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Finland’s Arctic Council chairmanship overshadowed by global tensions

As the 11th Arctic Council ministerial meeting gets underway in Rovaniemi, the last two years of Finnish leadership in the region are under scrutiny. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking at the Arctic Council meeting in Rovaniemi on Monday, 6 May 2019.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking at the Arctic Council meeting in Rovaniemi on Monday, 6 May 2019. Image: Yle News / Thomas Bateman

Finland's stewardship of the Arctic Council has run into the headwinds of geopolitical tensions, with a ministerial meeting marking the end of Finland's two-year presidency facing similar pressures to a previous Council meeting in the Alaskan city of Fairbanks in 2017.

Back then, negotiations on the wording of the meeting’s final statement went down to the wire as the United States refused to sign off on a document mentioning the Paris climate accord, although then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did eventually sign the text - Paris accords included.

Fast forward to 2019, and the US newspaper The Washington Post recently reported that US diplomats had attempted to remove any mention of climate change from the upcoming Rovaniemi declaration, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expected to endorse on Tuesday.

In a speech in Rovaniemi on Monday, however, Pompeo made no mention of the words "climate change", although he did reference "steadily reducing sea ice."

Finland’s Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen, the diplomat responsible for co-ordinating negotiations over the Arctic Council declaration, told Reuters news agency, "There are different tones with which different countries want to approach climate change."

Mr Pompeo’s speech instead focused on the politics of the Arctic region, calling it "an arena for power and competition," in a speech delivered the day before ministers from the Arctic countries are due to meet.

Trump presidency "made things difficult"

Finnish officials are keen to point out the successes of the last two years, with caretaker Foreign Minister Timo Soini saying, "we have achieved progress in all our selected priority areas."

Speaking to Yle News, CEO of WWF Finland Liisa Rohweder measured Finnish success in more basic terms: “I think the biggest achievement is that they have been able to keep the Arctic Council together, with these political and military tensions which have been growing at the same time,” she said.

However Professor Timo Koivurova, director of the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre, and co-chair of the Arctic Council’s Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group, says Finland’s chairmanship came at a very challenging time.

"In this pretty difficult international environment we have the Ukraine crisis, and sanction regimes ongoing with Russia and the other Arctic states,” he told Yle News.

"But mostly it’s been about the Trump presidency and their stance towards climate change which really has made things difficult."

Some Arctic observers fear that any failure to reach a consensus on combatting climate change will undermine the entire purpose of the Arctic Council itself.

Dr. Laura Meller, Arctic researcher and polar adviser for Greenpeace Nordic told Yle News, "The credibility of Arctic Council as a platform for environmental cooperation is at stake here, given that climate change is the issue defining the future of the region."

Timo Koivurova, who was in Fairbanks during the negotiations over the 2017 declaration is more sanguine, "You can do a lot of things with words of course, you can circumvent an issue. I’d guess that by the end of the day countries are willing to make some kind of compromises."

Edited at 6:35 pm for clarity and to add comments from Liisa Rohweder.

Edited at 11:26 on 7 May 2019 to clarify Timo Koivurova's title.

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