Last weekend I attended the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland as part of a British delegation organised by James Gray, Member of Parliament and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arctic & Antarctica. The delegation was supported by the Mamont Foundation, a Jersey-based philanthropic organisation set up by Dr Frederik Paulsen. Paulsen was one of the key instigators of the submarine expedition in 2007 that left a small titanium Russian flag on the seabed directly beneath the North Pole – an incident heavily responsible for the “icy geopolitics“/”cryo-politics” which has dominated coverage of the Arctic region over recent years.
Paulsen was also at work behind the scenes in bringing to fruition the Poles Apart? conference that I helped to organise in London last year. This event, held at RUSI but put together by James Gray and his office, was an attempt to draw attention to the risks and opportunities faced by the UK and the rest of the world at both poles, re-emphasising, perhaps, the tradition in Britain to think in “bi-polar” terms on account of having extensive historical legacies in the Arctic as well as Antarctica.
It was at this conference in London that the long-standing Icelandic President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, threw down a gauntlet to the UK by asking, in relation to the Arctic “where is Britain?” Although this was, at least in part, likely a self-interested attempt to generate support for the Arctic Circle Assembly which President Grimmson helped create – and which was only inaugurated last year – it was also a reflection of broader criticism the British government has faced in recent years that it has not always been as engaged as it could be in Arctic affairs. This is despite the world-class contribution Britain can and does make to scientific projects, legal debates, economic development and regional security in the Arctic.
Fast-forward almost twelve months to the second Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik and it is clear that the British delegation has certainly made a splash. With more than 50 delegates, many of whom gave talks across two separate country-sessions (other non-Arctic states such as France and Japan only organised one each, while Germany and Singapore limited themselves to a presentation each), the British delegation was by far the largest to attend from any country.
However, it was the giant Union Jack displayed on the screen in the main chamber of the (quite stunning) Harpa conference centre that perhaps had the biggest impact, making it clear to the Arctic Circle Assembly, as one speaker put it, that “the British are not coming to the Arctic, they are here”.[i] In the coffee breaks and networking events that followed the British plenary session, some jokes were made that the British delegation might have lacked subtlety and maybe even went a little too far in making its presence its felt in Reykjavik. At the same time though, it was impossible to avoid the feeling that other countries, Arctic as well as non-Arctic, were also reflecting on the fact that perhaps they had missed an opportunity in Reykjavik to make their own voices heard. A delegate from Japan (which held its own country session a day later) even suggested that Japanese parliamentarians might want to follow the British example when the Arctic Circle is next convened in 2015.
From the beginning, the Arctic Circle concept set out by President Grimmson was always about giving the international community – “anyone with a view” – the opportunity to take part in dialogues about Arctic affairs, an element missing in other Arctic forums, most prominently the Arctic Council where only the eight Arctic member states and six Permanent Participants Organisations are guaranteed the right to speak. This raises questions about the role different forums play in Arctic geopolitics – from the intergovernmental Arctic Council, to the various semi-permanent conference fixtures provided by the Arctic Circle Assembly, Arctic Frontiers, Arctic Dialogue and many others. How do different countries, Arctic as well as non-Arctic, use these different forums to progress their various Arctic interests as part of a process of what the Singaporean Minister of State, Sam Tan Chin Siong, described as ‘variable geometry’? And can all of them get away with being as bold as British delegation in proudly displaying their flag?
Klaus Dodds and I will be exploring these questions and others in a chapter we will be writing over the coming months for a forthcoming book edited by Kathrin Keil and Sebastian Knecht titled Beyond Geo-Politics: Arctic Governance in a Global Perspective. No doubt we will also consider how these forums might leak into one another, both facilitating and frustrating different national agendas. And of course there is a question about who speaks for specific countries in these various forums? It is worth noting that the “British delegation” was only semi-official, organised by an MP and supported by a philanthropic foundation, albeit with some assistance from the Polar Regions Department and the British Embassy in Iceland. This, in turn, raises the question of whether the British delegation might have gone a little too far with its splash in Iceland, but this is something that only time will tell. I, for one, am interested to see how other states, Arctic as well as non-Arctic, respond at the next Arctic Circle Assembly in 2015.
On a personal note I’d very much like to express my gratitude to James Gray for inviting me to attend and present at the Arctic Circle Assembly as part of the British delegation, and I’d also like to gratefully acknowledge the support provided by the Mamont Foundation.
Klaus and I will be adding some further reflections on how Britain was portrayed at the Arctic Circle Assembly soon.
[i] Those interested in geopolitical objects might be interested to note that the coinciding of the Arctic Circle Assembly with Britain’s Remembrance Day tradition seemingly also created a role for the humble ‘poppy’ worn by all of the British delegates. Intentionally or not, the ‘poppy’ came to be enrolled in helping to give the delegation even greater visibility among the 1400 delegates milling around the conference centre.