(Commentary) Reykjavik, Iceland: He declared victory over the pandemic, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, when he was finally allowed to gather more than 1,300 Arctic attendees in the representative home of Reykjavik, the Harpa concert hall. Yet already during the Arctic Circle opening speech, a new and perhaps larger challenge emerged: How is the Arctic to win over the EU?
Or, to turn it around: Should the Arctic conquer the EU?
My question is a leading one, though not a misleading one.
At an otherwise peaceful Arctic conference, the EU’s new Arctic strategy hit the oil and gas producing countries of the Arctic in the middle of their wallets. The European Commission wants to put a moratorium on all exploitation of oil, coal and gas in the Arctic.
Deep Arctic division
The EU proposal, which happened to presented just as Jonas Gahr Støre presented the future Norwegian oil and gas strategy in the platform for his new government, reveals a deep climate and business policy division between the eight Arctic states.
Or in the words of former Alaska governor, Republican and business man Mead Treadwell, who almost shouted it out in the conference hall at Harpa:
“You do not even bother having a dialogue with those of us who live in the Arctic before you decide to shut us down!”
The Arctic is still one big, happy family, even though three of its children are currently put to shame by their European au pair.
You have decided to shut us down.
Russia, the American state of Alaska, and Norway will take a devastating economic blow if the EU’s proposal were to become a political reality. But even just the proposal about shutting down this industry sent shock waves into the local economy.
Insecurity in the market scars investors in other industries away too.
“When businesses notice insecurity in the market, they shy away”, said key Icelandic business man Heidar Gudjonsson.
No wonder, then, that the EU’s proposal stirs reactions, and also applause, not least from the European environmental movement.
Paradoxes lined up
In its new Arctic strategy, the EU goes from being a rather vague actor with limited respect for business and people in the High North, to becoming a concrete and fierce initiator of climate politics. The organization stresses time and again that it is concerned with the people in the north and that jobs are created, that the Arctic is not a museum, thought hat no longer applies for industries related to oil and gas.
There is a series of paradoxes with that point of view.
It is in particular production and exploration activity related to gas that is closely tied with the EU’s own need for energy. While the EU Commission wants to halt this activity it also pushes in particular Russia to produce more gas to cover Europe’s needs.
More than 50 nations rush to embrace those of us who live in the Arctic.
Furthermore, the EU’s demands represent a direct intervention in the economy of countries that are not members of the EU, such as Norway, Russia, and the USA.
And, thirdly, the strongest environmental footprints in the Arctic come from exactly EU countries, not from the Arctic itself. The industry in the Balkans as well as car traffic in Rome means more to the climate than a rather sparse population in the High North.
Norway against the Nordics
Three of the Arctic states; Sweden, Finland and Denmark, all stand behind the Commission’s proposal. A modest few Danish oil drops in the North Sea aside, none of these countries are oil producers. On the other hand, the mining industry is vital for the Swedish and Finnish economies, a raw material-based industry that is met with European blessings.
The EU has no authority to decide national oil policies, yet it can nevertheless be decisive for the industry’s future in the shorter term. If the EU is to live up to its own policies, it may simply stop buying Arctic gas. However, there no plans about doing just that, according to EU representatives.
The strategy document itself points in a different direction. Nevertheless, an on-going power crisis all over Europe gives little ammunition to such a view. Perhaps that is why it is not highlighted as a key part of the strategy.
Meanwhile, one Arctic love declaration after the other is presented in Reykjavik this weekend. Delegates from some 50 countries compete to embrace us who live here and the Arctic peace project. The fact that military activity increases dramatically in the very same area is more or less a no-go.
The pandemic is still on
Russia and Norway, perhaps because of change of government, are more or less absent from the conference, while the USA has sent a top-heavy delegation to mark the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.
Last year, the pandemic forced the conference to cancel.
An elaborate system of Covid tests, colorful bracelets marking the difference between infected and non-infected, vaccination certificates and strict border control measure allowed delegates to gather again. And made it possible for former Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson to declare victory over the pandemic.
But just like the peace movement this claim, too, is a truth subject to strong modifications.
Only days before the conference opened, the American Arctic state of Alaska saw record-high numbers for Covid-19 infections and deaths.
We all are, in other words, mainly out to protect ourselves.
Whatever the issue might be.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.