Egill Thor Nielsson

The Arctic is undergoing rapid changes and has in the last century moved from being a largely unknown part of the world to a global hotspot. In recent times the Arctic region has started to carry more weight in geo-economic terms than before, due to its promises of vast amounts of attainable mineral resources and feasible Arctic shipping routes. These discourses have mainly emphasised the larger and more powerful Arctic players, while sparsely populated places such as Iceland, Faroe Islands and to some extent Greenland are seldom in the foreground. This briefing note seeks to explain how West Nordic cooperation has grown in the past 30 years, both internally and externally, and how the West Nordic council members can influence Arctic developments in a stronger manner, by identifying common Arctic interests and goals, which can then be implemented through a joint West Nordic Arctic strategy.

This opportunity will be looked at through the following questions:

  • What is the West Nordic Council and how does West Nordic cooperation work?
  • How can the West Nordic countries increase their Arctic cooperation and the influence they hold in a gradually more global Arctic?

The Origins and Rational for West Nordic Cooperation

The West Nordic Parliamentarian Council of Cooperation was formed in Nuuk in 1985 and its establishment created a formal cooperation between the parliaments of the three West Nordic countries, namely: Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands1 (Althingi, 2013a). The council was created following political discussions in the three countries during the early 1980s, after home rule was introduced in Greenland 1979. Its rational was: to cooperate on common problems and to conduct positive and constructive cooperation regarding West Nordic, or North Atlantic, issues with the Nordic Council as well as other organisations (West Nordic Council, n.d.).

The cooperation has strong roots given that the three countries are geographical neighbours and share many historical and cultural bonds, as well as basic natural and economic conditions; in terms of (often harsh) living conditions in small and isolated communities, highly dependent on adaptation to their natural surroundings and especially the use of maritime resources (see Althing, 2011; ibid, 2013a; Thór, Thorleifsen, Mortensen, & Marquardt, 2012; West Nordic Council, n.d.).

The West Nordic Council

The West Nordic Council and Its Arctic Engagement 3 Arctic Yearbook 2013 In the year 1997 a new charter was agreed upon by the three respective West Nordic national parliaments and the council's name was changed from the West Nordic Parliamentarian Council of Cooperation to the West Nordic Council. Subsequently, the council undertook some changes by introducing new working rules and strengthening its goals (Althingi, 2013b). Broadening its focus from cultural/social purposes (Bailes and Heininen, 2012: 73), to include amongst other issues increased political and economic cooperation (West Nordic Council, n.d.). The West Nordic Council meets twice every year, once for an annual general meeting, which constitutes as the council's supreme authority, and once for a theme conference. Its work is then realised through recommendations approved at the annual general meeting, which are then presented to the member countries parliaments and executed by the appropriate minister (West Nordic Council, n.d.a). In recent years the West Nordic Council has given recommendations on various issues, including search and rescue, resources and transportation, cultural and environmental affairs, as well as foreign affairs – with Arctic issues at the forefront (Althingi, 2013b; West Nordic Council, 2012).

The main objectives of the West Nordic Council are defined on the council's website (West Nordic Council, n.d.):

  • To promote west Nordic (north Atlantic) interests.
  • To be guardians of north Atlantic resources and north Atlantic culture and to help promoting West Nordic interests through the West Nordic governments – not least with regards to the serious issues of resource management, pollution etc.
  • To follow up on the government's west Nordic cooperation.
  • To work with the Nordic Council and to be the west Nordic link in Nordic cooperation.
  • To act as the parliamentary link for inter-west Nordic organisations, including Arctic parliamentary cooperation.

