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The Arctic Council and the Barents Region: Mutually Reinforcing Partners

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.

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This week, Arctic Yearbook managing editor Joël Plouffe interviews Florian Vidal, a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at Paris Descartes University in France, and author of “Barents Region: The Arctic Council as a Stabilizing Magnet.” Vidal looks at how the Arctic Council and the multiple institutions in the Barents Euro-Arctic region benefit each other through their overlapping work on environmental and sustainable development issues in the European north. He argues that this duality has highly strengthened cooperation in the area, including stronger relations with the Russian Federation since the end of the Cold War. Vidal explains how the Barents institutions, with support from the Arctic Council, have demonstrated their resilience and ability to bargain for further development despite the tumult of global geopolitical tensions.

JOËL PLOUFFE: In the web of Arctic governance—with the Arctic Council being somewhere in the center—how do you describe the role of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) as a regional institution? 

FLORIAN VIDAL: The BEAC was established back in 1993 as a forum that would materialize the idea of northern cooperation in the Euro-Arctic zone. The Nordic Council of Ministers, a different forum that brings together the Euro-Arctic states of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, previously promoted the initiative in the 1960s.

This institutionalization process was part of the post-Cold War European institutional efforts, which aimed to overcome conflict and division that characterized the 20th century through greater cooperation and integration. Ever since its establishment, Barents cooperation has focused its role in economic and social development between Euro-Arctic actors. Institutions like the Barents Regional Council (BRC) have promoted people-to-people contacts by creating favorable conditions for interregional exchange in a significant number of areas, including culture, indigenous peoples, youth, education, environment, and so on.

As an institution, the BEAC’s creation emphasizes the regional stakeholders’ will to implement lasting and peaceful stability in the region through different instruments of cooperation. It’s important to stress that economic cooperation stands as one of the BEAC’s pillars, in that it seeks to improve living conditions in northernmost Europe. I would also add that the different Barents regional governance bodies also underline their commitment to support both sustainable economic and social development on the one hand, and contribute to stability, progress, and peaceful development on the other.

It’s also worth remembering that the Barents institutions are based on consensus-building among the northern European nations. The whole process relies on the desire of those actors to provide the strategy and structure that enables, promotes, and supports interregional cooperation.

JP: How does the Arctic Council influence the regional dynamics in the Barents region, and do the Council and the BEAC complement each other despite their different mandates?

FV: I think that there is general agreement that the Arctic Council has emerged as a legitimate regional body since its establishment in 1996, with a continued focus on its mandated areas such as the environment, health, and maritime safety issues. Since those areas are dealt with on a day-to-day basis at the sub-regional level, I would argue that the Council enhances multilateral relations through a supportive framework, which is sometimes even legally binding, such as in the agreements on search and rescue and oil pollution. Its mandate is therefore to promote “cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic States” as stipulated in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration.

In practice, what this means for the Barents institutions is that the Arctic Council offers a fertile and resourceful framework for their operations. While it’s mandated to essentially support and maintain interregional economic and social cooperation, the Barents institutions can benefit from the Council’s environmental framework and its Working Groups, notably those that work on sustainable development.

I think the constant convergence of ideas, interests, and goals characterize the way the Arctic Council and BEAC complement each other. For more than 20 years now, BEAC has evolved as the central component of regional governance in the Barents area. Outcomes occur through tangible steps taken particularly at the BEAC Working Group level. Their work aims to enhance coherence and synergy between the multiple forums in regional and cross-border cooperation, like with the Arctic Council, where issues often overlap. For instance, the BEAC Working Group on rescue cooperation strikingly echoed the 2009 establishment of the Arctic Council’s Agreement Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. Both institutions were supportive of each other’s work in that they both had converging interests and goals in the Barents’ governance web. The Arctic Council can therefore be a supportive governance tool for Barents institutions in that it strengthens the function of the BEAC and its legitimacy as a key stakeholder. Together the Arctic Council and the BEAC have created a form of governance duality between different intergovernmental institutions in the area. 

JP: How does Russia value BEAC, and vice versa?

FV: The establishment of the BEAC was a unique opportunity for Russia to break with the geopolitics and isolationism of the Cold War years and attempt to move forward with its Nordic neighbors. Looking back, the move was significant with the Russian northwest, which progressively opened to Western Europe through northern-related collaboration. Indeed, for Russia, this geopolitical change was valuable. The BEAC created a positive atmosphere for multilateral cooperation and promoted ideas and instruments for mutual prosperity in the Barents area.

For Russia, the BEAC has become an effective and relevant mechanism for regional cooperation. Repeatedly, Russian public authorities openly praise the work of the Barents institutions. This is significant for stability and the peaceful development of the region since the Russian Federation is a major actor and plays a critical role in cross-border cooperation.

I would also add that the Russian Foreign Policy Concept issued in 2013 highlighted the importance of practical cooperation with northern Europe in a very positive way. The Russian government praises the joint projects BEAC and BRC complete in the Barents region since they are beneficial to all actors involved. It’s important to remember that Russia defines its foreign policy based on the role it aims to play in its engagement with various international intergovernmental organizations. The sub-regional Barents organizations have therefore been conceived as limited but workable institutions.

As for the Scandinavian countries inside the BEAC, it comes as no surprise that their close cooperation with Russia is also highly valued, and often considered to be a success story. The institutional collaboration aims to meet the initial expectations of thriving East-West cooperation on trade and industry. Over the last two decades, the BEAC’s activities have managed to create a neighborhood of confidence and stability in northern Europe. Over the years it has tried not to be affected by the fluctuations of global geopolitics, largely through the principles of indivisible and comprehensive security between the Scandinavian countries and Russia.

JP: Has the Ukrainian crisis had a significant impact on Barents cooperation? 

FV: Back in 2014 when tensions sharply increased between Western countries and Russia, the repercussions were negative in terms of Barents cooperation. But that intensity has decreased over the past three years. We’ve seen public statements made from both sides of the Western and Russian borders in the Euro-Arctic area that have stressed the need for peaceful Arctic cooperation.

If the Ukrainian crisis has changed the dynamics in the relationship between Western countries and the Russian Federation, I would say that in practice, it has slowed the pace of cooperation in the Barents area. The financial and economic sanctions imposed on Russia mainly by the European Union and the United States, and the counter-sanctions that ensued by the Russian Federation, did and continue to undermine Barents cooperation. One of the most significant consequences of the sanctions and counter-sanctions has been the negative impact on local economies in the Barents. The fishery industries, for example, have been severely affected by the embargo on food products initiated by the Russian Federation against the Scandinavian countries and beyond, including other Western countries. Through that lapse of time, joint projects between Russia and its northern neighbors were also significantly slowed. For example, border cooperation in the Barents has become harsher. In the long term, I would argue that stability and cooperation in various areas of the Barents region could be shaken wherever Russian and Western interests conflict.

However, on the ground in the Arctic, local authorities in the Barents region, both in Russia and Scandinavian countries, have publicly voiced their support to maintain overall regional dialogue and cooperation to ensure the sustainable development of the region overall. Still, the current geopolitical landscape in the Barents region will continue to pose constraints and challenges to Barents cooperation.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Florian Vidal (@oilm4n) is a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at Paris Descartes University in France.

Florian Vidal’s article “Barents Region: The Arctic Council as a Stabilizing Magnet” can be found here.

The interview was conducted by Joël Plouffe (@joelplouffe), co-Managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI), and researcher at the Interuniversity Research Center on the International Relations of Canada and Québec (CIRRICQ) in Montreal. 

[Photo courtesy of the Russian Presidential Executive Office]

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