The Week Ahead: An observer is as an observer does

A gathering of Arctic Council observer states in Warsaw this week offers a chance to be heard, though perhaps not listened to.

By Kevin McGwin - May 6, 2018
Arctic Council observer delegates follow the proceedings of the first SAO meeting of the Finnish chairmanship on October 25, 2017 in Oulu, Finland. (Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström)

When the Arctic Council meets, its observer states have a self-explanatory, though perhaps not always wholly satisfying, role. This changes momentarily once every second year, when, at the mid-point of a chairmanship, the council’s observer states (one of three categories of observers) become the observed.

The idea behind the Warsaw Format Meeting is two-fold: Observer states (and the EU) meet to discuss their Arctic lot amongst themselves, and, then, to address the chairmanship without other representatives from member states present.

First held in 2010, Warsaw Format Meetings deal with whatever issues are relevant at the moment, but the underling goal is always the same, according to Adam Stępień, a Polish academic familiar with the meetings.

“It’s really a reminder to the council that observer states are looking to get some value out of their participation,” he says. “Observers are asked to make contributions, and this is their chance to remind the chairmanship that those contributions do not come for free.”

[Environment, education top agenda at first Arctic Council meeting under Finnish leadership]

Being granted time alone with the chairman of the Senior Arctic Officials (the individuals who represent each of the eight Arctic states) makes it easier for observer states to speak their mind. Their concerns, according to Stępień, do get heard, and even passed on, but there is no guarantee the council will act on them.

“The discussions here are franker than at Arctic Council meetings,” he says. “Anything can be said, but everything can be ignored.”

The Warsaw meeting is said to differ from those organized during the semi-annual SAO meetings in some important ways. Firstly, it is organized by the observers for observers.  They set the agenda and invite the people they want to talk to. Secondly, there are no SAOs in the room.

“That means there are fewer sensitivities to consider,” says one past participant. “At the SAO meetings, most of what happens involves going over items that are presented in a mostly finished version. The Warsaw meeting can potentially influence how those documents look.”

[How Arctic Council observers benefit the region]

This year, the chairmanship may be taking notes a little more carefully. The Arctic Council is drawing up a roadmap for its future development, and insiders expect representatives from observer states to seek to use the meeting as their opportunity to influence the process.

The thrust of their argument will likely be that the states they represent want to see them playing a more visible role. The most obvious way of doing this is by being given the chance to participate more during SAO meetings. But, that kind of request, according to Piotr Graczyk, of Norut, a Norwegian research outfit, indicates that observers either misunderstand how the council works, or that their real audience lies elsewhere.

Observers, for example, are encouraged to take part in working-group meetings, where, Graczyk explains, most of the substantial work of the council takes place.

“What happens at SAO meetings is mostly a discussion of what the working groups have been doing,” he says. “If you are asking for time there, it is because you want to be seen, not necessarily contribute.”

[Next week’s Arctic Council meeting could be eclipsed by events on the sidelines]

If observers want more influence, he believes they should start by understanding the options they already have, not by asking for more.

“The Arctic Council is the most important Arctic organization, but not being aware of how it works shows it is not the most important organization for Arctic Council observer states.”

When and where
May 11; Warsaw, Poland

For more information
Warsaw Format meeting discusses the Arctic region
Arctic Council – Observers

Further reading
Observers have opinions too
A wish for observers that work


Arctic Circle Faroe Islands Forum
If there is one event that tops most people’s lists of Arctic-related events to attend each year, it is Arctic Circle. The big draw of the annual gathering in Reykjavík, Iceland, is its no-holds-barred approach to guests and discussions. This makes for a dizzying three days.

For those preferring to start in the shallow end, the Arctic Circle’s occasional forums are a safer start. The six smaller-scale events that have been held to date have brought discussions about specific Arctic-related topics to new locations, and to audiences that are a fraction of the size of those attending the main show.

Topics reflect the setting. A session in Singapore took a look at shipping and global collaboration on Arctic affairs. The Washington, D.C., gathering looked how U.S.-Russia relations affect the development of the region. An Edinburgh audience heard about Scotland’s role in “the New North.”

This week, the seventh forum takes place in Tórshavn, the Faroe Islands. At issue will be economic development: what are the prospects for communities in the North, and how can they capitalise on the changes facing the region? The discussion, like the location, has moved closer to home.

ArcticToday will be on hand in the Faroe Islands this week. You can follow our coverage on Facebook. If you are attending the forum and would like to meet with us, send us an email.

When and where
May 8-9; Tórshavn, Faroe Islands

For more information
Arctic Hubs: Building Dynamic Economies and Sustainable Communities in the North

Further reading
Solidly southern Scotland seeks northern prosperity


China–Japan–South Korea trilateral summit
When the leaders of the world’s second, third and 14th largest economies meet in Tokyo for the next instalment of their irregular, but increasingly frequent, series of high-level meetings, most observers expect that it will be tensions on the Korean peninsula that will take up most of their time.

Still, those hoping that the meeting will reveal a little more about the Arctic intentions of China, Japan and South Korea will be enthused by comments by Kong Xuanyou, China’s vice-foreign minister, who last week told Reuters, a news agency, that “there will be no off-limits areas” during either the three-way talks, on May 9, or during a concurrent three-day tête-à-tête between Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, and Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier.

The three countries have used previous meetings to discuss topics like research and to co-ordinate their positions towards fishing in the central part of the Arctic Ocean. They also have similar, emerging interests in Arctic shipping, as well as the success of Russia’s natural gas plants on the Yamal peninsula.

When and where
May 9; Tokyo

For more information
China–Japan–South Korea trilateral summit

Further reading
China, Japan and South Korea hold their own Arctic dialogue
China, Japan and South Korea in the Arctic, Pooling resources 


Mid-point of the Finnish chairmanship of the Arctic Council
This week, Finland moves into the second half of its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Helsinki earned early praise from some corners for making the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of UN guidelines for reducing poverty, a cornerstone of the chairmanship and introducing new topics like education and meteorology as part of its agenda. This, it was said, suggested Finland was looking for ways to get the organization to think outside the box at a time of uncertaintyd.

Critics consider this mission creep, and warn the council should stick to getting states to work together on issues that would otherwise go unaddressed.

Debate about Finland’s approach will continue, but, for Helsinki, it is moot: After a flurry of activities this autumn, the chairmanship moves into handover mode. (Iceland becomes the next chair in the spring of 2019.) No binding agreement of any sort is in the offing, but Finland is expected to make good progress on the task of drawing up the roadmap for the organization’s future, an assignment they inherited from Washington and will pass on to Reykjavík. Their chairmanship may be heading for the finish line, but its work will live on.

May 11

For more information
Finland’s Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2017–2019
Arctic Finland

Further reading
After more than two decades, the Arctic Council considers what direction its future will take

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 email [email protected].