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.
This week may mark a turning point in the tumultuous process of finalising the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union when a long-delayed parliamentary vote is scheduled to take place on the exit deal proposed by the Conservative government of Theresa May. Even if the vote passes, which reports suggest is very unlikely, the ‘Brexit’ process may still be far from resolved despite the looming March deadline for the process to be completed. The possibility of a ‘no-deal Brexit’ remains a strong possibility at present, and in addition to the impact of such an outcome on British domestic politics, there is also the concern about UK regional (and border) policies with Europe, including the Arctic region.
Parts of the Arctic have already tangentially factored into the Brexit process in various ways. For example a compromise position on the EU withdrawal which is popular in some British political quarters is the so-called ‘Norway model’, which would involve London emulating the distinct economic relationship which Norway has with the European Union. Norway is not an EU member, but it is part of the European Single Market, the European Economic Area (EEA) and the Schengen Agreement on borders, (the UK is not part of Schengen at present).
The Norway model is favoured by policymakers worried about a ‘hard Brexit’ creating economic shocks throughout the British economy, but is opposed by others who point out that the model would also entail being subject to many EU regulations in exchange for staying within the Single Market, but without associated voting rights. As well, under the Norway option Britain would still be obliged to allow for free movement of EU citizens, a problem since restricting immigration was a major rationale for ‘leave’ voters.
It was also revealed this week that the UK was in low-key talks with Canada about jump-starting a bilateral free trade agreement which could enter into force possibly as early as 2020, assuming an orderly British withdrawal from the EU. There has also been much support for the UK to potentially (re-)join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), which Britain co-founded in 1960 but left in 1973.
The four-party EFTA has two Arctic members Iceland and Norway as well as Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and while there has been some support for British admission to the EFTA, there have been some reservations expressed recently as well, including a pointed quote from a member of the Norwegian Høyre (Conservative) party, regarding post-Brexit Britain, ‘I think you would mess it all up for us, the way you have messed it all up for yourselves’.
The government of Greenland has also been watching the Brexit situation closely, given imports of Greenlandic seafood to the United Kingdom. Greenland is not an EU member, but due to its status as part of the Kingdom of Denmark is allowed to export products to Union members without tariffs, a situation which would not apply to the UK should a no-deal Brexit take place. The government of the Faroe Islands has expressed similar interests in preserving its seafood trade with the UK after Brexit.
Another potential side effect of the Brexit process is the question of maritime borders, which could also impact British relations with its Arctic neighbours. As was reported last week in Al-Jazeera, a no-deal Brexit might produce fishing boundary disputes reminiscent of the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970s and previously, when UK and Icelandic fishing boats periodically clashed over disputed fishing zones.
In terms of Britain’s overall Arctic policy after Brexit, there is the question of how UK research in the far north will be affected after the country disconnects from the EU and its own scientific programmes. The UK sought to clarify its stance on Arctic diplomacy with an updated policy paper published last year by the May government. The paper [pdf] included comments which affirmed that the Arctic would be a major component of post-Brexit UK foreign policy, including British regional cooperation as well as specific initiatives with key Arctic governments. The country was an original observer state in the Arctic Council, and has frequently touted its status as the ‘Arctic’s closest neighbour’ in regards to its geography.
Also last year, the British government released a separate document [pdf] outlining its expanding strategic interests in the Arctic, especially in the wake of still-poor relations between London and Moscow. With Russia’s strategic policies in the Arctic being seen as turning more assertive in much of Northern Europe, Britain after Brexit would be under pressure to confirm its own capabilities of securing its interests in the Atlantic-Arctic region.
In Scotland, which has traditionally been more sympathetic to the EU and less optimistic about Brexit, the Arctic has become a notable means for distinguishing the Scottish government’s differing foreign policy views from that of London. Scottish policymakers, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, have been regular participants at Arctic Circle events, and Edinburgh hosted its own breakout Arctic Circle forum in November 2017. Although it is unclear whether Brexit may spark a push towards another Scottish referendum vote, it is very likely that should moves towards another vote take place, the idea of better connecting Scotland to Arctic affairs would be a factor in any such debate.
Even though much of the Brexit debate so far has focussed on its potential effects on UK domestic politics and economic affairs, as well as future British relations with the EU, it is becoming more evident that the Arctic will also be play a role in, and be affected by, the still-bumpy road and uncertain destination Brexit represents.
Arguably the two most prominent stories about the Arctic region this year were related to security, albeit from two completely different directions. On one end of the spectrum, new reports published this year about the state of global climate change further underscored the looming threats to the Arctic’s environment. The study released in October by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that the planet might reach its threshold level of a 1.5ºC increase in temperature as early as 2030. This was followed up in December by the ‘Arctic Report Card’, issued by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), (note: the organisation’s website is currently offline due to the US government shutdown).
