Britain is only on the sidelines of Arctic affairs

The UK Delegation at Arctic Circle Conference in 2014, (Photo: Adam Fico)
"While having a long-standing history in the region, Britain risks being pushed to the periphery of Arctic affairs today", says Duncan Depledge from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions Secretariat in Westminster and author of the recently published book Britain and the Arctic.

"While having a long-standing history in the region, Britain risks being pushed to the periphery of Arctic affairs today", says Duncan Depledge from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions Secretariat in Westminster and author of the recently published book Britain and the Arctic.

"Current British interests in the Arctic region span multiple policy issues like energy, transport, environment, defence, and science; however, the means to pursue these interests is limited", Dr Depledge, who has analysed the UK’s role and interest in the Arctic for many years, explains to High North News.

HNN: "What is the history of UK as an Arctic actor? Is the country new to the region?"

"Britain’s history in the Arctic stretches back centuries. By today’s standards, we could even argue that Britain was an Arctic state from the 1600s to the early 1900s, due to its territories in North America and activities on Svalbard. During that time, explorers from the British Isles were at the forefront of opening up the northern latitudes to Western science, while resources brought back from the Arctic by merchants, traders, fishermen, and whalers helped fuel the economies of many British cities. In the twentieth century, British scientists, businesses, and military forces continued to maintain a British presence in the Arctic albeit without Britain having any direct territorial interests there.

However, Britain’s ‘Arctic’ or ‘Near-Arctic’ identity seems to me to be a relatively novel phenomenon – and still does not seem very widespread in the general population. That reflects, perhaps, an anxiety among some sections of the policy elite that the kind of Arctic region-building that has occurred since the late 1980s, which scholars like Carina Keskitalo have described, has pushed Britain to the periphery of Arctic affairs."


HNN: "Which issue areas does the UK focus on in its Arctic policy?"

"Britain was the first non-Arctic state to publish an Arctic white paper. This “Arctic Policy Framework” from 2013 is a cross-government paper, reflecting the Government’s recognition that what is happening in the Arctic could affect a wide range of interests including energy, transport, environment, defence, and science.

The main area of focus today is on science: the Government has invested more than £30 million in Arctic science programmes since 2010, which is a substantial increase on what went before. That followed growing recognition of the importance of the Arctic to climate science during the International Polar Year 2007-9 (Cambridge hosted the International Programme Office for IPY).

Britain also retains a defence interest in the Arctic: since 2010, Britain has strengthened its defence relationship with Norway in particular, reflecting shared concerns about the security of the High North and North Atlantic. At the same time, Britain is very supportive of the Arctic Council and sees ongoing cooperation between the Arctic states as essential for maintaining peace and security in the region. Beyond that there is interest in commercial opportunities but the Government has been very clear that while it can support and promote British businesses, it cannot make decisions about whether they should invest in the Arctic. Nor can it ban them from participating in Arctic development."

HNN: "Which challenges does the UK face in pursuing its Arctic policy goals?"

"The most obvious challenge is financial. The Polar Regions Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been tasked with coordinating Britain’s Arctic policy across Government but it is a small team and its primary focus is on Antarctica where Britain has sovereign interests to manage. That diminishes the amount of attention given to the Arctic, and over recent decades Government interest has tended to be ad-hoc rather than strategic. Similarly, the Ministry of Defence has severe budgetary issues that mean military activity in the Arctic – such as Cold Weather Training for the Royal Marines – seems to be constantly under threat.

The more difficult challenge to assess is political. Britain remains an important partner for the Arctic states because it strongly supports the status quo and participates where possible in supporting the work of organisations like the Arctic Council. Much of this effort goes on behind the scenes though and can often be obscured by the likes of China, France, and others appointing Arctic Ambassadors, for example. I think the Government is struggling to decide just how visible it needs to be in the Arctic to achieve its goals."

HNN: "Does the UK have closer ties to some specific Arctic states or other non-Arctic states?"

"Britain’s closest partner in the Arctic is Norway. The two countries have long-standing ties, and cooperate on a wide range of interests in the Arctic, including defence, science, and energy. Norway is a major exporter of energy to Britain and as the Norwegian oil and gas industry moves further north, Britain will be powered increasingly by Arctic energy. Over recent years, the two countries have signed several Memorandums of Understanding to promote closer ties, including on science and defence in the Arctic. Post-Brexit, I imagine those ties will become even stronger.

Apart from Norway, Britain also has close links to Canada in the Arctic focussed primarily on science."

HNN: "What do you expect for the future of the UK in the Arctic?"

"I think interest will continue to grow. Over the past five years there have been five Parliamentary Select Committee inquiries looking at different aspects of the Britain’s interests in the Arctic, including environmental protection, defence, and the particular interests of Scotland. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions was set up in 2015 and meets regularly to further raise awareness of Arctic (and Antarctic) matters in Parliament. The debate about whether the Government should appoint an envoy or special representative to the Arctic has refused to go away. All that together means that questions continue to be asked of the Government about whether it is doing enough to take advantage of opportunities and address risks in the Arctic.

It is anticipated that the Government will soon publish an updated Arctic Policy Framework to reflect its response to major developments since 2013, including the collapse of oil prices, deterioration of relations with Russia, ‘Brexit’, and its newfound enthusiasm to promote ‘Global Britain’. Quite what that looks like in real terms is hard to say but Britain’s defence and commercial interests are likely to remain low key and subject to events (e.g. state of relations with Russia, market prices).

Science is more complicated and more concerning as this is what the Government has described as the motor of its activity in the Arctic. British scientists benefit greatly from being part of major EU-funded science programmes in the Arctic and there is obviously a risk that this will be damaged by leaving the EU. However, I’m optimistic that the quality of British Arctic science will make it difficult for it to be excluded from future EU initiatives and the two sides will find new ways of working together.

Overall, I don’t think the Government is particularly interested in driving forward any significant changes to the status quo that currently holds in the Arctic. As I mentioned before, peace and security in the region is the Government’s number one concern and it believes that the current cooperation between the eight Arctic states remains the best way to achieve that. That, to me, is a shame because, as I argue in my book, I think Britain has the potential – as a producer of world-class science, legal and financial services, industry best practice, and cutting-edge technology – to have a more influential role in Arctic affairs, while still respecting the sovereignty and rights of Arctic states and peoples."

Duncan Depledge is director of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions Secretariat in Westminster. He previously held an academic position at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book "Britain and the Arctic" was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.

Dr Duncan Depledge in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. (Photo: Amy Swash)
Dr Duncan Depledge in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. (Photo: Amy Swash)