Nuuk, Greenland (photo by M. Lanteigne)

Is this on?

Welcome to Over the Circle (OtC), a site dedicated to news, politics and foreign policy in the Arctic region. With the ongoing changes in the circumpolar north due to climate change and ice erosion, the region has become the focus of much greater attention on a global scale, and as a result the politics of the Arctic are also undergoing rapid changes. This site will look at the politics of the ‘Arctic Eight’ (Canada, Denmark [Faroe Islands / Greenland] Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States), but also of non-Arctic states, including in Western Europe and East Asia, which are also quickly developing their own Arctic diplomacy policies.

Among the major topics in Arctic politics are economic development, environmental concerns, energy (oil and gas), shipping and new Arctic sea routes, and new and existing regional organisations, (like the Arctic Council). While there is much discussion about the opening of the Arctic, this site will examine regional and international news with an eye to examining just what this ‘opening’ really entails.


The Arctic Circle 2019: Greenland in the Centre Seat

Harpa Conference Centre and Concert Hall, Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The Arctic Circle conference, at the Harpa Centre in Reykjavík, took place last week after a year in which political views of the region showed signs of becoming more divided while at the same time, evidence of the effects of climate change in the region continued to mount. This included data suggesting that 2019 produced the second-lowest summertime ice levels in the Arctic Ocean, (2012 still holds that record, barely), as well as the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released [pdf] in September this year, which pointed to ongoing trends in ice erosion, including multiyear ice, declining snow cover, and rising temperatures of permafrost.

Thus, many panels at the conference made references to tipping points and amplification, and outside Harpa a more tangible demonstration of ice erosion could be seen. Similarly to last year, slabs of ice were placed at the front of the building for a display sponsored by Sermersooq Municipality in Greenland. However, the warmer-than-average temperatures in Reykjavík at the start of the event meant that the ice blocks were much smaller by conference’s end in comparison with their predecessors.

Biodegradable glasses…

…and edible plates [Photos by Marc Lanteigne]
In keeping with the strong environmental themes of the conference this year, biodegradable and reusable plastics and edible plates were readily found during lunch and snack breaks.

In addition to climate change topics, by far the most prominent subject at this year’s Arctic Circle was Greenland, including its politics, foreign policy interests and environmental challenges. In addition to speeches [video] by Prime Minister Kim Kielsen, a frequent guest at the Arctic Circle, other distinguished Greenlandic officials including Foreign Minister Ane Lone Bagger, former Greenland PM Aleqa Hammond, the lead officials of Greenland’s offices in Brussels, Copenhagen, Reykjavík and Washington, and the Mayor of Sermersooq, Charlotte Ludvigsen. Ms Ludvigsen was also the host of a Greenland Culture Night reception during the conference which featured Greenlandic cuisine and local bands Nanook and Small Time Giants, who succeeded in getting much of the crowd dancing.

Small Time Giants performing at the Arctic Circle [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
OtC editors Mingming Shi (front centre, in pink) and Marc Lanteigne (front right, in black) getting into a dancing mood at the Greenland Cultural Reception [Photo via the Arctic Circle]
A few months ago, Greenland found itself under a media spotlight to a degree never before seen as a result of recent public musings by the US government about purchasing Greenland from Denmark, in complete disregard of the former’s self-determination rights. The response from Nuuk, that Greenland was open for business, was a central theme of more than one panel at the Arctic Circle. Other topics included the question of Greenland’s developing foreign policy space in a panel which included OtC writers and editors Marc Lanteigne and Mingming Shi, and a first-of-its kind gathering sponsored by the Greenland Parliament / Inatsisartut on the challenges of Greenlandic independence. Economic opportunities in Greenland, including in the areas of extractive industries, shipping, fishing and tourism, were also highlighted, taking advantage of the large venue.

Although the whole ‘purchasing Greenland’ story may have faded in the global press, the subject remains a sensitive one, as evidenced by a question posed by a Bloomberg reporter to Prime Minister Kielsen about whether there had been a public discussion about the specifics of a potential sale of Greenland to the US. The Greenland leader’s response [video], ‘I will answer this in short, we are not for sale, and we cannot be valued, estimated. You cannot exchange Greenland with money,’ prompted loud applause in the main hall of Harpa.

