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Switzerland and the Arctic Council

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Analysis | Switzerland’s admission to the Arctic Council as an observer shows that, in the North, going it alone is not an option
The Arctic, with Swiss characteristics (Photo: Swiss Federal Inst of Tech)

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The highlight of this month’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Fairbanks was easily the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Co-operation, signed by the eight member governments. It also held the promise of greater region-wide consultation and education on various science endeavours including Arctic climate change.

Considering the misgivings expressed about the American commitment to combatting environmental damage in the Far North, prompted by previous remarks by the Trump government expressing scepticism about climate change and hinting at a possible withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate accord, there was some sense of relief that the US was not going to be drastically changing its stance on Arctic co-operation in the near term.

The other looming question during the Fairbanks gatherings was whether the politically thorny issue of new observers would be addressed this year, especially in light of the decision made at the April 2015 Iqaluit ministerial to defer all observer applications until this year.

SEE RELATED: Observers have opinions too

Ultimately, the Fairbanks Declaration published in connection with the meeting called for six non-governmental organisations to join the roster of council observers, namely the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the National Geographic Society, Oceana, the Oslo-Paris Commission, the West Nordic Council and the World Meteorological Organisation.

There was also a single government aspirant that survived the cut: Switzerland. Other governments that had sought observer status this year, including Greece, Mongolia and Turkey, were not accepted. The EU, a perennial also-ran for observer status, was also denied a seat. This, despite on-going attempts by Brussels to build a better, more comprehensive Arctic identity and policy platform, including via the release of a paper, An Integrated EU Policy for the Arctic, produced by the European Parliament in March.

After first submitting a bid to become an observer in 2014, and then being caught in the de facto moratorium on new observers the following year, there was little doubt that Switzerland would prepare an enhanced and updated application for the Fairbanks meeting given its long-standing commitment to participating more fully in Arctic affairs via the council.

Despite not being an Arctic state, Switzerland, its representatives argued, has a long history of scientific research on ice conditions and glaciers based on its mountainous terrain, and has also been deeply engaged (in French) in studies of the Arctic region including in the areas of climate change, as well as more specific research into snowfall patterns, atmospheric and climate conditions, natural hazards, permafrost and mountainous ecosystems.

SEE RELATED: North Atlantic group knocking on Arctic’s door

This commitment was extensively promoted at the October 2016 Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, by means of exhibits and speeches by government officials and specialists, who described Switzerland as being connected to the ‘vertical Arctic’ via the Alps, which provided a local model for further understanding of the Arctic and its geography.

The largest ice flow in the Alps is in Switzerland, namely the Aletsch Glacier in Canton Valais in the southern part of the country. As Yves Rossier, Switzerland’s ambassador to Russia, noted in his speech at the Reykjavík conference, ‘Ice and snow are in the DNA of our people, in our folklore and in our collective memory.’

Mr Rossier had confirmed that Switzerland would be again submitting a bid in an interview given to TASS, a Russian news agency, during the Territory of Dialogue conference in Arkhangelsk in late March of this year. 

As with the 2015 application, Switzerland sought to underscore its Arctic identity in the areas of comparative climate and glaciology studies, research missions dating back to the 19th century, including in Greenland, developing partnerships with Arctic Council member states in various projects in the Far North, and a commitment to adhering to international maritime law, including Unclos, and advocacy of the rights of indigenous groups in the Arctic.

SEE RELATED: Arctic Council upgrade

Switzerland has also sought to better promote its position in the expanding areas of Arctic research by announcing the founding of the Swiss Polar Institute in 2016 and the holding of the Arctic Science Summit Week and associated meetings in Davos under the aegis of POLAR 2018 in June of next year. As well, since its unsuccessful bid two years ago, Swiss officials continued to engage scientists and other stakeholders in the region, and benefitted (in French) from its venerable foreign-policy traditions of neutrality.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry lauded the decision as an opening for Switzerland to “contribute expert knowledge to the council at the level of working groups and to participate in research projects in a region with enormous economic potential and growing geopolitical weight”, including for the benefit of Arctic populations which have been affected by climate change.

In a follow-up press release, the Foreign Ministry noted that, “we have learned to live with snow and ice, we can appreciate the challenges of the Arctic indigenous people in a modern world, in a time of climate change. In the Arctic, permafrost is under people’s feet, in Switzerland permafrost is over our head. Polar research has much in common with high altitude research.”

As the chair of the Arctic Council has now been passed from the US to Finland, the question of new observers, and what their qualifications should be, will arise. As a recent article published by Bloomberg, a news service, suggested, “the Arctic Council has risen in import and attention as the top of the world became a place where developed economies want to play. Everybody wants in.”

SEE RELATED: Compelling co-operation

This is only half the issue. There is also the question of how existing government observers can best distinguish themselves in a field that is crowded and will likely only get more so. As the new kids on the block, Swiss Arctic specialists and policymakers will have more opportunity to engage with the council’s member states and other organisations.

Switzerland’s new role on the Arctic Council is yet another sign that the country continues to move away from its traditional wariness towards membership in international organisations (it remains outside both the EU and the European Economic Area, and only joined the United Nations in 2002), as well as traditional Alleingang or ‘going it alone’, views towards becoming too integrated in the global community and moving too far away from neutrality in foreign policies.

In recent decades, as Swiss foreign interests have begun to expand well beyond Europe, and as relations with Brussels occasionally groan, the Arctic has been identified as an area where its expertise and its diplomacy can play an expanded role.

The addition of Switzerland to the ranks of Arctic Council observers further augments Europe’s presence in the organisation (with other observers including the UK, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland and Spain), while at the same time demonstrating how the Arctic, and the Arctic Council itself, continue to evolve as international concerns.

The author is a senior lecturer (China, East Asia, Polar Affairs) at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, in Auckland, New Zealand.