The Week Ahead: Conference edition

Davos, Switzerland; Tromsø, Norway; and Bodø, Norway all host multi-day conferences that are relevant for the region this week.

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The United States currently holds the rotating Chairmanship of the Arctic Economic Council. Chair Tara Sweeney comes from Barrow, Alaska, and she has previously been honored for her advocacy of Alaska Native rights and promoting local programs. (Pernille Ingebrigtsen / Arctic Frontiers)

On the conference circuit, the scope of your worldview will determine whether your attention settles on one of three locations this week: Davos, Switzerland; Tromsø, Norway; or Bodø, Norway. All three will host multi-day conferences that, in their own way, are relevant for the region.

Those in the know about the Arctic, and who want to learn more, will descend on Tromsø, for Arctic Frontiers, a week-long gathering beginning today that seeks to serve as a crucible for decision-makers, scientists and businesspeople.

Unlike your typical gathering, the emphasis, one veteran of the 12-year series says, is on learning more about the stated topic, not meeting people who have something or other to do with it.

“People go to Tromsø to attend sessions and hear about things they don’t know, not see people they know, and even less to mingle with new people. You go in, you sit down. When it’s over, you go out and have a cup of coffee. But you don’t linger the way you might at other events. You always go back in again,” he says.

If that sounds antithetical to the idea of a modern conference, it is all a part of the thinking behind Arctic Frontiers and a Norwegian Arctic strategy that strives to be as well-informed as possible. That is why, for example, big political names often appear on stage with leading scientific figures. Exchanging business cards is a courtesy, but exchanging ideas is the real point.

In Davos, it will be the names that steal the show of the annual meeting of World Economic Forum, a non-profit that promotes global co-operation between the public and private sectors, which runs from Jan 23-26. Last year, it was Xi Jinping’s presence that dominated. To date, the main discussion is Donald Trump. America’s president has announced he will attend, but the failure of Congress to extend funding for federal agencies has thrown those plans into doubt. Even if he does not attend, others from his administration will.

As with other major general-purpose events of this sort, the Arctic is a niche topic, along the lines of rainforests, artificial intelligence or hunger. The World Economic Forum is no stranger to the Arctic, though. During the 2016 meeting, for example, it released its Arctic Investment Protocol, which contains guidelines for companies looking to make a profit in the region in a way that would not leave its people worse off. And, as with last year, academics will pitch an Arctic basecamp to attract attention to the effects of the region’s changing climate.

Davos is a crowded field, but, we were told last year by Gail Whitman, of the University of Lancaster, one of the organizers of the basecamp, that only makes it more important for the Arctic to be represented.

“Most people in Davos can tell you that the Amazon is the world’s lungs, and will argue for its protection,” she said. “But few outside the region have an idea of the role the Arctic plays, or the changes it is facing. Those that do tend to see the changes as an opportunity.”

If you live in the Arctic, the more relevant issue not whether the Arctic is an opportunity but what must be done to make keep communities going. On Jan 23-24, Nordlands Fylkeskommune, a county authority in northern Norway, will ask how it can turn its tonnage (in the form of abundant natural resources) into cold, hard kroner in order to make this happen.

As far as professional gatherings go, regional-development conferences of this sort are not unique, neither in the Arctic nor anywhere. Nor are the measures that are needed in order for places like Nordland to thrive. That is perhaps the point that this week’s other two big events fail to notice.

TESTING THE WATERS

This week, Carles Puigdemont, the former separatist president of Spain’s Catalonia region, makes his first visit outside Belgium since he fled there in October to avoid being jailed for his role in organizing a referendum Madrid considers illegal.

Puigdemont is scheduled to participate in a debate Monday at the University of Copenhagen titled ‘Catalonia and Europe at a Crossroads for Democracy’. According to the university, Puigdemont himself asked to be included in the event.

The request was made despite the likelihood that Spain would demand that Danish authorities arrest Puigdemont upon arrival. But, the point of the visit may be to put the theme of the discussion into practice: despite living in exile and having to campaign by video, Puigdemont was re-elected to the regional parliament in January and has enough backing to again become president. By arresting Puigdemont, the Danes, to his supporters, would appear to be rejecting the will of Catalonia’s voters.

Former Catalonian president Carles Puigdemont is in Copenhagen this week to take part in academic debates and political discussions (Photo: Sandra Lázaro / CC via Wikimedia Commons)
Former Catalonian president Carles Puigdemont is in Copenhagen this week to take part in academic debates and political discussions (Photo: Sandra Lázaro / CC via Wikimedia Commons)

Should he remain a free man, Puigdemont will visit the Folketing, the national assembly, on Tuesday. The visit comes at the invitation of Magni Arge, an independence-minded MP representing the Faroe Islands, who explained to Danish media that he had organized the meeting so members of the assembly’s foreign, European, Greenlandic and Faroese affairs committees could hear about the situation in Catalonia “direct from the horse’s mouth”.

If he is looking for a two-way discussion, Puigdemont will hear that, unlike Catalonia, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, Denmark’s own self-governing regions, have a clear mandate allowing them to declare their independence, should they wish it. Actions of the type that Puigdemont now faces legal action for are expressly permitted. Political leaders in both countries have in recent years taken concrete steps, such as preparing their own constitutions and establishing independent foreign relations, they can build independent states on, them should they ever secede.

Doing so is not without consequences though: Copenhagen, for example, has pointed out in no uncertain terms that independence will mean an end to the two countries’ annual subsidies. For the Faroe Islands, losing the funding would be manageable (it has been consistently declining in real terms as and now makes up 3 percent of GDP. Some of the country’s most enthusiastic separatists would, in fact, like to see it eliminated entirely, since it would force the country to develop economic activity to make up for it.

For Greenland, filling the financial hole would be far more difficult: The subsidy makes up 20 percent of GDP. On top of that, an independent Greenland would be responsible for more than 30 areas of public administration that have yet to be devolved from Copenhagen. No figure for how much this would cost has been set, but it involves cost-heavy functions such as defense and justice.

As it turns out, Danish lawmakers appear to have an eye on the political consequences of associating with Catalonia’s separatists. While Puigdemont has accepted the offer to meet, many of Arge’s colleagues, including Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, an MP representing Greenland, say they will not be there.

Larsen explained that her decision was due to time constraints, and some have said they consider the matter a Spanish internal affair. Others, according to Arge, have declined on the grounds that they fear legitimizing Puigdemont. It is an argument he rejects; the Catalonian voters, he counters, have already legitimized the separatist movement by voting for Puigdemont and his party.

Like Puigdemont may be doing by calling on Copenhagen, Arge, it seems, is testing whether political theory is independent of reality.

ALSO THIS WEEK:

Scheduled for Tuesday—but postponed due to the U.S. federal government shutdown), Anchorage was to be the site on Tuesday of one of 23 public meetings organized by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management about the Trump administration’s Jan 4 decision to open most of the waters off the United States to oil exploration. The meeting — the only one scheduled to be held in Alaska —has been postponed due to the federal government shutdown. There was no word Monday on when it would be rescheduled.

The Alaska Marine Science Symposium will be held in Anchorage Jan 22-26. According to organizers, for the past 20 years, the event has provided established scientists, new researchers and young students the chance to share their work and form new collaborations with each other, local communities, managers, industry, and the broader public.

The Week Ahead is a preview of some of the events related to the region that will be in the news in the coming week. If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please contact us.