Arne O. Holm says Everybody Wants Something in the High North. But What Exactly Do They Want?

Gatebilde Roma.
Seen from the street level in Rome, the Arctic is a long way off. Yet not longer than for European and Italian politicians to want to solve the climate crisis through regulating industry in the Arctic rather than their own. (Photo: Arne O. Holm)

(Commentary) Rome/Bodø: Everybody wants something with the High North, but do they really know what they want? Is it possible at all to find a pattern behind the pompous words embracing people and business in the Arctic? I have been traveling the north for some time now, and I doubt their will less than their abilities.

Stuck in traffic in Rome, these thoughts are all the more pervasive. However, first a trip home to our own political reality.

The High North still receives a chapter of its own for every new government platform. The new Norwegian government makes no exception to the rule.

Strengthened and renewed

Even in the headline, the platform announces “A New Boost to the High North”. The initiative should be “strengthened and renewed”, and “the negative population development should be turned around”. All this combined with “a powerful cross-sector initiative”. To achieve these goals, the government will, respectively, “contribute, strengthen, reinforce, initiate and further develop” the High North. In addition, we are Norway’s most important “peace project”.

Further south in Europe, in the EU capital of Brussels, the Arctic ambitions are on a rhetorical level quite similar to that of the Norwegian government platform. According to the EU’s new strategy, which was introduced earlier this month, the Arctic should be “safe, stable, sustainable, peaceful and economically successful”.

All the more reason for us to feel honored about the attention, this goodwill, that is lavished upon us.

At a sidewalk restaurant in Rome, I wonder what the words really mean

And there I am, at a sidewalk restaurant in Rome, after giving a lecture about the Arctic and the High North in the Italian capital, wondering what these words really mean.

Doubt wins

Even when I dig to the bottom of the documents surrounding us, into the core of what is potentially concrete, doubt conquers certainty about what the actual consequences of this rhetoric will be.

The EU is very concrete when it comes to the issue of oil and gas production in the Arctic. It should not take place. Norway is equally concrete in its answer. When it comes to oil and gas, it will be “business as usual”.

However, is the EU’s apparent offensive climate strategy in the Arctic anything other than an attempt to swipe the major internal, European climate conflicts under the rug?

The goals is ideal, and more or less in accordance with the UN’s expressed climate goals.

A ban on oil and gas production in the Arctic is also quite in keeping with the rather hopeless slogan the EU has turned into a standard tune in its Arctic terminology:

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”

A rather confused rewriting

Whoever thought out this rather confused rewriting of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” phrase has hopefully sent a hefty invoice to the right place.

What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic?

Because the truth is rather the opposite.

What happens in Europe, has a tendency to end up in the Arctic.

It is exactly the EU’s energy needs for its own industry that makes it profitable and desired to produce oil and gas in both the Norwegian and Russian part of the Arctic. And it is that very same industry that contributes to warming the Arctic which, in turn, will have consequences to the rest of the world in the form of a.o. rising sea levels.

If the EU wants to put an end to oil and gas activity in the High North, the union has the world’s most efficient weapon at its hand: They can stop buying it.

Internal collision

However, here the economic interests collide with the environmental interests in a complicated and bureaucratic EU. It is thus easier to agree on limiting business in the Arctic than on its own industry.

That does not mean that the EU’s climate engagement will not matter in the longer run. It just means that the hairy goals replace genuine negotiations so far.

The major Arctic challenge an accelerating population decline, with its both industrial and security policy consequences, does not find a solution in either the Norwegian government platform nor in the EU’s Arctic strategy.

It remains a genuine worry, one that is nevertheless not solved through pompous catchphrases and hopeful visions.

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This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.