Greenland Prime Minister Kim Kielsen [Photo via the Arctic Circle]
Compared with previous years, China’s presence at this year’s event was considerably more low-key, although Beijing’s Arctic Ambassador, Mr Gao Feng, did speak [video] on China’s role as Arctic stakeholder, and its participation in environmental and maritime initiatives in the region. Shanghai earlier this year hosted the most recent Arctic Council breakout forum, which had focused on economic opportunities in the region coupled with scientific opportunities. He also noted China’s participation in the annual trilateral Arctic dialogue with Seoul and Tokyo. The prospect of a Polar Silk Road, supported by China-Russia cooperation, was also a notable subject at the event, given its potential to upend not only economies in the Arctic but also those well away from it, including that of Singapore, which relies heavily on the shipping routes connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

As well, Japan’s Arctic Ambassador, Ms Mari Miyoshi, announced [video] that next year’s Arctic Science Ministerial would be held in November in Tokyo, (co-hosted by Iceland), and spoke about the need for Japan to develop its three pillars of Arctic policy: research and development, international cooperation and sustainable use. Japan will also be hosting the next Arctic Circle forum in November 2020. India, another state in the ‘Asia-Arctic Five’ group, highlighted its developing interests in cryospheric and oceanic studies in the Polar Regions as well as the Himalayas, frequently referred to as the ‘Third Pole’.

As with previous Arctic Circle events, representatives of non-Arctic governments presented their specific regional engagement policies with Arctic states as well as the region as a whole. The government of Scotland, which had published its first Arctic policy framework earlier this month, elucidated its interest in expanding Arctic links at this year’s event. As explained [video] by Scottish Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, MSP Paul Wheelhouse, the focus of Scotland’s engagement in the Arctic would be heavily based on economic and educational cooperation, while acknowledging the potential restrictions on such policies posed by the still very much uncertain Brexit process. As Mr Wheelhouse added, ‘Scotland is the world’s closest non-Arctic nation’, with strong historical and current Arctic links.

Switzerland’s Arctic Ambassador, Stephan Estermann, presented an expanded Arctic policy vision [video] for his country, which was the most recent one to enter the Arctic Council as an observer, in 2017, drawing upon Switzerland’s previous experiences in both Arctic exploration, most notably in Greenland, as well as studies of Arctic glaciers closer to home in the Alps, which is also experiencing ice erosion effects. Last month, a public funeral was held for the Pizol glacier, located in the Glarus region of the Swiss Alps, in canton St Gallen close to the border of Austria and Liechtenstein, after it was determined that Pizol had lost too much ice mass to retain its classification as a glacier.

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Snowfall in Berne, Switzerland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The revised Swiss Arctic policy is to be based on six distinct pillars, namely support for Swiss education and research, participation in international dialogues on the Arctic, the promotion of global scientific cooperation in the region, joint addressing of environmental challenges, engagement of foundations and the private sector, and demonstrating solidarity with indigenous peoples and organisations.

The two keynote speeches by senior United States officials were a study in contrasts. US Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who last week was subpoenaed by the House of Representatives regarding the spreading Ukraine scandal, discussed the possibilities of expanded energy technology in the Arctic while studiously avoiding any mention of climate change given that the current occupant of the White House remains a steadfast denier of climate change itself. He also stressed the need for the Arctic to ‘liberate’ itself from ‘non-democratic’ nations, without going into specifics. Unlike numerous other plenary speakers at this event, he did not take questions from the audience. As a recent commentary in Cryopolitics suggested, Mr Perry’s speech would have been a better fit in 2013, when oil prices were high and talk of energy scramble in the Arctic was ubiquitous.

Former Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson presenting the 2019 Arctic Circle Prize to former US Secretary of State John Kerry. [Photo via the Arctic Circle]
Former US presidential candidate, senator and Secretary of State in the Barack Obama administration, John Kerry, was this year’s recipient of the Arctic Circle Prize, which had previously been awarded [video] to former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in 2016. In introducing Mr Kerry, Arctic Circle founder and former Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson credited him for his contributions to the successful completion of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, (the same agreement from which the current administration is seeking to withdraw).

