Tromsø conference raises questions over Finland’s Arctic priorities

Trade Minister Ville Skinnari (SDP) will attend the event so does Finland view the Arctic as a commodity or a place for conservation?

File picture of Tromsø, Norway / Credit: iStock

An Arctic conference in northern Norway, attended by Minister of Trade Ville Skinnari (SDP) raises questions about whether Finland sees the region as a commodity, or a conservation project.

The 2020 Arctic Frontiers event is being held in the town of Tromsø this week and while there are many national and local government leaders, representatives from indigenous groups and universities attending, there are also invitees from a shipping company; the European Space Agency; a petroleum company; big finance; and the US military – as well as a minister from the Singapore government.

So with Finland sending the Minister of Trade – instead of, say, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, or Minister for Agriculture and Forestry – what sort of message does this relay about how Finland views the Arctic region?

“Finland, as an Arctic nation and a permanent member of the Arctic Council, very highly values the regular high level conferences on Arctic issues which are convened in Europe, and elsewhere, throughout the year” explains Petteri Vuorimäki, Finland’s Ambassador for Arctic and Antarctic Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In the last year then-Prime Minister Antti Rinne (SDP) attended the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik; Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) went to the Arctic Forum in Umeå; and Environment Minister Krista Mikkonen (Green) attended the Arctic Spirit event in Rovaniemi last November.

“There certainly are a multitude of meetings and conferences on Arctic issues taking place at different levels but that is only the demonstration of the interest towards the region” Vuorimäki tells News Now Finland.

“As an Arctic nation and as a permanent member of the Arctic Council, Finland is pleased with the international interest towards the region” he adds.

File picture of polar bear walking on Arctic pack ice / Credit: iStock

Finland’s Arctic policies

Raising the issue of Arctic environmental protection has become something of a ‘stump speech’ for President Sauli Niinistö in recent years.

He’s also attended Arctic events, like the International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg in 2019, to give his pitch on climate change, and how the Arctic region is impacted by black carbon emissions in particular. .

“We have waited too long before taking action” Niinistö told the St. Petersburg conference last April.

But he concedes there are economic and business interests in the region: with thawing ice revealing more land for cultivation; more areas that can be exploited for mineral rights; and thawing seas which open up year-round shipping lanes from Asia to Europe.

“It is clear to all of us that there is a growing strategic and economic interest in the Arctic” said Niinistö.

“As the natural and political climates are changing, many actors see new opportunities in this region. And not all of those actors are Arctic by definition” he added – a likely nod to China, India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore who are all Arctic Council observers and following developments in the region very much with their own economic interests in mind.

However, Ambassador Vuorimäki says environmental protection and business interests are not mutually exclusive in the north.

“The Arctic region is confronted with new challenges but also new opportunities and we must always strive to reach the balance between these. But business is not bad for environment, only unsustainable business is. We should leave behind the understanding that environmental protection constitutes a cost because environmental protection always benefits the economy” he says.

File picture of Kemijoki river, Rovaniemi, in winter / Credit: iStock

Writing a new Arctic Strategy 

Finland’s current Arctic Strategy was drawn up by Juha Sipila‘s (Centre) government in 2017 and says that Finland should be “an active player” in the Arctic region, but in a “sustainable manner, seeking growth, competitiveness and employment with due respect for the environment.”

In the current government programme there’s a pledge to renew the strategy Finland’s Arctic strategy where there are also foreign and security policy considerations to take into account.

“Environmental protection, combating climate change but also sustainable development remain the cornerstones of Arctic cooperation” says Ambassador Vuorimäki.

“At the same time, all our efforts must be undertaken in respect of and cooperation with the indigenous and local communities living in the Arctic. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience in living in the Arctic region and they can see in their daily lives the climatic changes which are underway”.