A Surge in West Nordic Cooperation

In the past few years there has been a surge in bilateral cooperation between the three West Nordic countries, especially cooperation between Iceland and the two autonomous countries within the Commonwealth of the Realm of Denmark. This includes, (1) a comprehensive bilateral free-trade agreement between Iceland and Faroe Islands (the Hoyvik Agreement, ratified in 2006)2, which "applies to trade in goods and services, movement of persons and right of residence, movement of capital and investment, competition, state aid and public procurement" (Althingi, 2011: 8). There have also been on-going discussions about Greenland joining the agreement (thus creating a West Nordic free-trade zone)3; (2) the establishment of a Greenland-Iceland Chamber of Commerce in 2012 (GLIS, n.d.)4; and (3) in September 2013 Iceland became the first country to set up a consulate in Greenland5, 6 (Icelandic Prime Minister's Office, 2013).

The West Nordic Council and its External Affairs

The West Nordic Council offers the three small countries in question an interesting platform to, amongst other things, increase their economic cooperation and conduct foreign affairs, not the least concerning Arctic affairs. For Greenland (and to some extent Faroe Islands) it is one of few venues where it conducts international cooperation without Denmark's supervision, with the only other notable exception for such cooperation forums being NAMMCO (North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission) (see Kingdom of Denmark Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011: 53; Naalakkersuisut, n.d.). The West Nordic Council has in recent years started to apply its goals in a broader range of West Nordic, Nordic, European and Arctic cooperation than before, formalising such cooperation with agreements signed: in 2002, on cooperation between the West Nordic Council and the governments of the West Nordics; in 2006, providing the West Nordic Council more influence within the Nordic Council through increased representation and recommendations, as well as with consideration of West Nordic Council's resolutions; and again in 2008, when the West Nordic Council made an agreement with the European Parliament on regular meetings for information and cooperation (Althingi, 2013a).

The West Nordic Council's closest collaborator is the Nordic Council, which sees the "Nordic Region's neighbours to the west" (The West Nordic Council) as, "actually an internal Nordic body" (Nordic Council, n.d.). The two councils work together on key issues of the West Nordic Region and the West Nordic Council has speaking rights at the Nordic Council's sessions.7 The West Nordic Council furthermore plays a role in the Nordic Council's external Arctic cooperation with its North American and North European neighbours (Nordic Council, n.d.). The Nordic Council of Ministers has observer status in the Arctic Council (Nordic Council, n.d.), while the West Nordic Council and Nordic Council are members of a complimentary forum to the Arctic Council named the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region (CPAR, n.d.). The importance of Arctic affairs has grown in the past few years within the Nordic Council and the West Nordic Council, with both councils planning to The West Nordic Council and Its Arctic Engagement publish their own joint Arctic strategies to better safeguard their Arctic interests8 (Nordic Council, 2012; West Nordic Council, 2012).

The idea behind the West Nordic Council's Arctic strategy is that the three small countries are stronger unified than separate and they should increase co-operation on Arctic affairs in fields where the member states have shared interests, including a common stance on outside interest in the West Nordic region; and to deliver joint recommendations for the Nordic Council's upcoming Arctic strategy (West Nordic Council, 2012). The Nordic Council's Arctic strategy is likely to yield more global influence than the West Nordic Arctic Strategy, including within the Arctic Council (see Althingi, 2013a). A clear example that the West Nordic Countries do not hold the influence their strategic Arctic position could possibly render them was visible at the Arctic Council's ministerial meeting in Kiruna 2013. Greenland ended up boycotting the meeting altogether, not accepting being side-lined from decisions affecting their everyday lives (Nunatsiaq, 2013). The overall weak representation of the West Nordic Council countries in the Kiruna meeting underlines the importance of a strong common West Nordic Arctic strategy with the ability to influence the Nordic and Arctic Councils' work in a more persuasive way. The countries may also be able to strengthen their Arctic position by contributing to other complimentary initiatives to the Arctic Council, such as the Arctic Circle initiative that aims "to facilitate dialogue and build relationships to confront the Arctic's greatest challenges" (Arctic Circle, 2013). Such forums can provide a valuable venue for both Arctic outsiders and insiders with weaker voices but strategic positions, e.g. the West Nordic Countries.