Mr Kerry was considerably less sanguine than Mr Perry about US policies in the Arctic, and while not mentioning the current US president by name was critical of the current administration’s approach to growing climate change problems. In his acceptance speech [video], he explained a new initiative to combat climate change effects, World War Zero, which would include other senior American politicians including former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former head of the American Environmental Protection Agency Christine Todd Whitman. Mr Kerry hoped that the US-led initiative would enlist other major powers given the urgency of the crisis on a global level.

Arctic Circle conference at Harpa [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The two major trends in the Arctic in recent years, climate change and its effects, and the widening and deepening of Arctic interests both within the region and without, were very much on display this year, and although Greenland was taking centre stage, there was no shortage of other Arctic actors and issues seeking to get on, and remain on, the polar agenda.

By Any Other Name? Defining an Arctic Stakeholder is Becoming More Complex

[Photo via Pixabay]
While the definition of an Arctic state is a straightforward one in terms of geography, with eight states, (Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States), having land and sea holdings north of the Arctic Circle, the question of defining an Arctic stakeholder is considerably more hazy, and if anything, becoming more so.

Numerous non-Arctic governments are also developing specific policy approaches to the far north, and at present the Arctic Council, (which is reportedly among the finalists for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize), includes thirteen observer governments with the possibility of others to follow in 2021. Among these observer states are large economies, (Britain, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea), with the economic and political means to help shape economic, environmental and political events in the far north, despite not having Arctic borders.

With the Arctic continuing to experience the results of climate change in a variety of ways, many non-Arctic states have also concluded that regulating the region to the periphery is no longer an option and that steps must be taken in order to better understand exactly what is happening in the planet’s northernmost reaches. Case in point, the Mosaic Expedition in the Arctic Ocean, led by the German vessel Polarstern, is currently drifting on an ice floe in the Laptev Sea in order to study local currents and glacial conditions. Nineteen countries are represented in the mission, including from diverse non-Arctic states including Belgium, China, Poland, Spain and Switzerland.

The past two months have also seen a number of policy papers released by non-Arctic governments, including from Germany and Scotland, and also last month from France’s Ministère des Armées, the country’s defence ministry. The document France and the New Strategic Challenges in the Arctic [pdf], (La France et les nouveaux enjeux stratégiques en Arctique), would appear to suggest that the French government of Emmanuel Macron, like that of Britain, Germany, and Japan, is beginning to view the Arctic through much more of a strategic lens, given global interest in the economic possibilities appearing in the region.

A 2017 strategic review [in French] conducted by the French defence ministry which suggested that due to resource competition and ice erosion, the Arctic ‘may one day become an area of confrontation,’ was reiterated in a 2019 paper. This included a quote from the late former French Prime Minister, and former Arctic Ambassador, Michel Rocard [in French], who compared the Arctic to a ‘second Middle East’.

However, in the preamble of the document, written by French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly [in French], there was also the extraordinary statement that ‘France wants to be a lucid voice against growing ambitions: the Arctic belongs to no one’, suggesting that the country, at least in some areas, was viewing the circumpolar north as an international space.

Former French President Michel Rocard (right) at the 2014 Arctic Circle conference [Photo via the Arctic Circle]
As a recent article in the High North News described, this statement not only challenges the longstanding narrative of the Arctic being exempt from hard security concerns but also discounted the role of international law in regulating the Arctic, not the least of which being the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which applies to the Arctic Ocean as with any other relevant body of water. According to Audun Halvorsen, State Secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the characterisation of the Arctic as unregulated space was ‘most incorrect’, pointing not only to UNCLOS but also various environmental and safety agreements in the region, as well as the Polar Code, as a sizeable amount of evidence that the region is far from exempt from international law.

