“Let’s make the Arctic the best place in the world”: Scientific diplomacy in the Arctic and the absent EU

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By Morgane Fert-Malka

On september 12 to 16, Saint Petersburg University hosted an international congress gathering 500 of the world’s top Arctic scholars, experts and stakeholders. The week long event, which WeBuildEurope.eu attended, illustrated how scientific and economic cooperation resists and counteracts talks of geopolitical tension. The EU was absent from this event, showing that it has not yet recognised the active role it can play in scientific diplomacy in the Arctic.

This article is partly based on an analysis that was originally published on Russia Direct.

The Arctic is a very special thing. It is a meta-region comprising an ocean with an ice cap, countless archipelagoes and straights, large land masses spanning eight states and four million inhabitants – indigenous or settlers. It is notoriously rich in halieutic and mineral resources, although most of the latter are either inaccessible or exaggerated. The Arctic is also a mental construct, for some the myth of a pristine and remote area, nothing less and nothing more than the home of the polar bear whose iceberg is tragically melting around its paws – for others the place of a new or revived geopolitical confrontation, whose depths are roamed by nuclear submarines and are the stage of a fierce battle for titanium flag-planting. In truth, there are many ‘Arctics’ and many intertwined issues, from climate change to health issues, infrastructure development and security challenges. This is what makes the region such a fascinating issue of international relations.

On September 12 to 16, Saint Petersburg University hosted the first UArctic Congress, a gathering of researchers, university representatives, commercial stakeholders and diplomats from around the world. Not only the Arctic states and indigenous communities were represented, but also various international institutions as well as France, Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, China, South Korea and more, illustrating a worldwide interest for the Arctic. Indeed, although the Arctic remains a specialist field and a poorly understood theme, there is a growing understanding that Arctic issues, from environmental implications the melting of the ice-cap to the geostrategic implications of the opening of new sea routes, is affecting world politics far beyond the 66°33′46.4″ N polar circle. There are conflicting narratives about the significance of Arctic developments for international relations, and many participants at the UArctic Congress were dedicated to the same goal: to enhance the collective understanding of the complexity of Arctic issues and to resist the simplistic and unfortunately popular interpretation of the Arctic as a potential theater for a new geopolitical confrontation.

A common space with common challenges

The University of the Arctic (UArctic), which organised the congress in Saint Petersburg, is an international cooperative network of universities, colleges, research institutes and other organizations from all Arctic countries, concerned with education and research in and about the North. It is supported by the UN and has an observer status at the Arctic Council, the main international governing body in the Arctic. According to UArctic President Lars Kullerud, scientific events such as the UArctic Congress are about more than just cooperation. They are about creating a “common mental space”, because most Arctic issues do not have borders and are global in nature.

The shrinking of the ice cap around the North Pole compounds and accelerates global warming, because the sun rays, instead of being reflected back to space by the white ice cap, are absorbed by the darker water masses and thus raises the connected oceans’ temperature. The melting permafrost on land not only raises water levels worldwide, it also – most notoriously in Russia – releases large amounts of methane trapped inside, a gas with an extremely high global warming impact. These are just two of the most pressing and well-understood implications of climate change in the Arctic, but there are many more, from ecosystem perturbations to new infectious diseases.

The melting ice makes the Arctic – both land and waters – more accessible. That is good news for a host of stakeholders. That means, in theory, new drilling, fishing and shipping opportunities for the Arctic states and economic actors worldwide. But it is less simple than it sounds. The extraction of onshore and offshore mineral resources in the Arctic remains a risky, costly and highly speculative enterprise. No single country or multinational company has the financial resources and technological know-how to do it in isolation, and there are currently no satisfying infrastructure to ensure safe offshore exploration, drilling, extraction and transportation. Many exploitation projects have stalled for these reasons, others would continue in controversial conditions, for example putting large areas at risk of uncontainable oil spills.

Onshore extractive industries are also a political choice, and in terms of regional development strategies they represent a tradeoff with other options such as ecotourism and ‘ethnotourism’, as a Russian Greenpeace representative told WeBuildEurope.eu. These kinds of choices are hardly reversible.

Similarly, the ‘opening of new shipping routes’ is a relative reality. The routes in questions remain extremely dangerous to fare in the foggy ‘ice-free’ summer months, requiring special hulls and expensive icebreaker escort. Current Search and Rescue (SAR) capacities are insufficient to cover such an immense region, despite a solid political commitment by the five coastal states – Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark/Greenland and the US – to cooperate in this area, and despite massive investment by Asian stakeholders in the development of portuary infrastructure on Arctic coasts in support of the growing shipping activity.

The vision of the Arctic as a ‘new Eldorado’ is thus skewed to say the least, but the challenges posed by increased economic activities in the region are difficult to overstate, and they can only be tackled in a concerted way.

