Iceland's leader won't be around to welcome Pence

EGILL BJARNASON

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland's leader has announced that she will skip U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's visit to her Nordic nation, opting instead to keep "prior commitments" by attending a trade union conference and meetings in Sweden.

Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir said that she's planned for months to give the keynote speech for the Council of Nordic Trade Unions' annual meeting in Malmo, Sweden, on Sept. 3 — the day before Pence's arrival. She will only return the afternoon of Sept. 4 after private meetings with Nordic union leaders, her office said.

"This visit, that was organized by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has been bouncing a lot around the calendar so that it has been very difficult to organize oneself around it," she told Icelandic broadcaster RUV on Tuesday. Her office Wednesday confirmed that she had not changed her mind.

She also underscored that the arrangement was "absolutely not" about snubbing the Trump administration and that she had earlier this year met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The decision was made before President Donald Trump announced that he would cancel a visit to another Nordic nation, Denmark.

Pence is expected to discuss Iceland's strategic importance in the Arctic and NATO's efforts to counter Russia in the region. In July, the United States announced it would invest $57 million on military infrastructure near Iceland's capital Reykjavik.

"This is unprecedented for an Icelandic prime minister," historian Thor Whitehead told The Associated Press. "I doubt any other Western leader would decide to address a friendly conference abroad instead of welcoming a major foreign ally."

The office of prime minister holds the highest authority in Iceland, where the presidency is a symbolic position without much formal power.

Since taking office, Jakobsdottir has spearheaded progressive policies on abortion rights, LGBT rights and climate change. Activists including members of her own Left Green Party have protested Pence's visit, calling it "disrespectful" to minorities.

Pence's visit is organized by Iceland's foreign ministry, led by Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson from Iceland's conservative Independence Party. The party is Iceland's largest and entered into a rare coalition with Jakobsdottir's party after failing to secure a majority in elections in 2017.

Pence will be the first U.S. vice president to visit Iceland, a country of just 350,000 people, since George H.W. Bush visited Reykjavik in 1983.