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Helena Spongenberg

Nordic countries get an international voice in the Arctic

Global warming has changed the Arctic and the region is now facing a very different future that many nations and companies want to be a part of. The Arctic countries are set to make big short term earnings, but at what cost? Analys Norden takes a look at the Nordic countries’ role in the Arctic debate and how they see the risks and opportunities in the Arctic.

Jun 23, 2011

Contrary to a few years ago, politicians and government officials from the Arctic countries flocked to the Arctic Council’s summit in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, last May – they were followed by an unusually large media crowd.

The gathering confirms how important the whole issue surrounding the Arctic region has become lately. “The Arctic challenges are increasingly more in focus,” wrote Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, after the meeting.

Everybody was there to prepare for a future where global warming’s melting of the Arctic ice opens up new sailing routes in the summer months and allows oil companies to look for oil and gas.

The prospect of the likelihood of the North Western Passage north of Canada, and the North Eastern Passage north of Russia, being navigable for several months a year opens up new perspectives for marine traffic and could mean more direct routes between important global markets.

But most importantly for the countries in the Arctic area, the rush to the Arctic is about the possibility of exploiting oil and gas. About 25 per cent of the world’s untapped reserves of oil and gas are believed to be north of the Polar Circle. There are enormous commercial interests at stake.

The eight members of the Arctic Council are Canada, Russia, the United States and the five Nordic countries – Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Global warming has melted the Arctic ice much faster than expected and that, coupled with the fast-growing commercial interests, brings challenges to the Nordic nations: the establishment of the national rights to the ocean floor; the increased risks of pollution and danger to human lives that come with growing commercial activity in the unspoiled and freezing Arctic region; and how to adapt to the effects of climate change.

The role of the Nordic countries

Sweden took over the two-year presidency of the Arctic Council in May and, as part of that role, Stockholm has set up the Arctic Change Assessment – a scientific project aimed at analysing how the Arctic is affected by both climate change and by increased economic activity in the area. It will also look at how negative effects can be minimised and how Arctic resilience can be strengthened.

The debate about the Arctic is heated in Sweden. On the one side, Carl Bildt diplomatically argues attention to the environment has to be given a priority when exploiting resources in the region, and Carl-Henric Svanberg – a Swedish national and chairman of the giant oil company BP, the company behind the catastrophic oil spill in the Mexican Gulf in 2010 – recently came out saying that deep-sea drilling will be necessary in the Arctic region. On the other side, some Swedish politicians oppose the exploitation of the Arctic sensitive nature and warn Carl Bildt not to “run the oil barons’ errands” during the Swedish presidency.

Sweden and neighbouring country, Finland, do not have an Arctic coastline. But experts argue that the absence of own national interests in the discussions on the Arctic Sea, and the management of the resources there, make Finland and Sweden act as neutral intermediaries on precisely those subjects.

Indeed, Finland has long worked as an intermediary between the Arctic Council and the European Union (EU). Finland may be housing the EU’s new Arctic Centre and Helsinki has long advocated that the EU’s European Commission should become a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. The EU permanent observer status application was given a cold shoulder by the Arctic Council members at the meeting in Nuuk.

Denmark is set to come out with its Arctic Strategy anytime soon. Denmark as such is not geographically part of the Arctic, but having Greenland in the Kingdom of Denmark means that Copenhagen is negotiating very hard on behalf of the island nation. Although Greenland is an autonomous country within the Danish Kingdom, the Danish government is still in charge of Greenland’s foreign affairs among other political areas.

Denmark, with Greenland, is trying to position itself the best possible way to get a share of the many opportunities that are opening up in the Arctic region, like most other Arctic countries. A leaked draft document from the Danish government was published in a national newspaper in May and stated that “the Kingdom of Denmark is expected to claim the continental shelf at five sites around the Faroe Islands and Greenland including some parts of the North Pole.”

Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen later said that there was nothing new in Denmark’s claim and that the North Pole is not “a goal in itself” but that the cartographic point simply happens to fall well within Denmark’s claims to its continental shelf.

Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US which border the North Pole all lay claims to the Northern areas and some of them overlap. The claims for extending their territories will eventually be decided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

A recent end to a 40-year disagreement over territory between Norway and Russia has left Norway relieved and optimistic about new exploration of oil and gas in its waters.

Oslo came out with its Arctic Strategy six years ago, which focussed on resources, climate, security and regional politics aimed creating jobs and promoting new settlements in northern Norway.

Back then most found the Norwegian strategy a little too futuristic to believe in. Now, however, the strategy is seen as being spot on target for developments in Arctic Norway. Last summer, a regular route between Norway and China going north of Russia was set up to transport iron ore. Moreover, the Arctic Council has decided to set up a permanent secretariat in Tromsø in northern Norway. And that is only the beginning.

Iceland, on the other hand, has given up laying claim to land nearer the North Pole. Instead, Reykjavík hopes to get a share of future fishing quotas as warmer waters in the Arctic will attract more fish to the area.

The changes in the Arctic are also expected to bring new economic potential to Iceland, mainly in the form of increased marine traffic. Work has already begun on a project of building a new harbour in the remote north eastern area of Iceland.

Greenland is probably the country that will face the most dramatic changes of the current global warming. Glaciers are retrieving, animal habitat is shrinking, and hunting grounds for the Inuit are radically changing.

At the same time, access to resources such as oil, gas, aluminium and gems, is opening up. New jobs are being created in a society that has long been suffering from high unemployment rates.

The developments have caused a fight between green activists and the defenders of economic growth on Greenland. “Just like other people around the world, we have to plead the right to develop our society,” said the Prime Minister of Greenland, Kuupik Kleist. The decision on intensifying the search for oil is also tied up with the wish to gain bigger financial independence and eventually full sovereignty from Denmark.

International interest

Although the Nordic countries all have their own different Arctic strategy, they all have in common the fact that their membership in the Arctic Council gives them some kind of importance on the international stage.

Through the Arctic Council, Nordic governments have access to the big players in international relations, such as the US and Russia. Even big countries like China, which is applying for a permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, is showing interest in the Nordic countries. China has an unusual large embassy in Iceland and an Arctic science centre on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.

Such brushing shoulders with the foreign ministers of the US and Russia is especially important in the area of the Arctic, where some rules are still to be set and lines are still to be drawn, according to some Nordic experts. Small nations are always in danger of being pressed by the bigger states in situations where there are no internationally recognised rules.

The Nordic countries, therefore, have faith in the fact that the Council is an arena where it is possible to create a common understanding of the development of the Arctic region and where it is possible to draw common experiences on the needs of the region. Through their work in the Arctic, the Nordic states feel that they now have a voice in big international politics.

But the ones who feel that they lack a voice are the people who live in the Arctic, such as the Inuit in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia and the Sami people who live in northern Scandinavia and Russia. They are represented in the Arctic Council as permanent participants, but the final decision making is still up to the eight member states.

“Nowadays, the indigenous people feel the consequences of the exploding exploitation of the Arctic.  Our people’s future is threatened because our possibility to take control of our own situation is highly limited,” Helena Omma from the Swedish Sami Council has said about the developments in the Arctic.

Kuupik Kleist, head of Greenland's Home Rule government, has stated that the “Arctic is not just about polar bears and ice. What is often missing in the debates is the human situation in the Arctic and the conditions under which we live.”

The debate of the Arctic region’s future will continue – also much further south of the polar circle – while in the meantime traffic will become ever busier in the Arctic sea.

The views expressed are those of the author.

Anonymous says:
Jul 02, 2011 08:33 PM

What was the reason why the Icelandic republic gave up claim on the Arctic? I suppose they are just to far away and are a non-military country.

They have been given a small area on they're North East for fishing as this article has stated.

The Icelanders do have to be careful, relations between countries can change, as Iceland is provided for defence by the Americans and the Treaty group, it could some how get brawled into a conflict by it being a base for another country.

It isn't impossible, albeit in the 1943 Canada occupied Iceland, though that was a different, but no territory is completely safe during a possible conflict in a region.

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