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From the Rovaniemi Process to Exploring Common Solutions: Finland’s Priorities in the Changing Arctic

Rovaniemi Process to Exploring Common Solutions: Finland’s Priorities in the Changing Arctic

June 8, 2017

By Timo Koivurova and Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek

The ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Fairbanks, Alaska, in May 2017 was the first in the history of the institution where all eight Arctic states were represented by their ministers of foreign affairs—the highest ranked meeting ever dedicated exclusively to matters of circumpolar cooperation. It speaks to the importance of the region today—a far cry from two decades ago, when the Arctic was at best conceived as the periphery of world politics.

In Alaska, the United States completed its two-year Arctic Council chairmanship and passed the gavel to Finland, which will hold it until 2019. It is the second time that the country, which provided the initial impetus for circumpolar collaboration in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Rovaniemi Process and the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), takes the helm of the Council, 17 years after its 2000-2002 chairmanship. Whereas the two U.S. chairmanships (1998-2000 and 2015-2017) can be seen as an illustration of change in the Arctic and the increasing attention paid to the region by the American administration, a look at the two programs of Finnish chairmanships reveals interesting similarities—as well as some new items on the Arctic agenda.

Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030

Finland framed its new Arctic Council chairmanship program within the context of two major international developments: the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, both adopted in 2015. Of course, none of the themes involved are novel to the Council, which since its inception has dedicated the bulk of its work to climate change and the sustainable development of northern communities. The most recent U.S. chairmanship followed in this course, with a focus on improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities and addressing the impacts of climate change in the region. Finland aims to continue and advance the work of its predecessor, much like it did 17 years ago. At that time, the major program on the Council’s agenda was the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA)—launched under U.S. leadership and mostly funded by the United States. In its first chairmanship program Finland committed to actively supporting the ACIA, and once again the country remains dedicated to continuing the work on climate change carried out by the previous chair.

Interestingly, the political context for climate discussions in today’s Arctic Council resembles that of the first round of chairmanships due to the recent transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration in the United States. The ACIA was endorsed at the ministerial meeting in Barrow, Alaska, in October 2000, in the last days of the Clinton administration, before George W. Bush took over as president in early 2001 and abandoned the strong climate policy of his predecessor. That situation—similar to what we observe today with the remarks Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered at the ministerial meeting in Fairbanks—established the context for the Finnish chairmanship and the Arctic Council’s climate efforts. The process in the Council was not without hindrances, but the ACIA was eventually completed in 2004.

The sustainable development agenda Finland promoted in 2000-2002 was also contentious. The topic was described in the Finnish program as “the most problematic area of co-operation in the four-year history of the Council” because of disagreement between the U.S. on one side and the Nordic countries and Canada on the other. To address this matter, the Council adopted in Barrow in 2000 a set of general principles for the Program on Sustainable Development, and Finland sought to consolidate the Council’s work on sustainable development leading up to a presentation at the U.N. Rio +10 meeting in Johannesburg in 2002. Since that time, the Council has been involved in both large-scale scientific assessments and locally focused projects, handling such critical issues as health, food security, culture, and energy in the North. Today, Finland once more aims to bring those efforts in line with the global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals. It also wishes to explore how the region’s unique features, such as the strong dependence of communities on subsistence activities, can be recognized and supported at higher levels of governance. In the Finnish program, sustainable development goes hand in hand with promoting responsible economic activity in the region. To facilitate this, Finland seeks to increase the cooperation between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council—a task made easier by the fact that a Finnish representative will also chair the AEC.

Four Priorities

Under the umbrella of the overarching themes of climate change and sustainable development, Finland, in line with the practice of the Arctic Council, proposed several priorities for its term. The choice of environmental protection, connectivity, meteorological cooperation, and education reflects the country’s strengths and areas of expertise. And, when it comes to the environment and the emphasis on education, these themes follow a constant thread in Finnish policy toward the North. As with any matter in the Arctic Council, the adoption of those priorities was preceded by discussions among all member states and Permanent Participants to ensure their support and acceptance of the chairmanship program.

Planned events and activities for the next two years will complement the themes addressed by the Arctic Council. They include, among others, development of an Arctic-specific tool for environmental impact assessments, the second Arctic Biodiversity Congress, the first Arctic Resilience Forum, the next Arctic Energy Summit, and the UArctic Congress, as well as a planned meeting of Arctic ministers of environment, and possibly even an Arctic Summit of heads of states. It is in this agenda that one sees a clear departure from Finland’s stance in the early 2000s—and the region’s transformation since then. Now, a lot of attention is paid to the seas and initiatives in the Arctic Ocean. Importantly, the Arctic Council has catalyzed legally binding agreements that apply to the region’s marine areas and has directly or indirectly given rise to independent international institutions that deal with Arctic marine issues, such as the Arctic Coast Guard Forum and the Arctic Offshore Regulators Forum. Finland assumed the chairmanship of these bodies when it became the chair of the Arctic Council. It will also continue the work of the Council’s Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation, whose aim is to learn from other regional seas agreements to better coordinate Arctic marine activities.

Finland’s program in the early 2000s was far more narrowly defined, with issues such as forestry, reindeer husbandry, and Barents cooperation high on the agenda, underlining the largely sub-regional focus of its first chairmanship. Today, the global relevance of the Arctic, from the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals to the continued interest in the Arctic Ocean, is at the heart of Finland’s plans for the Arctic Council’s next two years.

Toward a Strategic Plan for the Council

Finland has also been set the task of completing a long-term strategic plan for the Council—an assignment that commenced under the U.S. chairmanship. Interestingly, Finland was in a somewhat similar situation in 2000. By the end of its first chairmanship, it produced a thorough examination of Arctic Council operations in the Haavisto report, which included recommendations on how to make the Council more effective and efficient. Today, a long-term strategy would provide direction for the Council beyond individual chairmanships, thus creating a stronger sense of unity between the institution’s component parts. Finland is now expressly supporting formal observer status for the EU—an issue that is still pending final decision in the Council. This issue can be linked back to Finland’s first chairmanship, too, when it pushed for greater EU engagement in the regional body.

Finland will face great challenges during its chairmanship. It must carefully steer the Council through the difficult geopolitical times we are living in, which may influence the working atmosphere in the Council or its efforts related to climate change, given the attitudes toward the environment in the Trump administration and its most recent decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. Luckily, Finland is well-equipped to keep the focus of the Council on environmental protection and sustainable development while also providing the institution with a long-term plan. At a time like this, Finland—a small country whose identity is strongly anchored in the West but that also has extensive experience with its eastern neighbor, Russia—is an ideal chair for the Arctic Council.



Timo Koivurova is a research professor and director at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland. He specializes in Arctic law and governance.

Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek is a researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland and a co-chair of the International Arctic Science Committee’s (IASC) action group on communicating Arctic science to policymakers. In her research she focuses on the issues of science-policy interface and scientific collaboration in the region. 

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.