Regardless of how one interprets the French Arctic paper, the document is still another sign that the line between Arctic and non-Arctic states regarding issues of governance is becoming steadily more undefined, a trend which is unlikely to reverse itself despite pushback in some quarters.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo included in his controversial Arctic policy speech in May this year at the Arctic Council ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, the admonition that ‘there are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists’. The statement was clearly directed towards Beijing and its stated concept of China being a ‘near-Arctic state,’ but at the same time the message also appeared to be directed toward other non-Arctic states that their role in regional affairs should be kept to a minimum at best. While the statement can be interpreted as yet another example of the Trump government’s penchant for liberally advocating walls and barriers to serve American unilateralism in foreign policy, the Pompeo speech could also be seen as reflecting the discomfort in Washington of a more multilateral approach to Arctic governance which may include contributions from non-Arctic actors.

Last week, President Trump held a joint press conference in Washington with his Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinistö, which included discussions on Arctic politics and security. These topics were completely overshadowed by Mr Trump’s disjointed comments regarding the deepening Ukraine scandal and measures by the US House of Representatives to commence impeachment hearings against the president.

Nonetheless, the comments by both leaders regarding the future of the Arctic demonstrated both the resolve of the current US government to install a ‘keep out’ sign to non-Arctic states, while at the same time painting a picture of the United States as pivoting away from its Arctic neighbours in regards to views on regional security and politics. While President Niinistö spoke about the need to continue to prevent geo-political tensions from rising in the region, Mr Trump stressed freedom of navigation in the Arctic and added that, ‘Simply put, we believe that the affairs of the Arctic should be governed by the actual nations of the Arctic. And, as you know, there are other people coming into the Arctic, and we don’t like it. And we can’t let it happen, and we won’t let it happen.’

What next? Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík, the site of the annual Arctic Circle Conference [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
This week will mark the opening of the sixth annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, an event which has also illustrated the growing role of non-Arctic actors and governments in the region, given that one of the original purposes of the conference was to provide a greater voice for both non-governmental and non-Arctic interests. Among the keynote speakers representing non-Arctic actors are French Arctic Ambassador Ségolène Royal, Singaporean Minister of State Sam Tan Chin Siong, Chinese Special Representative for the Arctic Gao Feng, and Arctic Ambassador Kwon Sei-Joong of the Republic of Korea.

Also among the keynote speakers this year is Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and Antti Rinne, Prime Minister of Finland, as well as Dmitry Artyukhov, Governor of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Russia, and Rick Perry, US Energy Secretary, (who last week was cited, along with other American government officials, as being linked to the Ukraine scandal).

While much of the discussion at the meeting will be focused on environmental and socio-political events, the question of who has the authority to say what about emerging Arctic questions will likely not be far from the forefront of the proceedings.

Tuath / Deas: A Scottish Arctic Policy Focuses on Local and Regional Opportunities

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaking at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, October 2016 [Photo via Arctic Circle]
After many years of building its Arctic identity through regional initiatives and Track II engagement, such as via the Arctic Circle Conference, the Government of Scotland went all in with its interest in the far north and released its first formal Arctic policy paper last week. The document not only demonstrated the Scottish government of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ongoing interest in deepening its ties with the Arctic states, but also reflected Scotland’s concerns and frustration over the perpetual shambles of the Brexit process, which this month became even more rampageous with a legal crisis forming around embattled UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Since taking office in July this year, Mr Johnson has so far presided over a widening political chasm between England and Scotland, with the latter being far less supportive of Britain’s departure from the European Union. Discussion continues around a possible second referendum on Scottish independence, (the first being in 2014 which resulted in a ‘no’ vote), which the Johnson government has vowed to block, while the Sturgeon government continues view it as an option, optimally before 2021.

Despite American bombast to the contrary, the line between Arctic and non-Arctic states continues to blur with the release of the Scottish Arctic policy, along with the recent publication by Germany of upgraded strategies in the region, as well as ongoing international attention to China’s interests in the far north,.

The Arctic Policy Framework was officially launched by Scottish External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop in Orkney, a set of islands in Scotland’s north with deep-rooted historical ties to the Nordic region. Orkney and its northern archipelagic neighbour Shetland, were both part of the then-Danish-Norwegian Kingdom before being placed under Scotland’s aegis in the late fifteen century. Both island groups retained a great deal of Scandinavian culture to the present day.