The NOAA report examined record low levels of sea ice in parts of the Arctic including the Bering Sea region, as well as ongoing thinning of older ice sheets, rising regional air temperatures, and the growing problem of plastic debris in the Arctic Ocean. The United States government also released its own survey of climate change effects in November. However the report was swiftly dismissed by US President Donald Trump, who had been on record many times as being an unapologetic climate change denier, thus calling into question whether Washington would be in any position to continue to advocate for greater global environmental responsibility in the coming year.
Moving from environmental to military security, the question of whether the Arctic will become an arena for hard power competition will likely persist next year in the wake of ongoing cold relations between Russia and the West and ongoing endeavours by Moscow to more fully secure its Arctic lands as well as the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Right before Christmas, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that his country’s Arctic military infrastructure was unparalleled, pointing to the number of facilities which were either re-established or in the process of refurbishment, including in Franz Josef Land, Cape Schmidt and the Kuril Islands. The minister added that further military build-ups in the region were planned for 2019, including in the area of air defence.
Moscow officials also confirmed that next year’s Russian military exercises [In Russian], ‘Tsentr-2019’ (Центр-2019) would feature manoeuvres in the NSR region, emphasising the growing importance of the Russian Arctic to the country’s evolving military strategies. The announcement comes on the heels of NATO’s ‘Trident Junction’ exercises which took place in October-November of this year, hosted by Norway with the participation of non-NATO members Finland and Sweden. These events have placed strains on the conventional wisdom of the Arctic being ‘high north, low tension’.
The government of Vladimir Putin has been exuberant about the growing potential of the NSR for Russia as the waterway becomes easier to navigate in summer months, especially in the wake of the successful transit through the waterway of the Danish container vessel Venta Maersk in September this year. Yet, there remains the question of whether Russia under extensive Western sanctions can develop its Arctic infrastructure without outside assistance.
Andrei Denisov, Russia’s Ambassador to Beijing, recently remarked that China had the potential to be a major partner in his country’s Arctic economic policy, and noted in the past year that the Chinese government had made major strides in formalising its Arctic policy. This included the publication in 2018 of both a governmental White Paper and a Blue Book [In Chinese] on Arctic diplomacy. China’s presence in the Arctic continued to grow this year, including the launch of the country’s second icebreaking vessel, (with plans announced for a future nuclear-powered icebreaker), a notable presence at the October Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík and the opening of the Sino-Icelandic joint scientific research centre in northern Iceland.
Joint Arctic space observation facilities were also announced in April this year by the governments of China and Finland. Despite a setback in bidding for the contract to expand airport infrastructure in Greenland, Chinese economic interests on the island showed no signs of slowing down, illustrated in recent interest expressed by Chinese firms in bidding on future oil and gas exploration in Greenland.
While China’s overall Arctic diplomacy is expected to accelerate next year, there may be obstacles ahead in the form of a downturn in bilateral ties with some Arctic states, including Canada and Sweden, over the past few months. Chief among these has been the deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Washington as economic disputes devolved into a more intense ‘trade war’, with both parties engaging in reciprocal tariffs before a ninety-day cooling off period was announced in early December of this year. One of the economic casualties of the downturn in the Arctic could be the North Slope gas pipeline project in Alaska, which China had pledged financial support for in 2017.
The coming year will also see changes in the Arctic Council, with the chair passing from Finland to Iceland after the next Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) Ministerial meeting, to take place in May in Rovaniemi. Climate change is likely to be at the top of the list during the conference, and it is also probable that there will be another queue of potential observers hoping to follow in the footsteps of Switzerland and six non-governmental organisations which were able to obtain the status of formal observer at the last SAO in 2017. Within the Council’s membership, both Canada and the United States are expected to publish revised Arctic policies in the coming year, as well as observer nation South Korea.
Security, of many different types, is on track to continue to dominate Arctic affairs in 2019, but there is also the greater possibility of cooperation as understanding spreads about the connections between this once-isolated region and the rest of the world, as well as a change in thinking which suggests that the Arctic is becoming an international concern in addition to a regional one.
[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance in the preparation of this article.]
On behalf of OtC, thank you very much to our readers and a Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, ᑯᕕᐊᓇᒃ ᐃᓄᕕᐊ and a very Happy Holidays to everyone! Looking forward to providing new stories and new ideas about the Arctic in the coming year!
Also, when in Reykjavík, keep a close eye out for giant Yule Cats! -M.L.