The Arctic Council needs to open up

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Set up initially as an intergovernmental forum to promote cooperation among Arctic states, the Council is failing to adequately accommodate rising interest from outside the region and needs reform, argues, Roderick Kefferpütz.

Roderick Kefferpütz is a Political Advisor at the European Parliament and an Associate at the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung in Berlin.

The views expressed are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Parliament.

The Arctic Council is under increasing pressure. Set up as an intergovernmental forum to promote cooperation among Arctic states, the Council is failing to adequately accommodate rising interest from outside the region. As a result, it is no longer the only Arctic forum in town. On 15 April, the President of Iceland, Ólafur Grímsson, proudly announced the official launch of a new forum: the Arctic Circle.

In the last decade, interest in the High North has surged beyond the traditional Arctic coastal states. South Korea is busy building icebreakers, China is stepping up its polar research efforts and the European Union published its first Arctic strategy in 2008. It is unsurprising that more actors are looking north. The receding ice, which melted to its lowest level on record last year, will render accessible huge deposits of hitherto untouched resources and open up new commercial sea lanes. Concurrently, the melting ice cap is endangering international environmental stability and contributing to a dramatic rise in sea levels, threatening the security of non-Arctic states such as Bangladesh. The Arctic has become more than just a narrow regional issue.

As such, a range of actors have put forward their candidacy for observer status at the Arctic Council: in total, fourteen countries and organisations are currently applying. These include, for example, India, Japan and the European Union – but also Greenpeace and the Association of Oil and Gas Producers.

The Arctic Council, however, has largely regarded these applications with apprehension. At its 2009 meeting in Tromsø it preliminarily rejected full observer status for China, South Korea and the EU while in 2011 it published its Nuuk Observer Rules which have created more onerous criteria for observer status. These moves have helped create a vacuum that is now being filled by the Arctic Circle.

In contrast to the Arctic Council, the Arctic Circle will be open to any country or organisation that wishes to participate. (France and Google have supposedly already expressed their interest.) It will be a global forum for debate on Arctic issues – something akin to a Davos gathering for the High North – with its inaugural conference taking place this October in Reykjavik. This new forum will be a clear signal from those countries and organisations so far excluded from the Arctic Council that there are also alternative ways to discuss Arctic issues and advance their own Arctic interests.

This new initiative – which President Grímsson announced together with his support for China’s observer status at the Arctic Council –  can play into the hands of Arctic Council members such as Finland and Iceland that wish to put the Council on a more open and inclusive path. It puts the spotlight on the upcoming Arctic Council ministerial meeting in May, at which a decision on the applications for observer status is expected. This raises the political stakes.

Opponents of a more integrative Council such as Canada should not see the Arctic Circle as a short-term expedient place to offload the Council’s observer applications and reject their candidacies. Instead, the Arctic Circle should act as a wake-up call that increased international dialogue on the Arctic is needed.

Having been established in the last decade of the twentieth century, the Arctic Council has for too long looked at the region with distrust and apprehension, living by the Inuit proverb that you never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks.

Until we get to that point, governance structures need to be up to scratch and a constructive and appropriate dialogue between Arctic and non-Arctic actors needs to be established. The Arctic Circle is going in that direction. It’s time for the High North’s foremost governance structure, the Arctic Council, to follow suit.

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