Aleksi Härkönen is Finland’s Ambassador for Arctic Affairs. This article originally appeared in The Circle 01.15.
In 2017, Finland will take its turn as the next Arctic state to chair the Arctic Council. Aleksi Härkönen says intensified cooperation between the Arctic states is crucial to meet this new era of challenges in the far north.
Finland´s long-standing priorities in Arctic activities are to preserve the Arctic environment, to encourage economic activity based on sustainable development, and to safeguard the stability of the Arctic region in cooperation with other countries and actors. We trust that these are goals that all Arctic states can share.
Finland as a whole is an Arctic country while Finns make up one third of the world’s population living above the 60th parallel. For Finland, cooperation through the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council has been a welcome addition to our foreign policy for the past two decades. Finland was one of the initiators, starting in 1991, of Arctic cooperation through the Rovaniemi Process, which concentrated on the preservation of endangered Arctic nature. We joined the Barents Euro-Arctic Council as a founding member in 1992. And we became one of the founding members of the Arctic Council in 1996.
The scope of Arctic activities has become broader over the years, and in order to formulate a more coherent policy Finland prepared a Strategy for the Arctic Region with the latest version issued in 2013. Finland will have parliamentary elections in the spring of 2015. The next government will undoubtedly emphasize Finland´s continuing interest in Arctic and Northern issues, given that Finland will chair the Arctic Council after the U.S. in 2017-19. But will the future of Arctic cooperation be as smooth as we have become accustomed to?
The first two decades of Arctic cooperation have produced some important results, in no small part due to the participation of Indigenous Peoples. The Saami are the only Indigenous People in the European Union, and their organizations are actively involved in Finland and elsewhere in Northern Europe. But clearly there are still many issues to be resolved, including some that are just emerging. The last thing we would want is an international atmosphere where badly needed next steps in Arctic activities would be impeded.
The question is how the Arctic countries are looking at their involvement. Will it be business as usual? Will common interests prevail? Will the present structures and methods of cooperation be sufficient? And what about the role of other countries with a growing interest in in the Arctic region?
Climate change is the most compelling reason to continue to intensify cooperation. This is the fundamental factor that will change the Arctic region profoundly. Global warming may proceed faster than predicted, especially in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.
Reaching a meaningful climate deal without delay is in the best interest of all Arctic countries, since the effects of non-action would leave our region vulnerable. It is encouraging that the U.S. sees climate issues as the number one priority in their chairmanship of the Arctic Council and we hope this pays off.
The international climate negotiations are, once more, approaching a decisive moment. A globally binding climate agreement will hopefully be concluded in 2015. The Arctic countries need to make a concerted, visible effort to positively contribute to the negotiations.
Another great challenge will be how increasing economic activity in the Arctic region will support the goal of sustainable development, while benefitting Indigenous and other local communities. Here the U.S. chairmanship agenda also offers several ways to move forward. Business organizations will have to be involved in economic development issues. We should look at ways to create a natural contact between the Arctic Council and the newly established Arctic Economic Council.
The U.S. has emphasized that it wants to prepare a program for the Arctic Council as a whole, not just for the country holding the chairmanship. Continuity is certainly a principle that Finland appreciates and we are keen to identify items on the U.S. chairmanship program that we could continue in ours.
In order to be successful, Arctic cooperation requires openness and trust among the stakeholders, especially the Arctic states. A spill-over from the rather turbulent state of international relations has, so far, been avoided for the most part. In Finland´s view, the decision to invite the European Union to participate as an observer to the Arctic Council should be implemented without delay. Without question, the EU is an important Arctic actor.
The U.S. chairmanship program for the Arctic Council was prepared with the understanding that the business of the Council will go on as usual while reflecting the aspirations that we all share as Arctic countries. When the time comes, Finland will prepare its chairmanship program based on the same values where possible. Considering the huge challenges ahead, Arctic cooperation will figure prominently.