The Arctic is becoming a new geopolitical centre, and the EU and the rest of the world need to update their "mental maps", Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said.
Norway supports the EU application for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, the diplomat said yesterday (22 March) at a conference organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC) think tank.
Norway successfully conducted accession negotiations to the then-European Community, but Norwegian voters rejected membership by narrow margins in 1972 and 1994.
This time, it is the EU that is applying to join an organisation hosted in Norway. The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum which addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the region's indigenous people.
Its members are Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
The permanent observers are six EU countries: Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. The Arctic Council Secretariat is based at the Fram Centre, Tromsø, Norway.
How to manage the interest?
"The Arctic Council's challenge 10 years ago was that nobody knew what it was. The challenge today is how to handle all the interest, how to organise that," Støre said.
The minister said there were applications from many countries to obtain permanent observer status, but the selection would be made according to the capacity of countries to engage in the fields of activity – including environmental stewardship – of the intergovernmental forum.
Støre said Norway had "no other choice but to be in the lead" of knowledge of what the High North is becoming, in the context of climate change where ice disappears, new maritime routes open and new opportunities for accessing resources are taking place.
The High North is not the new geopolitical centre, he said, but combines transport, resources, access and geopolitical dimensions.
The diplomat used as an example the Svalbard archipelago where the ice is melting.
This winter temperatures in Svalbard were 10 to 15 degrees Celsius higher than normal and "the most interesting thing is what you cannot see: there is no ice in the fjords," Støre said.
The diplomat stressed that the research on climate change made at Svalbard had global ramifications. The latest report on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change draws heavily on knowledge from the Arctic, he stressed.
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton recently visited a former mining site in Ny-Alesund that today is a research centre, he said. China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and India all have research stations at Svalbard, where there is also "a fascinating French-German common station".
'High North, low tension'
The Norwegian government has used the catch-phrase "High North, low tension" in promoting international understanding after the Cold War.
Støre spoke in positive terms about his country's recent experience with Russia: Norway and Russia recently settled a 40-year maritime territorial dispute in the Arctic Ocean and Barents Sea by splitting 175,000 square kilometres down the middle.
"Norway and Russia can now say that they have a land border from 1826 and a sea border from 2011," he said.
The two countries also worked out a deal on Arctic cod. Støre said that one of the world's most valuable resources, if measured by the kilo, was an enzyme in the cod's liver. "We didn't know about this 10-15 years ago, and we need to harvest it appropriately," he said.
When in 1990 the border between Norway and Russia opened, there were 5,000 to 8,000 border crossings a year. Now 20 Norwegian companies are based in Murmansk, across the border, and border crossings exceeded 200,000 last year, the minister said.
"Yet, you don't need to repeat to me the challenges, because Russia is still secretive, it is cumbersome, it is difficult to deal with, but it is moving in the right direction and we need to seize that opportunity," he said.
The diplomat added that those who conveyed the impression that there was a race in the Arctic are wrong, because the rule that the one who gets there first gets the resources doesn't apply. He said that he had been asked in the European Parliament what would be the consequences of Russia planting its flag at the North Pole.
"I answered that question – well, a Norwegian [Roald Amundsen] planted a flag on the South Pole in 1911: it didn't make the South Pole Norwegian".
There is a race of companies seeking a new round of drilling incenses in the Arctic, but not a competition among countries to conquer land, he said.
Who is dependent?
Asked if Norway's role in providing 20% of the EU's gas – and one-third of the supply of Britain, France and Germany – was making them "dependent" on the Nordic country, he said: "But turn it around – we export almost 100% of our gas to Europe, so who is more dependent."
"If Europe is going to do its renewable revolution based on the knowledge that there is a solid and permanent provision of gas, which is among the least-bad fossil fuels, then we need long-term prospects on that," he said, echoing similar remarks made by Russian officials.
The resource-rich Arctic is becoming increasingly contentious as climate change endangers many species of the region's flora and fauna but also makes the region more navigable. Up to 25% of the planet's undiscovered oil and gas could be located there, according to the US Geological Survey.
No country owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic surrounding it. The surrounding Arctic states of the USA, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (Greenland) have a 200-nautical-mile economic zone around their coasts.
In August 2007, a Russian icebreaker reached the North Pole and a Russian mini-submarine planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed there. The move was widely interpreted as a bellicose claim by Russia to the North Pole seabed and its resources.
Norway provide between 10% and 18% of EU oil demand and nearly 20% of its natural gas. The country, a member of the European Economic Area since 1994, is the world's third largest exporter of oil and gas after Saudi Arabia and Russia.
- Arctic Council:About the Arctic Council