The UK and the Arctic – Poles apart?

Last week, along with around 200 other delegates with a shared interest in the Arctic and Antarctica, we both attended the privately organised Poles Apart? Conference at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.  The event was billed as a “one-day international conference to bring industry and science in the Polar Regions closer together”. The conference itself was the brainchild of James Gray, Member of Parliament for North Wiltshire/avid Polar adventurer, and his friend the Swedish philanthropist Frederik Paulsen (who famously helped plant the Russian flag on the sea-bed beneath the North Pole in August 2007). Gray’s much publicised aim for the conference (he even wrote a short book which he sent to all delegates ahead of the event) was to settle differences among scientists, environmentalists and businesses (note not indigenous people which meant that the debate was highly ‘Euro-Canadian’ in content and participation) and get everyone working together from the same page for the benefit of the Arctic. Thus during the introductory remarks, Shell and Greenpeace were warned not to start a ‘fight’, even though there was little time given on elaborating what a collective vision for the Arctic might look like, and whether it was actually possible.  

One of the most interesting exchanges at the conference occurred early on in the proceedings after the FCO Minister Mark Simmonds delivered his keynote speech outlining UK policy toward the Arctic (which we discussed in a previous post) and Antarctica. The Minister was followed to the podium by Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland, who promptly set about undermining the Minister’s attempts to suggest that the UK, as the Arctic’s ‘nearest neighbour’, was taking the region seriously. While Grímsson praised the UK for its long-standing commitment to scientific research in the Arctic, he questioned whether this was being matched diplomatically, politically and economically. He suggested that the UK always seemed “otherwise engaged” when it came to discussing the Arctic and asked openly “why have you [the UK] been absent”? Despite the protestations of James Gray (who asked whether Britain really was being left behind), Grímsson was steadfast in his position, suggesting that simply talking about the Arctic in London was not enough. If the UK wants to be taken seriously in the Arctic, its scientific efforts must be supported by an up-scaling of diplomatic and commercial activity. Grímsson’s point was a simple one – the UK cannot take its proximity to the Arctic (whether topographically or topologically defined) for granted. It must be negotiated with the Arctic states and the competition for space is tough given the presence of others from Europe and Asia in particular.

The second exchange to catch our attention occurred towards the end of proceedings. In the final session on ‘Governance of the Poles’, the former UK Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox gave a long presentation on the risk of military conflict in the Arctic. Dr Fox conjured up the same images of violent conflict between Arctic states over contested borders, navigation rights and resources that have lit up the pages of the popular press in recent years. “Mutual suspicion was on the rise” Dr Fox opined – this despite attempts by the Arctic states (and a number of academics) to downplay suggestions that conflicts in the Arctic might turn violent, typically branding them at best as unhelpful and at worst as potentially driving self-fulfilling prophecies. As it happened, Dr Fox’s claims were emphatically dismissed by another Arctic state representative, this time in the form of His Excellency, Alan Kessel, the Canadian Deputy High Commissioner (a former DFAT legal adviser who we both met at an Arctic-related event in 2010 organized by the Canada UK Colloquia/Council) who suggested that these were exactly the kinds of issues that the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008 had been designed to resolve. The Declaration, issued by the five Arctic Ocean coastal states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States), reaffirmed their collective commitment to use the ‘Law of the Sea’ to resolve any outstanding territorial and resource related questions. The A5 also imagined themselves as environmental stewards as well as sovereignty managers of the Arctic region. As in the morning session, it appeared that UK representatives were being chided for either presuming too much or engaging too little with the Arctic. What these exchanges revealed, moreover, was a difference of opinion between a diplomatic representative of an Arctic Ocean coastal state (Canada) and a presidential figure from a country that wishes to be considered as an Arctic Ocean coastal state (Iceland) and a hub-state, which is actively encouraging further interaction with Asian states in particular.  

The last intervention, we would highlight, came from two internationally-respected scientists, Professor Terry Callaghan and Professor Jane Francis (recently appointed the new director of the British Antarctic Survey). What they said was essentially a plea to delegates to take seriously the reality of climate change in the Arctic – that the ‘geo’ (in the form of sea ice cover, ocean acidity and temperature) was changing as much as the ‘politics’ and that any decisions (political, environmental, commercial, diplomatic) taken today would have to take account of how the Arctic itself will change as a stage for human activity in the coming decades. In an era of unprecedented global environmental change, these words may well prove to be the most important message to come out of the event but they did so in the midst of much discussion about the commercial opportunities in both the present and the future. So while the conference did generate much discussion, it was not clear by the end of the day whether there would ever be a shared vision for the Arctic. As with other parts of the world, the Arctic is a complex space that defies simple characterization and as more than one speaker noted, it is an inhabited space with communities that have their own visions for the future as well.

DD and KD

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