Finland will work to keep tensions low in the Arctic

By Kathrin Stephen, High North News - June 7, 2017
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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pass the gavel to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, Timo Soini, as the chair of the Arctic Council is passed to Finland at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska on Thursday, May 11, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pass the gavel to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, Timo Soini, as the chair of the Arctic Council is passed to Finland at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska on Thursday, May 11, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

“Arctic cooperation is facing great challenges; there might be some icebergs in sight,” said Aleksi Härkönen, the Senior Arctic Official of Finland and current Chair of the SAOs of the Arctic Council. “International tensions have been running high, but so far they have not affected Arctic cooperation. Finland will work to keep it that way,” he emphasized.

Ambassador Härkönen raised these concerns at an event in Berlin on Monday this week on the Arctic Council Chairmanship of Finland, which was co-organised by the Finnish Embassy in Berlin, the German Federal Foreign Office and the German Arctic Office. He derived his worries about Arctic cooperation partly on the outcome of the G7 meeting in Taormina, Sicily, in late May, which was concluded without a U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.

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While this caused many country leaders to express disappointment, Härkönen assured that Finland and other EU countries are committed to Paris. “The scientific evidence is unquestionable; there are no alternative facts to build on,” he told the audience in the Felleshus of the Nordic Embassies in Berlin.

Härkönen reminded the audience that climate change will fundamentally change the Arctic even if Paris is implemented. Consequently, he expects activity in the region to increase. “Globalization will reach the Arctic: The region will become a hub for economic activities,” he said.

During the ensuing discussion, Tero Vauraste, the current Chair of the Arctic Economic Council, expressed his concerns about the protectionism tendencies underway, especially in the U.S. “Such developments will impede sustainable business opportunities also in the Arctic,” the CEO of Arctia Ltd said.

Vauraste reported that there is an estimated $1 trillion investment base in the Arctic. “However, we need to link the Arctic to international value chains since the $1 trillion cannot be raised only from within the Arctic,” the Arctic Economic Council chair explained. Further, business profits can only be made in case the environmental costs of not addressing climate change will not accelerate. “In other words, Paris has to implemented,” Vauraste emphasized.

Equally important are also inter-Arctic linkages. In this respect, the vision of a pan-Arctic free trade zone has been part of discussions at the Arctic Economic Council. Vauraste conceded though that this idea will most likely remain only a vision.

Härkönen also reiterated that despite the tense international situation, questions of military security continue to be excluded from the mandate of the Arctic Council. In this context, he mentioned that the idea of creating an Arctic confidence-building regime has been floating around. Härkönen reminded the audience though that all Arctic countries participate in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and its confidence-building regime. “For this reason, there are no new measures needed within the Arctic framework; indeed, the Arctic Council itself is a confidence-building measure,” Härkönen concluded.

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During the seminar Finland presented itself well prepared for its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The key message was conveyed during a short film showed at the beginning of the event: against the background of funky music and breathtaking photos from the Finnish Arctic, the audience learned that “With Knowledge and Resilience Arctic countries shape their success. Finland will continue on this path.”

The Finnish Ambassador to Germany, Ritva Koukku-Ronde, emphasized the strong Arctic competence of Finland in her welcome address. “In Finland we have succeeded because of our Arctic climate, not despite it,” she said. As to the chairmanship program, Koukku-Ronde reiterated the focus on implementing solutions and putting to use innovative technologies to tackle the challenges deriving from climate change. The focus on implementing solutions in response to climate change and for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals can be found in the four priorities of the Finnish chairmanship program: Environmental protection, Connectivity, Meteorological cooperation, and Education.

Härkönen reiterated the Finnish offer to host a high-level Arctic Summit meeting during its chairmanship. However, he cautioned that this will only be possible “if the international climate is favourable and if an appropriate agenda can be agreed on.” Härkönen further thanked Germany for agreeing to host the next Arctic Science Ministers meeting in Berlin in autumn 2018, which will be a follow-up meeting of the White House Arctic Science Ministerial in Washington, D.C. in September 2016.

After Switzerland has been admitted at the Fairbanks Ministerial Meeting on May 11, there are now 13 state observers to the Arctic Council.

Härkönen reported that the European Union continues to be a de facto observer because of the objection from Russia to the EU becoming a fully accredited observer. Nevertheless, Härkönen emphasized that Finland will continue the U.S. practice towards stronger involvement of observers in the Council. He named the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation as a good example of observer engagement; while there were misgivings among observers that the agreement would limit scientific cooperation with Arctic countries, these fears were eased during the negotiations.

The Science Cooperation Agreement was also favourable mentioned by the speaker from the German Foreign Office, Dr. Peter Ptassek. “Germany may not be a formal party to this Agreement, but we feel we are part of its spirit and therefore its practical application”, he said during the event. Germany hosting the second Arctic Science Ministers meeting in autumn 2018 is a strong sign of the engagement of Germany in the Arctic and of the acknowledgement of Germany’s contributions.

Dr. Ptassek further mentioned a German-French-Finnish Arctic Seminar on environmental science and the work of the Arctic Council, which will take place in Helsinki in October this year, supported by the German Foreign Office and organized by the German Arctic Office.

Valuable input from observer countries like Germany was also highlighted by Walter Kühnlein, the Chairman of the German Association for Marine Technology, which represents more than 130 companies, institutes and research facilities from Germany. German business and research institutes can provide innovative solutions in the areas of marine monitoring and environmental protection technology as well as in Arctic and polar technology. These topics will also be in the forefront of the Finnish chairmanship. Accordingly, an event on “A sustainable Arctic – Innovative Approaches” is organized as part of the Finnish chairmanship program in Oulu on June 15.