Switzerland and the Arctic Council: The New Kid on the Block

Photo by M. Lanteigne

[Note: An earlier version of this article, written by the editor, appeared in the now-discontinued Arctic Journal earlier this year.]

At the conclusion of the Arctic Council’s Ministerial in Fairbanks in May of this year, the main story was clearly the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation signed by the eight member governments and which held the promise of greater region-wide consultation and education on various science endeavours including Arctic climate change. Considering the misgivings expressed about the American commitment to combatting environmental damage in the far north, prompted by previous remarks by the Trump government expressing scepticism about climate change and hinting at a possible withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, there was some sense of relief that the US was not going to be drastically changing its stance on Arctic cooperation in the near term.

However, the other looming question during the Fairbanks gatherings was whether the politically thorny issue of new observers to the Council would be addressed this year, especially in light of the decision made at the Iqaluit Ministerial Meeting in April 2015 to defer all observer applications until this year. Ultimately, the Fairbanks Declaration [pdf] published after the Ministerial, called for six intergovernmental / non-governmental organisations to join the roster of Council observers, namely the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the National Geographic Society, Oceana, the Oslo-Paris Commission, the West Nordic Council and the World Meteorological Organization. There was also a single government aspirant which made the cut: Switzerland.

Applications by other governments which had sought observer status this year, including Greece, Mongolia and Turkey, were not accepted. The European Union, a perennial also-ran in the ‘observership’ race, was also left out in the proverbial cold in Fairbanks despite ongoing attempts by the organisation to better build a more comprehensive Arctic identity and policy platform, including via the European Parliament’s release of a document entitled ‘An Integrated EU Policy for the Arctic’ in March of this year.

After first mooting a bid to become an observer in 2014 and then being caught in the de facto moratorium on new Arctic Council observers the following year, there was little doubt that Switzerland would prepare an updated application for the Fairbanks meeting given its longstanding commitment to participating more fully in Arctic affairs via the Council. Despite not being an Arctic state, Swiss representatives had long argued that the country has a long history of scientific research on ice conditions and glaciers thanks to Switzerland’s mountainous terrain, and has also been heavily engaged [In French] in studies of the Arctic region including in the areas of climate change, as well as more specific research into snowfall patterns, atmospheric/climate conditions, natural hazards, permafrost and mountainous ecosystems.

This commitment was extensively advertised at the annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík in October 2016, which included speeches and exhibits from Swiss government officials and specialists who described Switzerland as being connected to the ‘vertical Arctic’ meaning the Alps, which had provided Switzerland with a better understanding of the geological and environmental conditions in the circumpolar north. As Switzerland’s Ambassador to Russia, Yves Rossier, noted during his speech at the Reykjavík conference, ‘Ice and snow are in the DNA of our people, in our folklore and in our collective memory.’

In promoting its Arctic credentials, Switzerland did point to its extensive record of regional exploration and scientific endeavours, most notably in Greenland. As one of the 2016 Arctic Circle panellists noted, Switzerland was operating in the region ‘before it was trendy’. These feats included the work by explorer Alfred de Quervain, from Uebeschi, Canton Bern, who led expeditions [paywall] in Greenland in 1909 and 1912-3, and led the first team to winter there by drilling into the island’s vast ice sheet in order to build a campsite.

De Quervain was also responsible for naming the then-isolated region of Schweizerland in eastern Greenland in 1912. Greenland has remained a major focus of current Swiss research in the Arctic, work which includes measuring the effects of erosion of the Greenland ice sheet on the local environment. Other recent scientific projects [pdf] at both poles have included the studies of the impact of far-northern climate change on European weather patterns, polar oceanography, and regional effects of greenhouse gases.

Another factor in Switzerland’s developing Arctic policies is the long-established tradition of Swiss neutrality, which has dominated the country’s politics at least as far back as the Battle of Marignano in the early sixteenth century, and was further codified at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Neutrality principles, coupled with the idea of ‘Sonderfall Schweiz’, (‘Switzerland as a special case’), contributed to a traditional wariness towards joining international organisations.

However, in the post cold-war era Switzerland has begun to soften its views on engaging international and regional organisations. At the same time, Switzerland has traditionally been a strong supporter of economic integration and liberalised trading, especially given its location in the heart of Europe and the need for trade for many goods and services. The country is a member of both the EU’s Single Market and the Schengen Agreement. Therefore, the potential importance of the Arctic as an emerging economic area further explained Swiss policy of seeking greater engagement with the Council.

Although there was little doubt Switzerland was going to resubmit its bid, it was confirmed during an interview between Ambassador Rossier and the Russian news agency TASS during his visit to the Territory of Dialogue Arctic international forum in Arkhangelsk in late March of this year, that Switzerland would do so. As with the 2015 application, Switzerland sought to underscore its Arctic identity in the areas of comparative climate and glaciology studies, research missions dating back to the nineteenth century, including in Greenland, developing partnerships with Arctic Council member states in various projects in the far north, and a commitment to adhering to international maritime law, including the Law of the Sea, and advocacy of the rights of indigenous persons in the Arctic.

Switzerland has also sought to enhance its position in the expanding areas of Arctic research by announcing the founding of the Swiss Polar Institute (SPI) in 2016 and the holding of the Arctic Science Summit Week and associated meetings in Davos under the aegis of ‘POLAR 2018’ in June of next year. As well, since its unsuccessful bid two years ago, Swiss officials had continued to engage scientific actors and other stakeholders in the region, and benefitted [In French] from its venerable foreign policy traditions of neutrality.

In a statement released by the Swiss Foreign Ministry, right after the country’s official acceptance as a Council observer, the decision was lauded as an opening for Switzerland to ‘contribute expert knowledge to the Council at the level of working groups and to participate in research projects in a region with enormous economic potential and growing geopolitical weight,’ including for the benefit of Arctic populations which have been affected by climate change.

As the chair of the Arctic Council is passed from the United States to Finland, the question of new observers, and what their qualifications should be, will likely persist. A May 2017 article in Bloomberg suggested that ‘the Arctic Council has risen in import and attention as the top of the world became a place where developed economies want to play. Everybody wants in.’ This is only half the issue, however. There is also the question of how governmental observers already within the Council can best distinguish themselves in a field which is crowded and will likely only get more so. For Switzerland as the ‘new kid’, there will be the opportunity for the country’s Arctic specialists and policymakers to better engage with the Council’s member states and other organisations.

Switzerland’s new role in the Arctic Council is yet another sign that the country continues to move away from its traditional wariness towards membership in international organisations, (the country remains outside the European Union and the European Economic Area, and only joined the United Nations in 2002), as well as traditional Alleingang or ‘going it alone’ views towards becoming too integrated into the global community and moving too far away from neutrality in foreign policies. In recent decades, Swiss foreign interests have begun to expand well beyond Europe, especially as relations with the European Union remain occasionally bumpy, and so the Arctic has been identified as an area where Switzerland’s expertise as well as its diplomacy can play an expanded role.

The addition of Switzerland to the Council’s observer roll call not only further augments Europe’s presence in the organisation, (as other Council observers include Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland and Spain), but also underscores how the Arctic, and the Council itself, continues to evolve as an international concern in addition to a regional one.