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A more inclusive Arctic Council faces new challenges

The Arctic Council's ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, this week highlighted the global interest in the Arctic region. The fact that six non-Arctic states (China, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore) were granted permanent observer status indicates an opening up of the Council to the world and signifies a breakthrough that rejects ideas of Arctic isolationism.

In particular, the Council’s deeper engagement will encourage China to pay serious attention to legitimate environmental concerns pertaining to shipping and possible resource exploration in the fragile Arctic environment. 

Nordic states have strengthened the Council

All eight Arctic Council member states have now had an opportunity to sit in the chairman’s seat. Sweden, whose two-year chairmanship of the Council ended this week, has not pushed its national interests firmly in the Council, preferring instead to act as an honest broker.

Over the past six years—in which three Nordic states, Norway, Denmark and Sweden—held the chair position—the Council has been significantly strengthened institutionally. It is clearly taking steps to become an international organization.

The Arctic states have negotiated two legally binding agreements—on search and rescue, and on marine oil pollution preparedness and response. The Council has also established a Secretariat in Tromsø, Norway. This indicates a development from a decision shaping to decision making institution.

Prospects of Canada’s chairmanship uncertain

For the second time since its inception in 1996, the Arctic Council will now be chaired by Canada, a country which by geography and national identity perceives itself as an Arctic superpower. Canada’s stated priorities are to develop the Arctic region economically and improve the livelihoods of Arctic communities.

However, some Arctic stakeholders have raised concerns that much of the environmental agenda might get lost in the process and that the coming two years will see a Council preoccupied with a Canadian, rather than a circumpolar agenda. 

Canada has strong economic and political interests in the Arctic. One of those interests became obvious during the Kiruna meeting when the European Union’s bid for permanent observer status was stalled because of the EU’s ban on seal skin products, which is not popular with the Canadian indigenous population. 

The Nordic chairmanships may prove tough acts to follow. Given the transparency and openness that characterized the Swedish chairmanship, together with the Council’s institutional development and acceptance of new observers, the pressure is now on Canada to affirm that the Arctic is headed towards a new stage of multilateral cooperation.