The Arctic Council is an international forum that gathers eight Countries situated on the Arctic Sea: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, United States and Sweden - also involving the indigenous populations of the Arctic Circle. Its foundation dates back to the signing of the Ottawa Declaration in 1996, which had the aim to monitor and protect the Arctic environment, which is threatened by global warming.
The Council meets every six months with the participation of the high Arctic functionaries (SAO). The Council is divided into six work groups:
- Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP)
- Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF)
- Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR)
- Prevention of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME)
- Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG)
- Arctic Contaminants Action Programme (ACAP)
And two action plans: “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment” and “Arctic Human Development Report”.
The presidency change - that rotates among the eight member States - happens every two years with the Ministerial Conference, that often sees the participation of Foreign Ministers and in which the forum summons the achieved results and dictates new goals for cooperation.
A growing interest in the region
The interest about this area has been growing for the last decades and this is also evident considering the participation of new States to the forum. There is also the participation, with the special status of permanent observers, of China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, India, Switzerland and Italy - since it manages the Dirigibile Italia Arctic Station in the Svalbard Islands, in Norway. Moreover, there are also other non permanent observers: France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, Spain and the European Union.
What’s the reason for this crowding in this region? First of all, one of the reasons is the awareness of the melting of maritime glaciers, but there are actually other factors that catch the attention of the global powers that are far from the North Pole. One of these is the presence of energetic and mineral resources: it is estimated that 13% of the global oil resources yet to be discovered and 30% of natural gas ones are located in the Arctic, apart from a huge presence of coal, lead and nickel.
Even though the European Union is way more interested in environmental protection and the green transition, it is undeniable that the extraction of these resources would be precious for the achievement of European strategic autonomy. Russia is already extracting hydrocarbures - besides incrementing fishing, favoured by the temperature’s rise. Beijing’s interest should not be undervalued and it is also acquiring bases and infrastructures in the Arctic area.
The Arctic as a naval route and a border to defend
An inevitable consequence of the glaciers melting - accompanied by the development of ice breaking ships - is the increase of seaworthiness of the Arctic Sea, as it had already been happening for a long time during the Summer months. The nations surrounding the North Pole are becoming less and less distant. The Far East might become connected with Europe and this does not elude China and Japan. This aspect is considered as an opportunity, especially from Russia, that aims at moving more than 159 million of goods through the Arctic route by 2030: it actually invested 8 billion in infrastructures.
This will lead not only to the development of trades and connections, but also to the competition for resources and military tensions. NATO’s Countries are progressively surrounding Russia. Moscow already noticed it in February 2021, when it accused the United States to start the militarization of the region due to the transfer of bombers to Norwey. The area is strategic on a military level. Positioning missiles close to the North Pole means having a radius of action that reaches the whole northern hemisphere. This is concerning for everyone, both for Washington and Russia.
What future awaits us? Collaboration or competition?
The last Ministerial Council was held on May 29th in Reykjavik, with the transfer of the presidency from Iceland to Russia. Moscow declared wanting to cover its role pursuing its strategic goals, but the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov started the mandate with a more reassuring discourse. He confirmed the intention to pursue the environmental goals of the forum, even though he proceeded to express his concerns for NATO activities in Norway, later committing to maintain peace and religious stability of the region - something that has nothing to do with the reasons why the Arctic Council was established in the first place. It is undoubtedly a sign of the fact that the area is gaining a huge relevance, maybe a leading one. Will it be possible to institutionalize the forum in an international organization? For the first time, on the occasion of the twenty fifth anniversary of the Council, member Countries signed a strategic ten year plan that provides for measures to be implemented in the environmental field.
There is still the concern that the military tension in the Arctic might increase in the future. The collaboration between Russia and the West is now in crisis due to the Ukrainian conflict. It is possible to expect repercussions on other dialogue tables like the Arctic Council’s one, which remains one of the few regional forums in which Russia has a conversation with NATO’s members.
Translated by Immacolata Balestrieri