Unnur Bra Konradsdóttir & Egill Thor Nielsson
The global Arctic has arrived. At the Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Sweden last year it was decided to welcome new observer states, so from now on China, India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, together with Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, are in concert with the United States, Russia and other Arctic countries in a constructive dialogue on the future of the Arctic.
The Arctic has, in economic and political terms, truly become a new frontier. Its development will increasingly have implications internationally with regard to globalization, economic progress, environmental protection, energy exploration and international security. This year alone, the historic transformation of the Arctic is discussed at conferences focused exclusively on Arctic affairs in locations as diverse as Prince George, Washington D.C., Reykjavík, Brussels, Murmansk, Shanghai and Seoul.
The Arctic is a huge region, covering more than 1/6 of the Earth’s landmass and estimated to hold about 1/5 of the planet’s remaining natural resources. Its inhabitants form an important Arctic identity. However, it embraces many separate areas with their own set of local priorities and issues. One such Arctic unity is the West Nordic region, consisting of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which has, at times, been somewhat overlooked by Arctic observers.
The West Nordic region is considerably significant in Arctic terms. Due to Greenland’s vastness, it covers over 20% of the Arctic’s landmass and is home to 10% of the over four million Arctic inhabitants. The three nations all have well-educated and young workforces, as well as being rich in both offshore and onshore resources. Many of the economic opportunities in the West Nordic Arctic are based on tangible value-creation drawing on raw materials and expertise in industries of global relevance. Potential exists for the further expansion of sectors such as energy, mining, tourism, R&D, transportation, infrastructure, services and seafood.
Resource utilization and future societal development in the West Nordic Arctic comply with the Arctic House Rules (a term coined by H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, President of Iceland), which provide for open dialogue, scientific knowledge and indigenous peoples’ participation in the development of Arctic affairs.
Regional cooperation between the three West Nordic countries has strong roots. They are each other’s closest neighbors and share many fundamentally similar historical and cultural bonds and natural and economic conditions. In the face of harsh living conditions in small and isolated communities that are highly dependent on their natural surroundings and maritime resources, they have, thanks to the resilience of their inhabitants, built modern societies with high living standards.
The West Nordic Council was established in 1985. It is among the oldest pan-Arctic multilateral cooperation mechanisms, spanning three decades of parliamentary cooperation between the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland. Arctic affairs have risen to the very top of the West Nordic Council’s agenda and in recent years the Council has focused on important regional issues such as search and rescue, welfare, health, gender, youth, infrastructure, transportation, hunting, tourism and natural resources, including seafood and energy. Increasingly these core issues for the West Nordic area have been coupled with a more outward-oriented vision with regards to the geostrategic importance of the West Nordic Arctic and the vast natural resources of the region.
During the last few years, concrete measures have been taken to further the West Nordic Council’s Arctic agenda. These include a recommendation to the national governments to strengthen their co-operation on Arctic issues and to design a common West Nordic Strategy for the Arctic. Next year’s annual theme for the Conference of the Council will be devoted to this topic. A report on Arctic economic cooperation between the three countries has also been produced and the West Nordic Council recently urged the three governments to conclude a West Nordic free trade agreement, thus creating a common economic area to strengthen the regional economy and its export capabilities to global markets.
An Arctic push is taking place and it is up to the people in the West Nordic Arctic to decide what we want to do with the vast opportunities in our own area and respond to the prospect of the region’s increasing importance in an evolving world order. As the Arctic Council continues to define its own role and welcomes new partners in the Arctic region, it is of the highest importance that new and old global Arctic players respect the existing Arctic House Rules and that both opportunities and challenges are met in a cooperative and constructive manner.
The West Nordic Council has contributed to this process and will continue to do so. This includes welcoming outside partners to the region, while honoring the principle of prudent development of Arctic resources on which the livelihood of the communities depends.