Sep 2017

Where Next for the Arctic Council?

Although only a third of the country lies above the Arctic Circle at 66° North, Finland regards itself as being a wholly Arctic nation, where society and infrastructure is fully adapted to coping with extremely cold weather. Finland likens itself to an ‘island state’, as it is heavily dependent on keeping Baltic Sea ports and shipping lanes – which freeze in the winter - open year-round. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that around 60 per cent of the world’s icebreaker fleet is Finnish-owned.

Finland played a crucial role in the formation of the Arctic Council. In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘Murmansk Speech’ called for increased East-West cooperation in the Arctic. In 1991, formal intergovernmental Arctic cooperation started at the first-ever Arctic ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, where the Arctic Environment Protection Strategy (AEPS) was adopted. AEPS was eventually amalgamated into the Arctic Council, which was established in 1996 with a mandate to promote further intergovernmental cooperation on environmental cooperation and sustainable development between the A8 and in consultations with six Arctic indigenous peoples organisations that are permanent participants of the Council.

Finland assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which rotates between the A8 every two years, for the second time in May 2017. However, much has changed in the Arctic since Finland last held the chairmanship from 2000 to 2002, especially with global attention to the region growing, and the Arctic Council gaining prominence. In addition to publishing several landmark scientific assessments, under the Arctic Council’s auspices the A8 have agreed three binding international treaties to further their cooperation in the Arctic: on Search and Rescue (2011), on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response (2013), and most recently on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (2017). Several forums have also been established to promote greater sharing of knowledge and best practice, as well as open up new communication channels among the A8 and other Arctic stakeholders, including: the Arctic Economic Council, the Arctic Coastguard Forum, the Arctic Offshore Regulators Forum, and the Arctic Shipping Best Practices Forum (which was launched in London in June 2017).

The Finnish government plans to use its chairmanship (2017-2019) to continue building on what the Arctic Council has already achieved, while also pushing on areas of particular interest to Finland. On the former, Finland is especially keen to see progress on integrating the Arctic Council’s work with the UN frameworks provided by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that these are implemented across the Arctic. In particular, Finland wants to prompt greater efforts to reduce emissions of black carbon in the Arctic. There will also be a meeting of A8 Environment Ministers in 2018. On the latter, Finland’s focus on connectivity and education highlights the country’s strengths in telecommunications and, in particular, the provision of digital, social, educational, and health services to remote communities in extreme environments. The other priority area for Finland is to promote international cooperation on meteorology, a topic with relevance for all human activity in the Arctic, and one that the Arctic Council has not addressed before.  

Lastly, Finland has raised the intriguing possibility of a Heads of State Arctic Summit by declaring that it is ready to host such a meeting, provided that the international situation is favourable, and that there is an agreement on an agenda, which is appropriate for a Summit.

The discussion that followed Ms Luostarinen’s presentation was ride-ranging, but two issues, that were somewhat related, cropped up several times. The first concerned the extent to which the Arctic Council had been affected by the general deterioration of West-Russia relations since the Ukraine/Crimea crisis in 2014. The second was about whether the Arctic Council should consider broadening its mandate and become a forum also for discussing regional security matters, including, for example, recent increases in military activity in the Arctic by all sides. In reply, Ms Luostarinen was unequivocal about the fact that Russia remained a cooperative partner in Arctic affairs, and that the work of the Arctic Council had so far been insulated from other challenges. She also expected that Russia would continue to play a constructive role in the Arctic Council.

Furthermore, Ms Luostarinen made it clear that there was no appetite among the A8 to expand the Arctic Council’s mandate to include security matters – and in fact the Arctic Council had become a valuable forum for maintaining diplomatic channels between the West and Russia while links frayed elsewhere. She therefore expected the Arctic Council to remain a consensus-based organisation focussing on areas of joint interest and cooperation, rather than become some sort of dispute-solving mechanism.  

Other questions sought to elicit Finland’s view of how well the UK was contributing to Arctic affairs. Ms Luostarinen was positive about the UK’s active interest in the Arctic, especially its move to become the first observer state to develop a policy paper setting out its Arctic interests, and the valuable contribution that British scientists continue to make (as an aside, Professor Jukka Tuhkuri, who accompanied the Ambassador to the meeting, emphasised this by pointing out that he was a Finnish scientist who had specifically come to London for ice research). Ms Luostarinen also referred to Finland’s decision to appoint an Arctic Ambassador in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which the UK might consider as a model (an idea that has been much debated in the UK since it was raised by the House of Lords Arctic Committee in 2015).