Crowd of people attending Arctic Circle Conference 2015. Photo: Arctic Circle
UK House of Lords Report on ‘Responding to a Changing Arctic’: A More Confident Statement of British Interest?
Last week, the House of Lords published it’s first-ever report on the Arctic.1)The report is available form: www.parliament.uk/arcticcom The headline recommendation from the report is that the UK should follow other non-Arctic states in appointing an ‘Arctic Ambassador’ to ensure greater focus on and co-ordination of UK Arctic affairs.2)I made the case for this recommendation in the evidence paper that I submitted to this enquiry: bit.ly/2ArAqxM
The report lays out a significant body of evidence to show that the UK has good reasons to be interested and engaged in Arctic affairs, and calls on the UK government to take a more self-confident and proactive approach to Arctic policy development, describing its attitude to date as “too hesitant and cautious” (p. 6).
Lacking in self-confidence is, of course, certainly not a description that could have been applied to events at last year’s Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland where a 60-strong British delegation (comprised of parliamentarians, scientists, business leaders, and academics and a video message from the Foreign Secretary) caused quite the stir.3)D. Depledge, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off’, 3 November 2014, RHUL Geopolitics & Security, rhulgeopolitics.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/youre-only-supposed-to-blow-the-bloody-doors-off/ The performance in Reykjavik came in reaction to the claim made a year earlier by the long-standing President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, that the UK had shown a lack of political and economic interest in the Arctic. However, as the report from the House of Lords suggests, there remains real concern about how effectively the UK is engaging with potential Arctic partners.
The crux of the issue is that UK government officials still seem unsure about how best to negotiate access to the Arctic for British stakeholders (including scientists, businesses, environmental NGOs, among others). The emergence of the circumpolar bloc of Arctic states in the 1980s and 1990s has forced UK government officials to be more sensitive about how they express UK interest in the region.4)C. Keskitalo (2007). ‘International Region-Building: Development of the Arctic as an International Region’, Cooperation and Conflict, 42 (2), pp. 187-205. In the UK, this concern was evident in the adoption of an Arctic ‘Policy Framework’ rather than a ‘Strategy’ in 2013: the latter having been deemed too provocative by Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) officials.5)D. Depledge (2013). ‘What’s in a name? A UK Arctic policy framework in 2013’, The Geographical Journal, 179 (4), pp. 369-372.
Related to this is the question that was raised in 2014 by the British geographer, Richard Powell, when he asked whether the Arctic actually needs the UK to show an interest in the region. Powell rightly warned that if politicians were simply responding to a modern-day “call of the Arctic”, then the UK ran the risk of being perceived as a neo-colonial power in the Arctic.6)R. C. Powell (2013). ‘Subarctic Backyards? Britain, Scotland, and the Paradoxical Politics of the European High North’, The Northern Review, 37, pp. 87-100.
Claims that the UK’s interests should be privileged over other ‘less Arctic’ states on the basis that the UK is the most proximate to the region – as the Arctic’s ‘nearest neighbour’ – also risk a backlash.7)H. Exner-Pirot, ‘The British Invasion – The Arctic Circle and observer states’, 10 November 2014, Eye on the Arctic, www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2014/11/10/blog-the-british-invasion-the-arctic-circle-and-observer-states/ As other geographers such as Stuart Elden have observed, rooting geopolitical claims in the naturalness of the ‘Earth’ has often been partnered by a more unpleasant politics of geographical determinism.8)S. Elden, ‘Re-thinking geopolitics’, 17 January 2013, Progressive Geographies, progressivegeographies.com/2013/01/17/earth-rethinking-geopolitics/
Undoubtedly then, the answer is ‘no’, the Arctic does not need the UK. The peoples and states of the Arctic are perfectly capable of charting their own course towards the future development or conservation of the Arctic. Yet what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic, and the UK, along with many other countries, will increasingly feel the ramifications of both the changing materiality and geopolitics of the region in the coming years (whether through shifting weather patterns, economic geographies, scientific discoveries or international tensions).
However, it is only by actually being present as ‘partners’ in the Arctic that British stakeholders are likely to add value to Arctic affairs, and be welcome north of the Arctic Circle. At the same time, Arctic states and peoples cannot expect the UK government to increase its investment in Arctic affairs without fair expectation of tangible rewards in terms of participation and representation. This theme is clearly visible throughout the House of Lords report.
