Adapting to Change: UK Policy Towards the Arctic

Today, the UK’s Arctic policy framework is launched in Parliament. It emerges, after a period of consultation and engagement with stakeholders within and beyond Parliament, and sets out the Coalition government’s vision for the UK role within the Arctic region and beyond. The reference to a ‘policy framework’ rather than a strategy is significant – although recognized by some government officials as ‘wordplay’, the latter was judged to be unnecessarily provocative to Arctic states such as Canada, Norway and Russia, which have been ever more eager to remind the global community of their sovereignty and sovereign rights over the Arctic Ocean.

Domestically, Adapting to Change, appears after a period of critical scrutiny from the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, which in the summer of 2013 witnessed some lively exchanges between Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds and the Green MP member of the committee, Caroline Lucas. It also produced a report entitled ‘Protecting the Arctic’, which made clear that the object of controversy was the Arctic region itself. During one of the committee hearings, Lucas took issue with the Minister’s testimony that the UK was committed to climate change related emission targets while at the same being reluctant, at governmental level, to push for any kind of Arctic moratorium on further resource exploitation, especially in the oil and gas sector. For the critics, including The Guardian, this reluctance (or unwillingness) was tied to commercial agendas and a desire to be a ‘global centre of expertise’, possibly using scientific bodies to generate expert knowledge in ‘frontier environments’.

The ministerial statement to Adapting for Change, penned by Minister Simmonds, makes clear what role the UK expects to play, “The Framework sets out the detail of the UK’s interests in the Arctic, how we will work with Arctic States and the wider international community, and what expertise the UK can offer to help meet some of the long-term challenges facing the region”. The word ‘expertise’ is an important one and is used throughout the document to chart the scale and extent of UK scientific and social scientific knowledge generation within universities and scientific bodies on the one hand but also the technical know-how that resides within important sectors such as energy, shipping, search and rescue and finance/insurance. The UK, as the Arctic’s ‘nearest neighbour’ is also interested in the region for reasons of proximity and throughout the document emphasis is placed on networks, mobility and exchange. Whether the UK cares for it or not is immaterial, our economic, political and environmental interests are bound up in varying ways with the Arctic region. The migratory patterns of birds might be one example but another would be the investment portfolios of British based companies.

The policy document is also performative. It is greatly concerned to reassure an international readership that the UK is respectful of the eight Arctic states and its inhabitants – in other words a ‘model observer’ (rather than merely observer) at a time of when outsider pressure on the Arctic is perceived to be growing. As recent developments affecting the Arctic Council, the premier inter-governmental organization, reminds us there is considerable sensitivity to the role that near Arctic states such as the UK, China, Japan, Korea and Germany might play not only in the here and now but also the future. Much of the document is couched in terms of respect for the sovereignty of those Arctic states while at the same time as asserting that interest in the Arctic cannot be spatially contained. As other geographical scholars might recognize, the Arctic conceived of as a space of flows, networks and mobilities is powerful because it explicitly challenges the idea that the Arctic should be thought of as container like. Hence the underlying tension facing all ‘non-Arctic’ states such as the UK – how to express, perform and secure a neighbour-like concern and interest without inciting the irritation of both indigenous communities (who have greater political agency than in previous decades) and state-level governments who guard their sovereign interests keenly. It is significant therefore that the first paragraph of the document notes that, “Indigenous people have lived in the Arctic for millennia, and have done so right across the Arctic lands”. So, implicitly, at least the UK policy is also alive to the fact that interests and desires of indigenous peoples do not always align straight forwardly with those of the Arctic states.

While the document does not use the ‘strategy’ word, it does not duck the sensitive issue of whether the UK has security interests in the region. As is noted, “The UK remains committed to preserving the stability and security of the Arctic region. This objective will be pursued through a wide range of defence engagement and bilateral security co-operation with a number of close allies and partners in the region. This will include the essential training needed for the military on cold weather training exercise. The role of NATO will remain central, as will the UK’s participation in the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable forum, which promotes security co-operation on issues such as situational awareness and search and rescue missions.” The ‘stability and security’ of the Arctic is one, we take at least, to be code for a context in which the UK can take forward its commercial and military interests, recognising that over 55% of gas imports are derived from Norwegian sources and that UK based companies such as BP have substantial interests in Russia. Such statements also speak to ongoing uncertainties about the future, not least over the legal status of Arctic waters near Russia where 30 Greenpeace protesters, of which six were British, were recently arrested by Russian authorities.  Science is also bound up with ‘security and stability’, allowing UK scientific bodies and individuals to carry out research throughout the Arctic in areas ranging from atmospheric science to geology.

This policy document is not owned, significantly, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is a document that has a multi-ministerial provenance with the interests and concerns of other agents such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Ministry of Defence and the Arctic arm of the British Antarctic Survey listed and acknowledged in various ways. It probably will not provide much reassurance to members of the Environment Audit Committee and perhaps it was never intended to. Nor is it likely to resonate with the broader public especially given the low key launch. The principle audience is an international one, namely the Arctic states. And the principal message is one that is reassuring – the UK wants to work with you and there is much the UK can offer in terms of expertise, experience and equipment.

Late on this month, there will be a Poles Apart conference hosted by RUSI which will further cement this sense that the UK’s role, at least in the Arctic, is very much imagined as both a hub of expertise but also networked into a range of sectorial interests which stretch from the UK to the Arctic and beyond.

DD and KD


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