Other highlights of Scottish history in the Arctic which the paper described in its introduction was the legacy of John Rae (1813-93), from Orkney and an explorer of the Canadian Northwest Passage. The paper elaborated on Orkney’s considerable role in the operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company trading conglomerate in the Canadian north, as well as Scottish founders of the Northwest Company, a onetime rival of Hudson’s Bay, in 1779. Borrowing a page from other non-Arctic European states with long histories in the region, including France, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland, Scotland has been seeking to develop an Arctic identity via not only modern policies but also past contacts with the region.

Scottish flags
Nordic cross-inspired flags of Orkney (left) and Shetland [Images via Wikipedia]
The Scottish policy paper was noteworthy in its detailing of the multi-level approach which the government has taken towards Arctic engagement, ranging from the European Union to individual agreements with Arctic states to more local, people-to-people endeavours. Scotland has been a member of the EU’s Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, established in 2014 and has been committed to sustainable development and community-building in the European Arctic and sub-Arctic. Scientific, educational and research funding programmes including Erasmus+, UArctic, LEADER, and Horizon 2020 have also linked Scottish and Arctic interests over the past decade.

The policy paper was not reluctant to detail concerns that Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union may lead to a cutting of European research ties, to the detriment of Scotland’s Arctic interest. As the final deadline of the Brexit process remains set for 31 October of this year, the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ departure is very high, especially as infighting over the eventual status of the UK-Ireland border remains unresolved.

Ice fog St. Andrews
Ice fog in St. Andrews, Scotland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As with the British government’s first major Arctic policy guidelines [pdf] released in 2013, in a document which stressed that ‘The United Kingdom is not an Arctic State, but we are the Arctic’s nearest neighbour’, the Scottish Arctic policy framework also pointed to geographic proximity as a main selling point to qualify Scotland as an Arctic actor and stakeholder. Scotland is referred to as a ‘near-Arctic marine transport and logistics hub,’ and noted that the Orkney and Shetland Islands are closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, sits at slightly over 60ºN. In the spirit of ‘location, location and location,’ the document described Scotland not as part of the Arctic periphery but rather as a conduit to the far north.

From an economic viewpoint, the report made reference to a study from April of this year, Scotland: A Trading Nation [pdf], which identified many Arctic states, including Canada and the United States as well as neighbours Denmark, Norway and Sweden as emerging high potential trading partners. Scotland’s main assets, including oil and gas, shipping, tourism, fishing/aquaculture were described as highly relevant to the emerging Arctic economy, as is the potential for high-technology ventures including internet connectivity and space research. However, the policy paper vowed that economic activities would be tempered by policies to address climate change and other environmental challenges including maritime pollution, with a promise to better coordinate with Arctic actors in addressing these problems. For example, progress in the Nordic region on electric vehicles was cited as an area of potentially closer cooperation.

As a recent commentary in the Polar Connection explained, Scotland’s Arctic policy placed a strong focus on the sub-state level, including the development of rural communities and the specific issues of local economic growth, youth, and the issue of out-migration. The protection of indigenous languages, including Scots Gaelic, was another local issue about which Scotland would be seeking communication with Arctic actors. In short, Arctic engagement is being tied to the issue of improving living standards in the regions of Scotland which abut the Arctic.

The subject of rural and island development will also be the centrepiece of a panel at the Arctic Circle conference next month, sponsored by the Scotland government, and Scottish Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse will be hosting a plenary session at the event to further detail overall Arctic strategies. In November 2017, Scotland hosted a breakout forum of the Arctic Circle which stressed regional business development along with environmentally sustainable ‘blue growth’.

Lerwick, Shetland [Image by Peggy Choucair from Pixabay]
The policy document’s conclusion presented an ‘Offer to the Arctic’ to develop and strengthen connections between Scotland and the Arctic. Specific agencies were promised such as the introduction of an Arctic unit within Scotland’s external affairs ministry, and a dedicated fund for Scotland-Arctic awareness, but there were also calls to further improve Scottish representation at Arctic conferences and cultural ties. Methods of developing cooperation on environmental and energy issues as well as stronger linking of the Scottish north with the greater Arctic community were also recommended with a focus on education and knowledge-sharing.

