Week Ahead: The Arctic with European characteristics


For many, Europe’s involvement in the Arctic is synonymous with the European Union’s difficulty gaining full observer status with the Arctic Council.

This week and next, a handful of events highlight the fact that, when it comes to the Arctic, ‘Europe’ is not always congruous with the EU.

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Most noticeable in the coming days will be gatherings in Finland and Scotland. Each will take its own perspective on the region, but the message they deliver is the same: Brussels’ interest in the Arctic is but one layer of a complicated set of relationships.

For the Finns, the third installment of the biennial ‘Spirit of Rovaniemi’ [www.rovaniemiarcticspirit.fi/EN ] conference, running from November 14-16, will, according to Markku Heikkilä, its director, be a chance to explain how the region looks from the inside to those on the outside.

While this has been a feature in previous years, the Finnish chairmanship of the Arctic Council this year and next gives it new relevance as a platform to profile the country and its role in the region’s development.

Ruling out Brussels entirely is not an option, however: the EU is involved in the region through not just the Arctic territory of Finland and Sweden, but also bilaterally with other countries, such as Greenland, and internationally, by, for example, its participation in negotiations to impose a pre-emptive moratorium on fishing in the central Arctic Ocean.

This means representatives from Brussels are invited (as are officials from other European capitals), but the message is that they are there to listen and to learn.

This will ensure that they leave Rovaniemi with an Arctic perspective, rather than coming there to deliver the view from Brussels. Equally important is that with national leaders asked to take a back seat, there will be more floor space for the municipal governments and ordinary people who often find their own interests at odds with national and international policy.

For the Scottish event [], taking place in Edinburgh, November 19-21, being put on by the organizers of Arctic Circle, a big annual event in Reykjavík, Iceland, the approach will be just the opposite: its high-profile, internationalist approach will seek to compare the experiences of communities from inside and outside the region to address similar issues, particularly those faced by small and isolated communities.

Like the leaders of other countries that have taken an interest in the region, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish premier, does not claim that her country is Arctic. But, as she told this year’s Arctic Circle in October, there are gains to be had on both sides of the circle.

“Our hope is that working more closely with the Arctic Circle will help us build a fairer, more prosperous and more sustainable society within Scotland. But we also believe that we can play a part, together with all of you, in bringing benefits to nations across the Arctic and around the world.”
In Berlin, the Arctic will be on the agenda on November 15 in an event [] being put on by the Norwegian embassy and the Arctic Frontiers conference, held in Tromsø each January, together with the recently opened the German Arctic Office and AWI, a science outfit.

Seasoned Arctic watchers will find the topics classic fare (political, science and business perspectives on a responsible future for the Arctic), but that straightforward approach jibes with the German Arctic Office’s stated mission of communicating Germany’s involvement in the region to domestic and foreign audiences.

For Norwegian speakers, the same day will also offer the opportunity to get a fourth, literary, perspective on the region. On November 15, the National Library of Norway hosts the next installment of the Arctic Imagination [http://www.arcticimagination.com/] series of talks put on by the national libraries of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Greenland, as well as the New York City and Stockholm public libraries. This is a topic we’ll return to in more detail next week, but the discussion on Wednesday is one of five events being held over a two-week period.

Since the series began on May 31, five events, what the organizers describe as “artistic and intellectual reflections on the region”, have been held. Wednesday’s features Maja Lunde and Christian Bjørnæs, both authors, giving their take on what happens to the Arctic way of life when the temperature rises and the ice melts. Authors may not seem an imaginative choice for a library event, but past guests include musicians, scientists, lawmakers, actors, explorers and hunters.

Brussels, it should be noted, is more than just than its observership. To be sure, its sealskin ban continues to mar its relationship with Arctic nations. And its decision to impose sanctions on Russia’s energy industry are said to have cost it full observer status in 2015.

With two policy documents (the first drawn up in 2016 by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, the second by the European Parliament earlier this year) and a mention in the union’s foreign-policy, the Arctic is on the agenda in Brussels in other ways. Though perhaps less pressing than other issues, its financial agreement with Greenland shows that it is prepared to make an investment in its future in the region.

Where else might it place its euro? A meeting on November 15, organized by Interreg Nord, an EU outfit that provides funding for tighter integration in northern Norway, northern Finland and northern Sweden, as well as the cross-border Sápmi territory, will tout topics like climate and energy and research as areas where it sees the potential for successful enterprises.

A similar program, the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, involves the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. On November 23, it will hold meetings to help entrepreneurs take part in its fifth funding round since 2014. So far, some 50 projects have received grants ranging in value from €20,000 ($23,000) to €2 million.

If Europe is more than the EU, then the mindset in Brussels seems to be that the Arctic is more than the Arctic Council.