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One topic to bind them all

North Atlantic group knocking on Arctic’s door

With or without the Arctic Council, the West Nordic Council is working to make voters’ voices heard in a region that it knows matter than most
The Arctic will keep us together (Photo: Vestnordisk Råd)

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One could be excused for asking just what it is the West Nordic Council does. A parliamentary group made up of members of the national assemblies of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, the organisation has, during its 30-year existence, been focused on issues that directly affect the lives of the people in the three countries.

One of the group’s recommendations, from 2011, for example, calls on the three governments to allow the import of food items for personal use when travelling between the three countries.

Another, from 2012, suggests holding writing workshops to allow established and aspiring authors to learn from each other’s culture.

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In general, soft issues dominate the list of recommendations the council has made. But amid the calls to break down regional barriers to medical treatment, study and trade, there is one issue that sticks out.

In 2012, the council recommended that the three governments “strengthen their co-operation on Arctic issues”, suggesting at the same time initiatives such as a common Arctic strategy and regular ministerial meetings to discuss developments in the region.

“Right now, it’s the Arctic that binds us together,” says Inga Dóra Markussen, the secretary-general. “Before the Arctic emerged as an issue, we didn’t have a big-ticket project we could work on.”

After the end of the Cold War and the decline of the region’s importance militarily, she explains, the West Nordic Council was left with addressing practical issues that had relevance to people’s daily lives.

“Now, though, the Arctic is becoming more important – politically, economically, scientifically. Focusing on these issues takes us away from more down-to-earth issues, but, as more people take an interest in the region, it’s important we include ourselves in discussions about its future.”

SEE RELATED: More co-operation in the Arctic

Firstly, she says, this is because the West Nordic Council believes the Arctic will have a direct impact on people’s lives at some point, whether by bringing jobs or by making it possible to improve transport, telecoms or other types of infrastructure.

“Secondly, by getting involved, we, as a group made up of democratically elected representatives to the national parliaments, can make sure that these developments in the Arctic reflect the will of the people who live here.”

The most notable way that the West Nordic Council is seeking to play a role in regional affairs is by applying to become an Arctic Council observer.

The West Nordic Council had hoped to become an observer in 2015, during the Arctic Council’s most recent summit. A flood of new observer applicants and the organisation’s emerging role led the Arctic Council to postpone taking on any new observers.

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The West Nordic Council, Ms Markussen explains, was expecting to get in: its bid had the support of the Nordic governments and, unlike other observers that had been let in previously, its connection to the region was obvious.

“Two of our three member countries have Arctic territory, and we’re all connected to it economically. And, unlike most other observers, we can speak on behalf of the people. Both because we live here and as elected officials who are directly accountable to our residents.”

Although much of the West Nordic Council’s interest in taking part in Arctic discussions relates to making people’s voices heard, Ms Markussen also points out that the council sees participation as a make voters aware of what the Arctic Council is doing.

“People hear a lot about the Arctic, but they aren’t always aware of specific developments or the work of the Arctic Council. Our members are responsible for keeping their voters and their parliaments aware of what’s happening and we see being an observer as a way allow them to be better informed.”

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As a small organisation, the West Nordic Council knows it has to be specific about which Arctic Council meetings it sits in on. “We can contribute to discussions about sustainable development,” Ms Markussen says. “Biology, on the other hand, we’ll have to leave to someone else.”

Rather than waiting for the Arctic Council to give its seal of approval to membership, the West Nordic Council has become active in Arctic discussions in other forums. After taking part in the Arctic Circle conference in 2014 and 2015, the West Nordic Council, in January, announced it was becoming an official partner. In May, Ms Markussen was moderator for the Arctic Circle’s Nuuk forum.

The West Nordic Council holds its annual meeting August 21-23 in Qaqortoq, Greenland. Arctic issues, according to Ms Markussen, will again to be a major topic of discussion during and after the meeting.

“It’s good that more countries are taking an interest in the region,” she says. “But we’d like to continue to emphasise that it’s our region.”