What future for the High North? Norway's vision for the Arctic Region

22 March 2012

 “The South and East often take centre stage in foreign affairs. This holds true for Norway too – we need to build alliances and support our companies there. But people are also looking to the North, which is right on our doorstep. We have no choice but to lead here,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre.

The minister said Norway’s strategy for the High North – home to around four million people – was about boosting transport and energy infrastructure but also protecting local livelihoods and the environment.

“Climate change is having an impact, whether part of a natural cycle or not,” Støre said.

China, Japan, South Korea and India all have research stations on Svalbard. Many of these countries, like the EU, want to be permanent observer members of the Arctic Council.

“Norway welcomes this and will push for all applications to be considered. We need to assess the seriousness of the applications and the capacity of the Arctic Council to deal with all this increased interest,” Støre said.

Despite the relative stability of key Arctic countries like Canada, the USA, Finland, Sweden and Norway, the High North is changing, the minister said.

“The legal framework is changing too. The Arctic used to be a legal vacuum. But it’s not a rock in the middle of the ocean like Antarctica – it’s surrounded by populations and modern countries. So we need a dispute resolution system based on principles,” Støre said.

Rejecting the notion of a “race to the Arctic,” the minister insisted that “just because you get there first, that doesn’t mean it’s yours. There’s no legal basis to make such claims”.

“We need order and stability in the Arctic region, not military solutions,” he said.

He said Norway’s strategy for the High North had three pillars: climate change, the research dimension and Russia.

Climate change is making the High North’s abundance of natural resources much more accessible, including gas, oil, minerals and fish. Nevertheless, conditions for business investment are still extremely hostile, the minister warned.

He said the High North was not necessarily destined to become the scene of a power struggle over resources. “Very few of those resources are actually contested,” he claimed.

Norway’s vision for the High North has four pillars, the minister explained: integrated, ecosystem-based sustainable management of resources; safeguarding peace and stability; strengthening international cooperation, and; strengthening the basis for value creation.

“International interest in the High North has grown in recent years. The European Parliament has proposed a holistic policy approach to the Arctic. I look forward to seeing the European Commission’s progress report and communication,” said German centre-right MEP Michael Gahler, a member of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament.

“I’m impressed by Norway’s ability to make energy, shipping, fishing and the environment compatible in its strategy. We can learn from this in the EU,” said Gahler, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the EU’s High North policy.

He cited the construction of new energy infrastructure (including pipelines to Central Europe), opening new sea routes to Asia and developing renewables among potential new projects on which to focus activity in the region.

“We value all our relations with third countries, and the High North is a very unique and special place,” said David O’Sullivan, chief operating officer of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

“The Pacific islands and the High North are the best examples of the fact that climate change is a reality. It cannot be seen as a good thing, but it does bring new opportunities for human and economic activity in the Arctic,” O’Sullivan said.

“This must be managed in a sustainable manner. We need to take into account environmental sustainability and maritime safety in all our economic activities there,” he added.