a certain discipline – outside discipline. The IMF also cooperated well with Icelandic authorities and the civil society. So, to answer your question, I am not sure that we can describe the post-crisis response as one of Icelanders all coming together in a unifying effort. There was frustration and energetic political debate about the past, the present and the future. Economic crisis is often followed by political tensions. But this is nothing to be shy or critical about – it is normal in a democratic society to have different views and a healthy political debate.

How has Iceland changed since the financial crisis and economic breakdown?

First of all – we are back on our feet, the crisis has been overcome, although some challenges remain. Some things have changed, for instance we made several legislative changes in order to safeguard financial stability. Some say that politics have also changed, and have become more open and critical with a greater number of people willing to get involved. I belief the crisis also had almost a personal impact, on most Icelanders. Every Icelander was somehow affected and many have had to rethink his or her role. Did he or she spend too much? Were people too complacent about the prevailing majority views at that moment – views and beliefs that in hindsight turned out to be so drastically wrong? Too sensitive to outside criticism and too reluctant to listen to warning signals? So all sorts of ethical, political and economic questions have come up.

“We are always talking by first names in Iceland. Everybody uses their first names. If you meet the president you do not say Mr. President, you say Ólafur.”

Can you say that Iceland became a stronger country after the financial crisis?

Difficulties can make you stronger, particularly if you learn the right lessons. Just as in the life of individuals, it is not only successes that that constitute the defining moments – it is no less, the hard times. So yes, I think we are healthier now than we were at the peak of the financial boom (before the crisis) as paradoxical as that may sound.

As you mentioned earlier, you are also dealing with bilateral relations. How would you describe the relation of Iceland to the Central and Eastern European countries, where you represent your country?

I would say that the relations are very good. True, we may be far away in terms of geography but at the same time, we are a part of the European family. Iceland, as a Nordic country and member of both NATO and EFTA, has been a part of the wider European integration process almost from the very beginning. As a small country, we put great value in self-determination, independence and the sovereignty of all countries. After the end of the cold war, Iceland was like many other countries, very supportive of the rights of newly liberated countries to choose their own path to become independent and sovereign after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Iceland was, for instance, a strong advocate of the NATO open- door-policy.Politically I think that the relations are very good; economically they are also good, although the trade volume is modest. You usually have more trade with your neighbors. From a trade point of view, the framework conditions for our economic cooperation are quite clear, it is the European Economic Area agreement (EEA-Agreement), which basically brings Iceland into the EU common market. So we have all the elements in place to further strengthen our economic ties.

Photo: László Göbölyös

Photo: László Göbölyös

Is it worth visiting Iceland? Tell me please what makes Iceland so special?

Well, how many pages do you have in the magazine?! Ok, let me start by saying that all countries in the word are special. They are all special in their own way, with their own history, special nature, landscape and characteristics. The specialty of Iceland probably derives the most from where it is located on the map. We are an island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean surrounded by raw seas, at the border of the Arctic Circle. At the same time, Iceland is geographically the youngest country on Earth. It is located right in the middle between two tectonic plates, the Eurasian and the American plate. This makes Iceland volcanically active, which is a bit unusual. We harvest this by turning the heat under our feet into geothermal energy for both heating and electricity in a totally renewable and sustainable form. So nature is obviously quiet special in Iceland, and frankly a bit different than in most other countries in Europe. If we take a quick look at the society, I think one characteristic is that we are a small nation in a big country. Icelanders are 330 thousand individuals in a country similar to Hungary. The territory is 103 thousand square kilometers, much of it highlands and untouched nature. As regards Icelanders, as such – the “typical Icelander” – I must admit that I always have some doubts about describing whole nations as being one way or the other. Nations are always a group of different individuals, some can be creative, some can be narrow minded, some can be happy and others can be pessimistic. So stereotyping probably does not get us very far, Icelanders are simply different, just like Hungarians or Austrian. Still, allow me to say that I think most Icelanders are rather nice people!

How would you describe the society of Iceland?

Again, societies are usually quite complex so it is hard to describe it in a few words. But let me mention one thing. Iceland has long taken pride in being an equal society. For a long time, everyone in Iceland had similar basic education, which was good, and it did not matter if you were rich or poor, or which school you attended, for instance. The son of the poorest man in Iceland and the daughter of the richest could be classmates and the best of friends. So equality has always been important. Many say that this general sense of equality and basic general education has brought forward individuals who have faith in themselves and can make their dreams come true, be it making a movie, establishing a start-up company or a going into professional sports.

“I think the trick is to have clear goals…”

Socially and culturally each country is different and in another country, you get to learn new things. After a year, what would be the things that you will miss, when you leave Vienna?

Well, I hope I am not leaving… yet. But to answer your question, I probably would miss the music scene, such as Musikverein Vienna. I would miss the media, I like to follow Austrian and European politics, and learn from others. And I would definitely miss the people of Vienna, who are open-minded and generous. But you could also have asked me what I miss from Iceland! In fact, I can tell you that I already miss most the swimming pools. Iceland has a strong culture of outdoor swimming pools and they are in every part of every town. The hot tubs in the swimming pools in Reykjavik are like the Irish pubs in Dublin. An absolute must when you come for a visit.