Another new round of parliamentary scrutiny
This latest round of parliamentary scrutiny of UK Arctic policy was led by a House of Lords Ad-Hoc Select Committee, established in 2014 with a remit to complete its investigations before the end of the current Parliament.9)Arctic issues have previously been debated by the House of Lords in 2007 and 2010. See K. Dodds, ‘UK and the Arctic: House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic’, 13 June 2014, RHUL Geopolitics & Security, rhulgeopolitics.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/uk-and-the-arctic-house-of-lords-select-committee-on-the-arctic/ The main aim of this ‘Committee’ was to:
“consider recent and expected changes in the Arctic and their implications for the UK and its international relations, and to make recommendations” (p. 9).
In total, the Committee called on 61 witnesses to provide oral evidence at hearings which have taken place in Westminster over the last year. A further 68 pieces of evidence were taken in writing. Witnesses included government officials, foreign dignitaries, Arctic scientists, representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples organisations (including the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and representatives of the Sámi Parliament of Norway), policy analysts, business leaders, environmental NGOs and academics. In addition to these hearings, members of the Committee visited Svalbard and Tromsø in northern Norway, attended the 2014 Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region in Whitehorse, Canada, and also participated in the Arctic Circle Assembly meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. Recognising that Arctic issues are likely to remain important to future generations, the Committee also hosted a debate in London to hear the views of British schoolchildren.
The title of the Committee’s report, “Responding to a changing Arctic”, immediately strikes a different chord to that of the last Parliamentary committee to scrutinise UK Arctic policy. In 2013, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee issued a report titled “Protecting the Arctic” which was explicitly concerned with the question of what more the UK should be doing in the Arctic to help protect it from oil and gas development.10)For more information , see the Environmental Audit Committee website, www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/protecting-the-arctic/ In contrast, the House of Lords Committee has been wide-ranging in its engagement with Arctic issues. Rather than treating the Arctic as something to be ‘saved’ or otherwise ‘protected’, the Committee appears to have been more interested in how changes in the Arctic region might serve as a provocation to the UK to rethink its relationships with the region.
Also noticeable is the Committee’s willingness to challenge more or less established UK government policy towards the Arctic, especially in the areas of energy security and diplomatic relations with Russia. With respect to the former, it has been the long-held position of the UK government to support all hydrocarbon development on a non-discriminatory basis as this would help to stabilise global energy markets and increase the UK’s security of supply. In light of the recent crash in the global oil price, however, the Committee has seen fit to call for Arctic stakeholders to take some time to reflect on whether Arctic hydrocarbon development can be done sustainably and, even more starkly, where it is necessary at all.
With respect to relations with Russia, the UK has joined the EU and US in adopting a tough position on Russia’s actions in relation to the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine. This includes supporting sanctions targeting Russian oil development in the Arctic. While the Committee has not dwelled extensively on these sanctions, it has called for the UK government to do everything possible to insulate the Arctic from the fallout of the Ukraine crisis. One reading of this is that the Committee is suggesting the UK government might need to reconsider the sanctions regime as it currently relates to Russia’s Arctic interests.
In line with the Committee’s criticism of UK Arctic policy as being “more reactive than proactive” (p. 94), it is unsurprising that the headline recommendations from their report are all concerned with increasing the UK’s engagement with Arctic issues. The following sums up these key recommendations:
- Appoint a UK Ambassador for the Arctic, to ensure greater focus on and co-ordination of Arctic affairs in Government;
- Help build the capacity of indigenous peoples organisations, support the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat and look to provide training and scholarship for representatives of these organisations to attend UK academic institutions, and secondments to and from its public bodies;
- Establish a substantial and better co-ordinated long-term programme of Arctic research, ensuring fully effective UK representation on Arctic Council bodies, and involving relevant partners from UK industry;
- The UK Government should involve itself in discussions regarding the future of fish stocks in the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean, seeking a moratorium on fishing in this area until a recognised management regime is agreed;
- Give urgent attention to developing a pan-Arctic search and rescue strategy along with the Arctic states.
Connecting the UK to the Arctic
The Committee has grounded its recommendations in a considered assessment of the various ways the UK is connected – or indeed, could be further connected – to the Arctic. Some of these connections will be familiar to those that have tracked UK Arctic policy, especially those relating UK Arctic science and technology, the UK’s observer status at the Arctic Council, and the economic opportunities for UK-based oil, gas and mining companies, as well as the maritime financial services sector in London.
However, other connections are also made which have generally received less attention in the past, most notably the UK’s military and defence interests, the UK’s concern about the issue of fisheries management in the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean, the UK’s contribution to Arctic search and rescue, and the UK’s strong support for the EU to be granted observer status at the Arctic Council. There is also an extensive discussion (running to six pages) of the UK’s relationship with Arctic indigenous peoples’ – a relationship which, historically, has tended to be assumed rather than interrogated.
