Last month, Ségolène Royal appeared to confirm that she is on the verge of becoming France’s next ‘Ambassador on Polar Issues’, a post left vacant since the passing of Michel Rocard a year ago. Ms Royal was the Socialist party candidate in the 2007 Presidential Election, but more recently served as the President of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.
Whoever is appointed will have big snow boots to fill. Mr Rocard was made polar ambassador in 2009 to represent France at international negotiations relating to the Arctic and Antarctica. He was widely regarded a hero of Antarctica for the leadership he showed during the international negotiations on the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. He also backed calls for an international treaty to guarantee peace and environmental protection in the Arctic.
France is not alone among non-Arctic countries in appointing a high-level official to represent its interests in the polar regions. However, the others have focussed their attention entirely on the Arctic. For instance, in 2013 Japan appointed an ambassador to lead its representation to the Arctic Council and demonstrate its growing interest in Arctic affairs. Singapore had already appointed a special envoy for Arctic Affairs in 2012 showing that it too wanted to increase its diplomatic effort in the region.
A meeting of British Arctic stakeholders hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2008 concluded that
‘business as usual’ was no longer an option in the Arctic, and that Britain needed a more coordinated approach to the region. That led some to ask whether Britain too, should appoint an Arctic or polar ambassador. In 2015, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic concluded that the Government should appoint an ambassador for the Arctic to ensure greater focus and co-ordination of Arctic affairs across Government, and spearhead British interest in the region.
Others question whether such an appointment is really necessary. After all, Britain does not usually appoint an ambassador to a region of the world as opposed to a nation state. British representation to the Arctic Council is led by a senior Foreign Office official who is the long-standing director of the Polar Regions Department, which also chairs an cross-departmental Whitehall network to coordinate British interests in the Arctic. It is even arguable that Britain already has several ‘Arctic’ ambassadors in the form of its ambassadors to Arctic countries. For example, now Finland chairs the Arctic Council, the British Embassy in Helsinki has taken on a greater role promoting British Arctic interests.
Even so, the appointment of a British ambassador, or perhaps better yet, a permanent special representative for the Arctic (and such posts have existed for other regions such as the Sahel) could still be meaningful, especially if the post is given the authority and resources to coordinate and scrutinise British Arctic policy development across Government, and lead trade missions to the region.
Conversely, responsibility for Antarctica, where Britain has sovereign interests to uphold, should be left to the Polar Regions Department and relevant ministers. That would ease the pressure on both the Polar Regions Department and overseas missions in Arctic countries for whom the Arctic is unlikely to be a top priority. It would also create a clearer line of accountability in the development and delivery of British Arctic policy, something which is still sorely lacking, and provide a rallying point for British-based stakeholders wanting to engage more with the region. Symbolically too, it would demonstrate to other countries increasing their activity in the Arctic that Britain is prepared to step-up its diplomatic game as global interest in the region continues to grow.