Cool Britannia: The UK Updates its Arctic Policy

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, with former Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, at the October 2017 Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík. (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

In the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, questions over the future shape of British foreign affairs, including post-departure relations with the European Union, increasingly thorny debates over border relations in Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, and economic ties with the British Commonwealth as well as big markets such as China, are all high on the priority list. This week, via a new report by the Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London, it was confirmed that the UK is also seeking to maintain a strong policy presence in the Arctic in the coming years as part of its foreign policy shakeup.

The FCO report, entitled ‘Beyond the Ice: UK Policy Towards the Arctic’ [pdf] is a follow up to Britain’s first Arctic policy paper [pdf] which was published in 2013 and described environmental and human development concerns, as well as the nascent economic prospects in the region. The original paper advocated that British policies towards the Arctic should reflect three core principles, namely respect for the rights of Arctic states and peoples, leadership of both the Arctic states but also the United Kingdom in the region, and promoting cooperation in the Arctic via various types of dialogues.

Both the 2013 document and its successor pointed out the UK’s distinct geographic position vis-à-vis the Arctic, given the closeness of the Shetland Islands to the Arctic Circle. For example, in the forward to the 2018 paper, it was noted in the preface written by Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State for the Polar Regions, that the Shetland capital of Lerwick was closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. Great Britain has been an observer in the Arctic Council since 1998, two years after the organisation was founded.

The 2018 paper represented a refocus of UK priorities towards the Arctic, firstly outlining the need to promote British influence in the Arctic as part of a ‘Global Britain’ outlook. Britain is seen as having access to several varieties of regional cooperation opportunities, including via the Arctic Council but also through bilateral relations with the ‘Arctic Eight’ governments and other observers, with recent agreements with Canada (research and technology development) and Norway (joint scientific research projects) being highlighted as key cases.

Flag of the Shetland Islands. (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

Science diplomacy was highlighted as a main outlet for British cooperation with other Arctic actors, including many within the European Union. The report appeared to suggest that these EU ties would be perpetuated after Brexit, but much may depend on the type of separation agreement which eventually takes shape between now and 2019. A textbox in the report outlined the recent regional scientific contributions of the British research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough, (much better known by its previous, short-lived, proposed name, Boaty McBoatface).

Other forms of multilateral cooperation on the governmental level, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), fishing agreements in the Central Arctic Ocean, and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, as well as via Track II meetings such as the Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers, were listed as notable examples of UK-Arctic multilateral cooperation. Mention was also made of the presence of Scotland at the Arctic Circle conference, and plans unveiled last year for a separate Scottish Arctic strategy. The First Minister of Scotland, (and prominent Brexit critic), Nicola Sturgeon, was a keynote speaker [video] at the last two Arctic Circle events, and has been supportive of closer Scottish relations with Arctic governments.

Second, the report explained the need for protection and sustainable development of the region in the wake of climate change and other challenges. The document illustrated the effects of climate change on ice erosion, which is at risk of ‘Arctic amplification’ as more greenhouse gases are released in the circumpolar regions. Here, cooperation is also viewed as essential, but there were also descriptions of London’s own efforts to combat carbon emissions, with an eye on the situation in the Arctic as well as globally.

The Theresa May government had released an updated environmental policy statement [pdf], entitled ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’, in January this year which underscored these points. The Arctic document also noted the British government’s regret about the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, but that there were still opportunities for US-UK engagement on green issues. Other specific areas of environmental threats in the Arctic on which the UK wished to focus included conservation of marine regions, (such as the threat of marine litter, and especially plastic debris), air pollution, and protection of Arctic wildlife including bird populations.

Included in the second section were two policy areas that were given much less scope in the 2013 UK Arctic paper, namely security and safety matters in the region. The Arctic Council, while confimed as not being an organisation dedicated to security policy, was nonetheless pointed to as an important tool in strengthening cooperation activities.

In matters of hard security, the paper stated that while the Arctic states had the right to defend their interests in the far north, ‘the build-up of Arctic military capabilities by several Arctic States makes the future less certain.’ Russia was not specifically mentioned, but given the rapidly deteriorating relationship between London in the wake of the Russian spy poisoning incident in March this year, and regional concerns about the ongoing transfer of military forces and materiel to Russia’s Arctic regions by the Vladimir Putin government, it was obvious which government was being pointed to.

NATO was seen in the document as being a ‘central plank’ for regional cooperation, but the paper also specified the role of cooperation for building civilian safety mechanisms in the Arctic given the increase in maritime traffic and the sparse distribution of search and rescue operations in the region at present. The inclusion of security and safety issues into the UK paper is very much in line with emerging regional concerns about both areas.

Third, the document outlined the promotion of regional prosperity as well as providing opportunities for British economic interests in the Arctic, including the need for growing economic activity to be cognisant of environmental conditions in the far north. Key regional developing economic activities included shipping through emerging sea routes, including as conduits for European trade with the Asian markets, as well as fishing and fossil fuels. Local energy initiatives included the development of tidal power, with a pilot project in the northern British islands of Orkney seen as a test case for potential expanded power generation via wind and wave power in the Arctic. Non-resource sectors, including the development of transportation links and broadband, along with financial services designed to assist in region-specific development projects, were listed as important areas of emerging British cooperation.

Winter in St. Andrews, Scotland. (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

As the Brexit process continues, it has been a priority for the May administration to promote the emerging new international relations priorities of the UK as the complicated separation process from the European Union continues, albeit with many bumps and scrapes. The Arctic is growing as a foreign policy priority for London, given geography and the growing global attention the circumpolar north is receiving not only from Europe but many other parts of the world. This issue may be part of the larger question of how overall scientific cooperation between Britain and the European Union will be affected by the Brexit divorce.

Thus, there is the question of whether Britain will seek to more directly differentiate itself from its European neighbours in crafting its emerging Arctic policy, or will EU cooperation be seen as beneficial, (and potentially necessary), given the growing number of non-Arctic states seeking to build their own regional identities and policies.