The West Nordic in Arctic Policies

The West Nordic countries also have their independent Arcticstrategies, the most recent being the Parliamentary Resolution for Iceland's Arctic Policy (Althingi, 2011) and a Kingdom of Denmark Strategy for the Arctic 2011-2020 (Kingdom of Denmark Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). The latter is a joint Arctic Strategy based on an "equal partnership" between Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The Kingdom's aim is to maintain the Arctic as a peaceful, secure and safe region in political terms, whilst promoting both sustainable growth and development economically. The strategy has an international outlook with a strong focus on international cooperation and economic activities, including a positive notion towards the West Nordic Council and other organisations promoting regional or sector-organised interests (Kingdom of Denmark Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). Both Greenland and Faroe Islands also independently highlight the importance of West Nordic Cooperation within their own governments, with the Greenland government's website citing that its "[s]pecial cooperation with Iceland and the Faroe Islands is organised through the Nordic Atlantic Cooperation and the West Nordic Foundation" (Naalakkersuisut, n.d.), while the Faroe Islands encourages that "[a] joint West Nordic approach in Arctic cooperation, together with Iceland, Greenland and northern Norway, should be promoted and enhanced" in their strategic assessment titled "The Faroe Islands – a Nation in the Arctic: Opportunities and Challenges" (Faroe Islands Prime Minister's Office, 2013).

The Icelandic Arctic strategy is more specific in its approach concerning its West Nordic partners, naming only Greenland and the Faroe Islands9 and the importance of strengthening and increasing the cooperation between the three countries with the aim of promoting their interests and political position. There is a special emphasis on economic cooperation, and the issues identified for Arctic cooperation include trade, energy, resource utilisation, environmental issues and tourism. The strategy states that "increased cooperation between the West Nordic countries will strengthen their international and economic position as well as their politico-security dimension" (Althingi, 2011: 8). Iceland's stress on West Nordic cooperation within an Arctic context only seems to be growing. This can be seen in the reports of the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Icelandic Parliament in recent years (see e.g. Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011; ibid., 2012; ibid., 2013a) and in a political manifesto of the current Icelandic government, which says: "the Government will work towards making Iceland a leading power in the Arctic and an engaged participant in West Nordic affairs" (Government Offices of Iceland, 2013: 11).

Strengthening the West Nordic: Cooperation and Clear Arctic Vision

It is important to keep in mind that there are some fields where the countries do not have aligned Arctic interests, the most pervasive issue perhaps being the "Arctic Five" (A5) meetings of the Arctic ocean Coastal States. These meetings are promoted by the government of Denmark while Iceland, amongst others, has openly voiced its concern of the A5 exclusive manner by not including Iceland, Sweden, Finland nor the Aboriginal peoples of the Arctic but discussing matters that should rather be resolved within the Arctic The West Nordic Council and Its Arctic Engagement Council (Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 2010). Even though competition possibilities between West Nordic actors in terms of business opportunities such as transhipment-hubs, search and rescue centres, tourism etc. have been making the news in recent times, there are greater possibilities for cooperation than conflict between the various stakeholders in the West Nordic region.

Increased cooperation potential is to be found especially in a field such as energy, where all actors have sovereign rights over their resources and ideas such as a "North Atlantic Energy Triangle for offshore oil exploration and production, covering East Greenland, to the Jan Mayen Ridge and south to the Icelandic Dreki Area" has been proposed by Mr. Össur Skarphedinsson, who served as Iceland's Minister for Foreign Affairs 2009-2013 (Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 2013b), as well as cooperation on renewable energy utilisation in the West Nordic region that shows great potential with the hydro and geothermal energy in Greenland and Iceland (see e.g. Kingdom of Denmark Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011; Landsvirkjun, n.d.).

