‘Chi ben comincia è a metà dell opera’: Italy’s Emerging Arctic Diplomacy

Central Rome (Photo by M. Lanteigne)

As was discussed in a recent OtC post, much international coverage regarding the 2013 inclusion of six governmental observers in the Arctic Council was dominated by China as well as India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. At the time, there was less discussion about the admission of the sixth country, Italy in the Council’s observership ranks. Yet over the past three years, Rome has quietly sought to bolster its Arctic policies and identities in relation to other non-Arctic states by means of a widening and deepening of its circumpolar interests.

The most prominant example of this was the release in December 2015 by the Italian Foreign Ministry of the country’s first Arctic White Paper entitled ‘Verso una strategia italiana per l’Artico’ (‘Towards an Italian Strategy for the Arctic’). With this paper’s publication, Italy joins other non-Arctic states, including Germany, Japan and South Korea, in recently putting forward government policy statements on their views of the emerging political, scientific and economic challenges in the circumpolar North.

In some areas, Italy’s current Arctic policies are similar to those of other observer nations. Rome was one of the original signatories of the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty and since 1997 has operated a research station, Dirigibile Italia, in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. Italy also oversees two Antarctic installations, the first being the Mario Zucchelli Station at Terra Nova Bay since 1986 and the second, Concordia, located at Dome C on the Antarctic Plateau, in partnership with France and inaugurated in 2005.

The country also maintains research vessels, including the Explora, operated by the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics, which have frequently operated in the polar regions. Yet what distinguishes much of Italy’s developing Arctic interests of late has been the country’s historical legacy in the region. As the document describes in its introduction, Italy’s Arctic presence began with ambitious exploration missions in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spearheaded by figures including Prince Luigi Amedeo, Umberto Nobile and Silvio Zavetti [In Italian], and this history of exploration was a key point in underscoring Italy’s circumpolar credentials when the country sought formal observer status in the Arctic Council.

Science diplomacy, a common cornerstone among Arctic Council observers, has also been pursued by Rome in recent years, a nod to previous exploration missions [pdf]. This has taken many forms, including participation in the Council’s Working Groups and bilateral cooperation with Arctic states in various polar affairs, including with Canada on science and technology coordination, and with Finland on environmental and socio-economic issues. As the Arctic white paper added, other scientific cooperation projects have commenced with institutes in China and Russia. There have also been growing levels of Italian participation on the governmental and sub-governmental levels in regional Track II organisations, including the Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers. Current projects have stressed links between environmental conditions and economic development in the region, and interests have included local oceanography and climatology.

Economic interests are also forming a major part of Italy’s developing Arctic policies, and once again history has played a role in shaping current thinking. Arctic fishing has been of longstanding interest in Italy, with Norwegian stockfish (stoccafisso) being a favourite in the country, a legacy of a fifteenth-century Venetian noble who first encountered the delicacy after being stranded near Lofoten and then rescued by local fishermen. The small town of Badalucco, in Imperia in north-western Italy, even celebrates an annual ‘Festa del Paese’ dedicated to the stockfish.

Other sectors in Italy, including mining and shipbuilding, have also begun to look to the Arctic for joint ventures. More recently, it has been petroleum which has moved to the forefront of Italy’s economic planning in the Arctic despite dropping fossil fuel prices. Rome-based energy firm Eni has been engaged in Arctic oil and gas development, including a partnership with Norway’s Statoil to develop the Goliat region, the northernmost offshore oilfield. A platform opened in March of last year and is located in the Barents Sea, 88km off the coast of Hammerfest in northern Norway. However, the project has been best by delays and periodic shutdowns, as well as recent electrical issues with the platform, as well as questions raised as to when Goliat will be in a position to turn a profit. Nonetheless, the project remains an example of Italy’s developing economic interests in the Arctic as more resources and fossil fuels potentially become accessible.

With other non-Arctic states likely seeking observer status in the Arctic Council when the question of new observers is yet again raised in 2019, Italy will be under pressure to continue to distinguish its own distinct ‘brand’ of Arctic diplomacy. There is also the perpetual issue of Council observer status for the European Union, with which Italy has coordinated much of its Arctic activity. The EU was turned down for formal observer status for a fourth time in 2015, but Italy remains strongly supportive of the Union attaining that designation in the future. In examining Italy’s Arctic policy paper, it is evident that the country is not only taking a distinct holistic approach to its polar diplomacy, but is also seeking to combine a colourful history and current expertise in defining itself as an Arctic stakeholder.

[A previous version of this post appeared in the now-defunct Arctic Journal.]