Last Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande debated in the EU Parliament. The last time the leaders of France and Germany made a joint appearance was in 1989. This coming Friday, France and Germany meet again, this time in Reykjavik, and the topic is the Arctic.
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China and Russia are also well represented when the Arctic Circle conference kicks off this week. The High North is still a hot topic, although perhaps in a slightly different way than we are accustomed to.
Or rather: to understand the full significance of the High North, we need to adopt an historical perspective.
Norway on the outside
The historically rare debate between Merkel and Hollande in the EU Parliament has its roots in two deep-seated crises, with global implications: the Ukraine crisis and the increasing flow of refugees into Europe. These two crises are exacerbated by an accelerating international conflict in Syria.
The basis for the debate in the EU was that “when French-German cooperation does not work, the whole of Europe suffers”, as Martin Schulz, President of the EU, said in his introduction to the open meeting between Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande. In 1989, it was Francois Mitterand and Helmot Kohl who met. The backdrop was the situation in Europe following the sudden and unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall.
There is a certain symbolic value in this repetition of history after 26 years. Forced together by external factors, Hollande warned leaders in Brussels against a situation in which EU countries “creep in their own national cellars”, while Merkel in her response underlined that “the historically high number of refugees is an historical test”.
Norway, as usual, participates on the fringes of the debate.
This is also - to a greater extent - the case when Germany and France travel on to Reykjavik to discuss the future of the Arctic.
Arctic Circle is not just one in a line of High North conferences. It is an Icelandic-American construction, if the goal is to be a conference that, more than other open, international gatherings, defines the Arctic and the High North. The conference’s architects are Iceland’s president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson and the Alaska-based publisher, Alice Rogoff.
Together, they have created an arena for discussion about the status and future of the North. Participants come from around the globe, although certain countries set their mark more clearly than others.
Arctic Circle commences this year with a bigger Chinese delegation, followed by an even stronger Gerrman number
Subsequently, come Greenland and Japan, before France’s President Francois Hollande closes the first day.
Vladimirovich Barbin, Russia’s official representative to the Arctic Council, opens proceedings on Saturday, while the day is set to close with a longer presentation by South Korea. On Sunday, the US is set to present their vision as leader of the Arctic Council, while the EU will present its Artic Policy later the same day.
Norwegian climate debate
Between the big presentations, one finds a range of sessions, both plenary as well as so-called “side events”. One of these constitutes the official Norwegian contribution.
Newly-appointed State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Tore Hattrem, responsible for the High North, will participate in a debate about climate research in the Arctic. In the debate, Hattrem will meet the director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Jan Gunnar Winther, and an American professor.
Beyond the official Norwegian political participation, there is also a range of side events with contributions from Norwegian universities, research institutes and indigenous organizations. Rune Rafaelsen, incoming AP Mayor of Kirkenes and previous leader of the Barents Secretariat, will debate about relations with Russia.
There are many possible explanations for the modest official Norwegian delegation during Arctic Circle arrangements.
On the Norwegian side, it is possible to emphasize the greater significance of a central role in the Arctic Council, which, unlike the Icelandic conference, adopts concrete decisions.
There might also be explanations for the restriction of Norwegian participation to a discussion about climate research, while other nations discus policy and industrial development. Although, if there is such an explanation, it is not easy to grasp.
Whatever the reasons, they can hardly be sufficient to explain the marginalization of the Norwegian perspective on the High North at Arctic Circle.
Arctic Circle sets a different agenda, because its reach extends to so many stakeholders. Media coverage is extensive and students, the future Arctic leaders, are there to learn. Industrial heavyweights, with an eye for “market access” in the High North, are present. They come to Sagaøya for the fattening, with a taste for the resources of the North.
The EU, Russia and China have drawn, independently and jointly, a picture of the High North that diverges significantly from what those of us who live here experience. It is a mix of security policy and commodity production, or as the EU at its worst understands this part of the world: A scientific challenge where indigenous peoples and polar bears are the primary characteristics.
The regional levels, county and municipality, which characterize the most populated part of the Arctic, have little or no place in the international view of the High North. Nor is there an understanding that industrial investment is not only necessary but also, above all, extremely demanding.
Regardless, the most important factor this time is the backdrop that made itself evident at last week’s EU meeting, a somewhat different backdrop than that which has characterized international High North conferences in recent years.
The Arctic as peacemaker
The conflict between East and West is escalating, also in Syria. The number of people fleeing the ravages of war has increased, apparent along both Europe’s southern and northern borders; a flow of refugees threatening to destroy European cooperation.
In this situation, peaceful cooperation in the North is of utmost significance, just as it was during the Cold War’s most intense periods.
Of course, I do not believe that Vladimir Putin has equipped the Russian envoy to Reykjavik, Vladimir Vladimirovich Barbin, with a mandate to negotiate with Angela Merkel. But I do believe that the solution to many of the current international challenges lies within the continuation of cooperation in the North, of which Arctic Circle is one example.
A Norwegian positioning is therefore about both which footprint we want to set on High North development, but also about how the Arctic cooperation can contribute to something as seemingly pompous as a better world.
40 nations meet in Iceland this weekend.
The High North is a hot as it has always been, also for those who are looking for solutions to conflicts on the other side of the globe.
Highnorthnews.com follows Arctic Circle.