Participants at the UArctic Congress were well aware of this reality. But far from promoting a conservative, anti-growth discourse, those who understand that the Arctic is not a empty and pristine region but a complex and lively eco-social environment tend to emphasise innovation and smart development in the Arctic rather than opposing en bloc any economic and industrial activities there. Speakers at the congress notably called for the development of infrastructure and cutting-edge telecommunications, the linking of Arctic value chains into global value chains and the “digitalisation of the Arctic”. As Lars Kullerud declared, the goal is “to make the Arctic the best place in the world to live, the best-managed part of the world, [and the place] which provides resources for the world”.

A web of competing interests

Of course, the Arctic is not only a common space but also the place where different interests meet and compete. While the idea of a ‘war over Arctic resources’ seems preposterous to the informed observer – most of the accessible resources being located in the undisputed Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the five coastal states – there is certainly competition among stakeholders to reap the potential benefits of commercial exploitation in the region. However, in a globalised economy generally ruled by market economy principles, several observations contradict the simplistic ‘war for resources’ narrative. First the competition plays out on a geoeconomic rather than a geopolitical level – which means that military confrontation is a rather irrelevant scenario in this context. Second, many of the stakeholders come from non-Arctic states and many are non-state actors. Third, all competition is tainted with a flavour of cooperation, as the success of economic projects rely on international streams of capital and know-how.

Playing a role in the governance, economic development and environmental protection of the Arctic is also a matter of diplomatic prestige, which explains why so many non-Arctic states seek an observer status in the Arctic Council. At the UArctic Congress, the Swiss diplomatic delegation was distributing flyers explaining why Switzerland should be granted a seat: “Swiss mountain climate can be harsh. Similar to the Arctic environment, it has provided a challenge for its people to cope with an ever-changing environment in creative and sustainable ways. Swiss research in the Arctic has a long tradition … Swiss leadership in international negotiations has been critical in addressing climate change…” Thibaut Fourrière, Consul General of France in Saint Petersbourg, seconded: “France is an observer in the Arctic Council [notably because] those phenomena – climate change, environmental protection along the sea routes – are a source of worry for us all.” Similarly, Japan and South Korea promote their role in the Arctic by putting forward a long-time scientific presence at the Poles. Other countries, like China and even the very landlocked Mongolia, promote their legitimacy in Arctic affairs based on their significant commercial presence in the region.

Geopolitical tensions do have an impact on economic cooperation in the Arctic. So, as French Consul General Thibaut Fourrière told WeBuildEurope.eu: “The Arctic is a theme in which everyone has been interested for a long time … France has recently elaborated its national strategy for the Arctic, the EU is doing so too, as are many of its member states. Of course, Russia being one of the main Arctic countries, we are all to cooperate with it in this regard.” It is not only about state-level strategies. “The level of cooperation in the business spheres is significant”, Fourrière said. “Several French firms are interested in hydrocarbon exploitation projects in Russia, and these projects can only be international. Not a single company in the world is capable of exploring and exploiting an oil or gas field by itself in the Arctic. Yamal is the typical example of an international project involving companies and investment from many countries. But the sanctions following the annexation of Crimea have had an impact on Russia’s ability to finance these projects. I would not say that the French firms have lost interest in those projects, but they have to take into account a different reality shaped by the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions.”

As Evgeny Minchenko, political consultant in Moscow and author of the book Politburo 2.0, told WeBuildEurope.eu, these developments are worrying because they undermine the trust-building potential of the collaborative projects, and they aliment an atmosphere of political mistrust. Similarly, Tero Vauraste, Vice Chair of the Arctic Economic Council and CEO of the Finnish state-owned icebreaker operator Arctia, addressed the assembly at the congress: “If you look at the sanctions from a purely business perspective … they hurt. They hurt Russia but also other countries, for example Finland”. But mostly, he added, they are worrying in that they bear witness of a global “polarisation of societies”.

Read more about the special significance of the Arctic for Russia on the Russia Direct version of this article.

Here is a chance for the EU

The EU remains a minor actor in the Arctic. Yet three of its member states – Finland, Denmark and Sweden –  as well as two associate states – Norway and Iceland – are permanent members of the Arctic Coucil, and several more member states are observers. The EU also has a history of legislating with an impact on Arctic communities.  However, the EU’s own bid to become an observer is on hold. Its official ‘Arctic policy’ is nothing like an actionable strategy such as other Arctic and non-Arctic entities – for example France – have. Lately, other issues perceived as more pressing have smothered the EU’s interest in claiming a more active role in Arctic governance. In general, there is a dire lack of knowlegde and interest in Brussels for Arctic issues.

There does not seem to be any immediate solutions to the aforementioned problems, but this is where scientific diplomacy could be an opportunity for the EU to gain more prominence in the Arctic and act as a force for peace. The EU should be more present and visible at events such as the UArctic Congress, and most importantly, it should have proper funding for Arctic research. This would have the double effect of enhancing Brussels’ understanding of Arctic affairs and of cementing a legitimacy for the EU in Arctic governance. As it is currently embroiled in geopolitical tensions and conflict around the world, the EU, for the sake of its soft power, has a significant interest in being part of the ‘region of love and peace’ which the Arctic seems to be.

Do you want to react? Leave a comment or write to the author at morgane.fertmalka@webuildeurope.eu.

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