Despite much enthusiasm to get the economies "on track" with the vast number of economic opportunities that lie ahead, the countries can learn from its previous mistakes and not overheat their economies (see Gudjonsson, 2010; VIB, 2013). Although the focus is primarily economic in this briefing it should not be forgotten who the economies are serving, as the Arctic is first and foremost a home for its inhabitants and it is vital that West Nordic cooperation focuses also on cultural, environmental and healthcare issues10 etc. (see West Nordic Council, n.d.). These issues touch strong common interests and show how important Arctic cooperation between the West Nordic countries can be and underline that they have much more to gain from cooperation with each other than playing solo, thus strengthening the voice of West Nordic societies and their increased influence in the Arctic. An important step in this direction could be for the three governments to identify where they can increase their Arctic cooperation, utilising the West Nordic Council and other platforms with potential to reach common goals.


The West Nordic cooperation has taken significant steps in the past few years, with the West Nordic Council establishing itself as a meaningful platform for West Nordic political cooperation - building on strong cultural ties and mutual economic benefits. Judging from the West Nordic countries governments' strong emphasis on the West Nordic Council's further development and international cooperation, which includes a strong Arctic focus, it is likely that the Council will keep on growing stronger. With the Arctic's rising geo-economic and strategic importance, as well as the challenges the region faces due to stressors such as climate change, it is important that the West Nordic region works closer and more intensively together towards becoming a more active player in forming the Arctic's future development in economic, environmental, cultural, legal and political terms. This is no small task and a joint West Nordic Arctic strategy would be an important factor in this process, as the West Nordic countries are and will be local stakeholders in a global Arctic with their livelihoods depending on the prudent development and good governance of the Arctic's resources.


  1. The two latter countries are part of the Kingdom of Denmark (which is made up by Denmark, Greenland and Faroe Islands). Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944, after having gained limited home rule in 1874. For the purpose of this analysis the focus will be on these three countries direct cooperation, separate from Denmark.
  2. "Relations between Iceland and the Faroe Islands have been close in most areas, particularly in the field of culture and business. The entry into force of the Hoyvik Free Trade Agreement, which is the most extensive trade agreement ever made by Iceland, has been a turning point in relations between the countries for the last three years" (Althingi, 2011: 8).
  3. This possibility has been discussed within the West Nordic Council and during the council's annual general meeting in Gjógv, Faroe Islands, 3.–7. September 2012, some of Greenland's representatives declared interest in making Greenland a member of the Hoyvik Agreement (Althingi, 2013a). And the parliament of Greenland is currently an observer of the Hoyvik Agreement's parliamentary committee (Althingi, 2013b).
  4. There have also been some interesting debates recently in Iceland on private investment opportunities in Greenland (see VIB, 2013).
  5. "Relations between Iceland and Greenland have intensified in recent years through more frequent political consultation and increased trade. Air services between the countries have grown, contracting businesses from Iceland are working in Greenland and cooperation on health care issues has been successful." (Althingi, 2011: 8).
  6. All these developments strengthen the possibility of Greenland to join the Hoyvik Agreement, as Gunvør Balle, a representative in the Faroe Islands delegation and former
    general consulate of Faroe Islands in Iceland, pointed out during the West Nordic Council's annual general meeting. Claiming that it is important to open consulates in other West Nordic Countries at the same time, or before, Greenland becomes part of the Hoyvik Agreement (Althingi, 2013a). Previously, the Faroe Islands and Iceland both have consulates in each other's capitals.
  7. The Nordic Council of Ministers and West Nordic Council convey their meeting time and place.
  8. Per Augustsson (2011) offers an interesting take on a common Nordic Arctic strategy in his article: Towards a common strategy for the Arctic: The Nordic countries can lead the way.
  9. Not including coastal Northern Norway as a West Nordic partner.
  10. That was in the foreground of the 2013 theme conference.

Egill Thor Nielsson is a Visiting Scholar at the Polar Research Institute of China, China.

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