The House of Lords report helps bring about a different way of thinking about the UK’s geographical relationship with the Arctic (compared to those, for example, who might focus on geography or history to legitimise the UK’s Arctic ‘actor-ness’). Instead of focussing on the so-called natural topography, the report helps us to consider how the UK as a near-Arctic state is constructed topologically. In other words, attention is devoted to better understanding how a complex web of connections draw together and/or exclude various kinds of relationships between the UK and the Arctic (rooted, for example, in science, commerce or international law). Arctic-related activity in hubs and sites such as the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, the Met Office in Exeter, the Hydrographic Office in Taunton, and the financial services sector in the City of London are the real facilitators of contemporary UK-Arctic relations, not natural geography.
All this is not to say the geographical location of the British Isles does not matter at all. Indeed, the Committee has, in its report, also asserted the UK’s natural proximity to the Arctic. Yet crucially, the Committee recognises that this proximity alone is not enough. The last paragraph of the report captures this with the simple message, reinforced by the report as a whole, that the UK also has to invest in its relationship with the Arctic, “if it is to reap benefits for the UK and for international common interests” (p. 103).
Where next for UK Arctic Policy?
Ultimately, it is the Committee’s ambition to see the UK position itself as a “premier partner” of the Arctic states and other Arctic actors (p. 106). While such ambition will be regarded as a laudable one from many in the UK, achieving it will demand a far greater input of resources than the UK government currently seems prepared to commit to a region which still faces an incredibly uncertain future (whether one thinks in terms of its environmental, economic or even geostrategic importance). A best case scenario would be for the UK government to take seriously the Committee’s recommendation to restructure the way in which the Government engages with the region. An Arctic Ambassador or a Special Representative is a good place to start as it would provide a focal point for coordinating the varied interests of the British Arctic stakeholders. Likewise, the next Government (following the General Election in May 2015) would do well to revisit the UK’s Arctic Policy Framework.
It remains to be seen whether the Committee’s report will give the Government the confidence to openly discuss more contentious issues around the feasibility of hydrocarbon development, fisheries management and defense (as the Lords have done), however, this should not prevent the Government from trying to position the UK as a more self-assured actor in the Arctic region. Similarly we might also watch for a reaction from Scotland as there is a view that Scotland’s voice has not been sufficiently listened to during the development of UK Arctic policy to date.11)The Herald, ‘Holyrood urged to act to protect Arctic after ‘snub’ by Westminster’, 2 February 2014, bit.ly/2xz9Ctw
The Committee is expecting a response from the Government within two months, and a debate in the House of Lords will follow shortly after.
Duncan Depledge was recently awarded his PhD from Royal Holloway University of London for his research investigating contemporary developments in UK policy towards the Arctic. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||The report is available form: www.parliament.uk/arcticcom|
|2.||↑||I made the case for this recommendation in the evidence paper that I submitted to this enquiry: bit.ly/2ArAqxM|
|3.||↑||D. Depledge, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off’, 3 November 2014, RHUL Geopolitics & Security, rhulgeopolitics.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/youre-only-supposed-to-blow-the-bloody-doors-off/|
|4.||↑||C. Keskitalo (2007). ‘International Region-Building: Development of the Arctic as an International Region’, Cooperation and Conflict, 42 (2), pp. 187-205.|
|5.||↑||D. Depledge (2013). ‘What’s in a name? A UK Arctic policy framework in 2013’, The Geographical Journal, 179 (4), pp. 369-372.|
|6.||↑||R. C. Powell (2013). ‘Subarctic Backyards? Britain, Scotland, and the Paradoxical Politics of the European High North’, The Northern Review, 37, pp. 87-100.|
|7.||↑||H. Exner-Pirot, ‘The British Invasion – The Arctic Circle and observer states’, 10 November 2014, Eye on the Arctic, www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2014/11/10/blog-the-british-invasion-the-arctic-circle-and-observer-states/|
|8.||↑||S. Elden, ‘Re-thinking geopolitics’, 17 January 2013, Progressive Geographies, progressivegeographies.com/2013/01/17/earth-rethinking-geopolitics/|
|9.||↑||Arctic issues have previously been debated by the House of Lords in 2007 and 2010. See K. Dodds, ‘UK and the Arctic: House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic’, 13 June 2014, RHUL Geopolitics & Security, rhulgeopolitics.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/uk-and-the-arctic-house-of-lords-select-committee-on-the-arctic/|
|10.||↑||For more information , see the Environmental Audit Committee website, www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/protecting-the-arctic/|
|11.||↑||The Herald, ‘Holyrood urged to act to protect Arctic after ‘snub’ by Westminster’, 2 February 2014, bit.ly/2xz9Ctw|