However, an editorial in the High North News stated that what Scotland was seeking in return for its ‘offer’ to Arctic actors was unclear. Moreover, the question of Scotland’s future political status, depending on the still impossible to predict Brexit process and the potential for a future independence referendum, hangs like Banquo’s ghost over the entire question of emerging Arctic engagement.

Scotland’s Arctic policy is the latest example of governments on the Arctic’s periphery, figuratively and actually, seeking a greater voice in Arctic affairs as the region draws more intense global attention. While some non-Arctic states, notably Germany, Japan, and the UK, have placed a strong focus on the state level, as well as pointing to the Arctic as a strategic asset, Scotland’s approach differs in that it examines the opportunities for Arctic engagement on many distinct levels with a greater focus on the Scottish northern periphery while at the same time framing Scotland in its entirety as an Arctic partner.

Book Announcement: Routledge Handbook of Arctic Security

[Photo via Routledge]
This new book about the evolving dimensions of security in the Arctic brings together some of the leading specialists in and about the region, examining the ideas of ‘security’ from numerous angles including aspects of state power and military capabilities but also from the viewpoint of indigenous persons as well as various regional, local and individual levels of analysis.

Co-edited by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv, Marc Lanteigne (editor of OtC) and Horatio Sam-Aggrey, the Routledge Handbook of Arctic Security examines the strategic behaviour of Arctic actors ranging from the governments of the ‘Arctic Eight’ states, to organisations like the Arctic Council, to sub-regional communities in Canada and Russia, as well as non-Arctic states which nonetheless are developing ambitious Arctic agendas.

Other case studies include economic, energy, environmental, and gender security, as well as both historical and current security challenges distinct to the circumpolar north.

The upcoming book, the first major study of its type, looks at these issues via five broad themes: theorising Arctic security; the Arctic powers; security in the Arctic through governance; non-Arctic States, regional and international organisations; and people, states and security.

Routledge Handbook of Arctic Security will be published in February 2020, with further information about chapters and authors available here.

‘Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst’: Germany’s Deepening Arctic Engagement

Polarstern über dem Gakkelrücken
RV Polarstern [Photo by Stefanie Arndt / Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Stefanie Arndt, CC-BY 4.0.]
Although much recent international focus on, and some American ire about, non-Arctic states in the circumpolar north has focused on China’s emerging Arctic policies, Beijing is hardly alone in seeking an expanded regional presence despite a lack of far-northern geography. In addition to some of China’s neighbours, including Japan, South Korea and Singapore, many European governments are starting to improve their policy visibility in the Arctic. Some states, such as in the cases of Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands, have been building on their already extensive histories of regional exploration and scientific study.

Germany can be added to this list, being a country with a established engagement policy in the Arctic. However over the past month the country has been seeking to expand on its Arctic interests via a revised far northern strategy published by the government of Angela Merkel, as well as spearheading an ambitious new climate change analysis project on the front doorstep of the North Pole. Chancellor Merkel had noted last month, at a conference of Nordic leaders in Reykjavík, that her government had not previously paid sufficient attention to the strategic aspects emerging in the Arctic. This is about to change.

Germany has been a formal observer in the Arctic Council since 1998, and representatives from Berlin were present when the founding document of the organisation was signed in Ottawa two years earlier. The country’s first major policy paper was published [pdf] in 2013, detailing the need for a balance between the Arctic’s developing economic potential and the need to preserve the delicate environmental conditions in the region. The document noted that the opening of the Arctic to extractive industries was essential for German business interests, including in the areas of fossil fuels, metals and rare earths, as well as shipping concerns. It was hoped that advances in German technology would augment access to Arctic maritime resources, in keeping with the country’s 2011 policy initiative, the National Master Plan for Maritime Technologies (NMMT) [pdf, in German].

The 2013 paper also acknowledged the need for freedom of navigation and scientific studies, noting Germany’s large merchant marine fleet as well as dedicated research centres developing Arctic studies, including the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, and a joint Franco-German research base (AWIPEV) at Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, opened in 2003 and co-managed by the AWI and the French Polar Institute Paul Emile Victor (IPEV). Even before the joint base’s founding, Germany had been operating a standalone facility in the region, Koldewey Station, (also known as Das Blaue Haus or the ‘Blue House’), since 1991.

