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International relations

How to win friends and influence the Arctic

MPs of Arctic states often find themselves on the sidelines of policymaking about the region, but there are ways for them to make their opinions better heard
We do more than coffee (Photo: Kaj Joensen)

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The West Nordic Council, which brings together MPs from Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, is sometimes accused of being a coffee klatch, in which members meet a few times a year and do a lot of talking. According to critics, they rarely have much to show for it.

From the outside, admits Lars-Emil Johansen (pictured, with accordion), the current president of the council, and the chairman of the Greenlandic national assembly, that description might contain an element of truth (they do meet, they do drink coffee and they do discuss issues of common interest to the three countries.) However, he adds, such a description underestimates the value of the gatherings.

“When we meet informally, we can talk about specific examples of things that we each have done on an issue and then take it back to our own legislatures.”

SEE RELATED: Three countries, one Arctic

The West Nordic Council can take heart. It is not the only such group to be looked at askance, despite its benefits, according to Zlatko Šabič, an academic with Univerza v Ljubljani (University of Ljubljana), who addressed the members of the council during a session in Grindavík, Iceland, this weekend.

The topic was how members of national parliaments in Arctic countries could have a greater say in their governments’ policy-making towards the region. Mr Šabič argued that, done right, meetings with legislators from other countries are a way of doing this, since they compensate for the dominant role that cabinet members play in countries’ foreign relations.

“Governments pursue foreign policies, not parliaments,” he said. “But parliaments need to keep in mind that their governments may not always be their best ally.”

Such groups, Mr Šabič and others argued, can present an alternative foreign policy that is more likely to reflect the interests of voters, since they, as Mr Johansen noted, involve popularly elected legislators. Foreign policy, on the other hand, is waged by cabinet members, who may be unelected and who are likely to be taking the advice of civil servants.

“It is the national parliaments that risk being the big losers if governments continue to get to do the talking about the Arctic,” Mr Johansen says. In the case of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, he points out, the decision-making is even further removed, since it is Copenhagen that makes decisions about foreign-policy and military issues. “This always gives rise to the next-best solution from our perspective.”

SEE RELATED: Arctic Council “vaguely known, if at all”

Parliaments can expand their influence in other ways too. Setting up Arctic committees in the legislature is one, since they can show lawmakers are taking an interest in the region, as well as provide them with a way to be kept up-to-date on the issues.

Another is by getting involved in international groups. The West Nordic Council, for example, has applied for observer status to the Arctic Council. Doing so, the group says, will give it access to the discussions that wind up shaping policies towards the Arctic.

“If you want to make your presence known, you need to be in the meetings,” Aqqaluk Lynge, a former chairman of the Greenlandic chapter of the ICC, an Inuit advocacy group, said during an address to the session.

The bar for entry into the Arctic Council as an observer is high though, and it may get tougher still, pending a review of the observer system, announced in April, during the council’s biennial summit. (The decision meant the West Nordic Council, together with scores of other groups seeking observer status, had its application put on hiatus.)

SEE RELATED: The circle continues

For those with Arctic ambitions yet who lack the credentials to get into the Arctic Council, there are other organisations that have a say about regional matters, notes Magnús Jóhannesson, the organisation’s director. Some, like the International Maritime Organisation, a UN body, are mostly for states, however. Instead, many of those excluded from formal organisations are looking to get involved in less formal groups or things like conferences.

This is a tack the West Nordic Council hopes can bring it increased influence. This weekend’s session saw the council sign a partnership agreement with Arctic Circle, a big annual conference. The deal will allow the council to be visible during the gathering, and could see Greenland and the Faroe Islands swap off holding annual local versions of Arctic Circle.

All this, says Mr Johansen, will help compensate for the inability of the two countries to make their own foreign policy and their lack of direct participation in the Arctic Council.

“This makes us a bigger part of the discussion,” he says.

More coffee, please.