Finland’s Arctic Council spotlight undermined by America and Russia

Disputes over climate change and black carbon emissions overshadow any modest achievements of Finland's Arctic Council chairmanship.

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File picture of iceberg in the Arctic / Credit: iStock

Politicians from eight Arctic nations and representatives from regional indigenous groups are meeting in Rovaniemi this week at the two-day Arctic Council Ministerial.

The meeting marks the end of Finland’s two-year Arctic Council chairmanship, which officials are at pains to say was a big success, but which in reality has been undermined by American and Russian domestic policy rhetoric and environmental heel-dragging.

“We have achieved progress in all our selected priority areas” says Finland’s caretaker foreign minister Timo Soini (Blue).

But that doesn’t really paint an accurate picture, with disagreements over wording on climate change and whether there will even be a joint communique from all the participating countries overshadowing the Rovaniemi event.

Arctic Council flags / Credit: Ulkoministeriö

Explaining the Arctic Council 

Founded in the mid-1990s, the Arctic Council aims to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common issues – in particular sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

“We must remember that the Arctic Council, after 23 years of existence, only remains a simple consensus-based forum with no independent law-making authority” explains Mikå Mered, Professor of Arctic and Antarctic geopolitics at the ILERI School of International Relations in Paris.

“The quality of its work is entirely based on its member states’ good will […] I believe keeping all players onboard, genuinely active and cooperative, and bringing them to Rovaniemi is an achievement that shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated” Mered explains.

Just managing to keep the show on the road as a sign of success is a sentiment echoed by Dr. Harri Mikkola, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA, who describes the last two years as “more or less business as usual” in terms of the efforts of the Arctic Council working groups, if not any government-level agreement on Finland’s goals.

“The Finnish chairmanship started in a difficult situation. Russia’s foreign policy behaviour had turned more assertive, aggressive and revisionist” explains Mikkola, recalling a time when seven out of eight Arctic Council member states had imposed sanctions against Russia after it’s illegal invasion and occupation of Crimea.

“Trump’s negative stance towards multilateralism, international cooperation and climate change was – and is – severely against Finnish chairmanship goals” Mikkola says.

Russia also failed to submit the required information about its black carbon emissions, one of the goals of the last Arctic Council Ministerial meeting held two years ago in Alaska. Since then, the USA also withdrew from the common reduction goals agreed in Fairbanks.

“Yes, no new major agreements between the eight Arctic states is about to be signed in Rovaniemi, but let’s not act like we’re disappointed as if we were taking Arctic cooperation for granted” says Professor Mered.

Inside the venue of the Arctic Council Ministerial, Rovaniemi 2019 / Credit: Ville Cantell Twitter

Official ‘Rovaniemi Declaration’ in the balance 

The biggest unknown in Lapland as the conference gets underway on Monday morning is whether there will be enough agreement on all sides for an official ‘Rovaniemi Declaration’ to be signed.

America is the big hold-out on this, with the Trump Administration opposed to any mentions of collective action on climate change or the Paris Agreement

Several reports in recent days have indicated that the US is becoming less hardline over the declaration wording, with one Finnish official Aleksi Härkönen quoted as saying he thinks there is a “willingness to make compromises”.

“The Finnish chairmanship will be more importantly determined by what will happen with the Rovaniemi Ministerial Declaration” says FIIA’s Dr Harri Mikkola.

“If there won’t be a Declaration, or if there is no clear mention about common commitment to fight climate change in the Arctic and continue the related international cooperation in the Arctic Council, then it would be a serious and unfortunate example how global politics – or in this case also US domestic politics – would spill over to the Arctic cooperation, which until this day has been quite successfully compartmentalised from the problems in international politics elsewhere in the globe” he explains.

So what did Finland achieve?

The troublemaking of Russia and America aside, there has been progress over the last two years on a number of issues.

One of the biggest success stories being trumpeted by Finnish officials is how they got meteorologists to start sharing more information.

“Meteorological cooperation between the World Meteorological Organisation and the Arctic Council has intensified and the Council’s working groups now have a better access to WMO’s know-how and expertise” says Dr. Mikkola.

The head of the WMO Petteri Taalas is a Finn, so better communication now is not perhaps so surprising.

“This week in Rovaniemi important milestones regarding ocean acidification, black carbon, marine litter, microplastics, and even community-based responses to oil pollution will be presented and debated amongst ministers” explains Mered.

“It would be difficult to argue that Finland hasn’t done a good job […] as the next country to assume the presidency of the Council of the European Union this July, Finland will have a fantastic opportunity to keep the Arctic high on the agenda”.