AWI-Hauptgebäude in Bremerhaven
AWI headquarters in Bremerhaven, Germany [Photo by Sina Löschke / Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Sina Löschke (CC-BY 4.0).]
The document was also direct in its addressing of the potential security issues in the Arctic as a result of the opening up of the region, stating that, ‘overlapping interests of Arctic countries could, for example, trigger a geopolitical race for sovereignty, or for rights to develop the seabed and its natural resources,’ which would not only affect the Arctic itself but also European security as a whole. The German government therefore expressed its support for international law in the region, Arctic Council, environmental regimes, as well as the European Union, as agents for the peaceful and sustainable development of the region.

The follow-up set of policy guidelines, ‘Assuming Responsibility, Creating Trust, Shaping the Future’, was published in August 2019, and placed further stress on the strategic importance of the Arctic. Six primary guidelines were elucidated, namely the importance of climate and environmental protection in keeping with the Paris Agreement, developing international rules-based cooperation, creating a security policy which preserves the Arctic as a ‘conflict-free zone’, developing responsible science and research, promoting sustainable development and encouraging the involvement of indigenous peoples in the Arctic while maintaining the rights of self-determination.

Building on the strategic concerns explained in the previous policy document, the new guidelines explained the risks being created by overlapping maritime claims, the emergence of ‘dual-use’ technologies, and military build-ups which could act as a catalyst for an arms race. Thus, the paper concluded that a main pillar of Germany’s Arctic interests is to preserve the region as one of peace, in cooperation with Arctic actors, the EU and NATO. Moreover, the document stated that the government of Germany ‘rejects any attempt to militarise the Arctic.’

A green light for Germany in the Arctic? [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Despite the greater emphasis on the strategic role of the Arctic, Germany’s regional outlook remains dominated by environmental concerns, adding that the future of the region ‘deserves our full attention,’ and the revised policy also promises expanded use of German proficiency and technology in the ongoing quest to better understand what is happening in the region as a result of climate change.

As with previous statements, the 2019 paper called for a balance between economic development and environmental responsibility, as exemplified by the document’s stance on the emerging Northern Sea Route (NSR). Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron took the extraordinary step of calling upon shipping companies to avoid the NSR out of environmental concerns, and the government of Norway also recently went on record as questioning the economic and environmental viability of the emerging sea lane. Germany’s strategy paper sought some middle ground on the subject, addressing the ‘significant opportunities’ for German shipping interests, but adding that such activities needed to be undertaken with strict environmental safeguards and cognisant of the interests of local populations.

AWIPEV research station (aka The Blue House) of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, with the Amundsen memorial in the foreground. [Photo by Hannes Grobe via Wikipedia]
Matching words with deeds, this week the German research vessel RV Polarstern (Polestar) left the port of Tromsø to commence a nearly yearlong multinational mission in the Arctic Ocean. The vessel will travel north into the central Arctic Ocean and then embed itself in the polar ice, becoming a de facto mobile research platform until it returns to Norway in September 2020. The mission, with a budget of approximately €140 million (US$156 million), is the most ambitious of its type, and there are hopes that the endeavour will result in an abundance of new information about the climate, ecosystems and glacial conditions in the central Arctic. The ship will be seeking to obtain information, through on-board study as well as via the placing of monitoring stations, about ice formation and movement over the course of the next year, and it is expected that the ship will drift to within two hundred kilometres of the North Pole.

The MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) project, overseen by AWI, includes about six hundred scientists and specialists from several countries, including Britain, Canada, China, Denmark, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea and Switzerland, and will be supported by icebreakers including Russia’s Akademik Fedorov, Sweden’s Oden and China’s Xuelong II.

The mission is seen as essential for carrying out work which previously could only best be undertaken during the summer months, especially as the effects of ice erosion become ever more visible, with minimum summer ice levels expected to be close to the record lows observed in 2012 after several months of record high boreal temperatures and incidents of forest fires. While the mission will be very international in nature, the voyage will nonetheless seek to highlight both German technological expertise in the far north as well as the growing interest in Germany in being widely seen as an Arctic player.