Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
Arctic affairs have been at the heart of Iceland’s foreign policy for well over a decade. When I became Foreign Minister in January 2017, my first public appearance was to address a large gathering of Icelandic Arctic stakeholders here in Harpa.
That meeting officially kicked-off Iceland’s preparations for our two-year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council that we concluded at the Reykjavík Ministerial in this very hall on May 20th this year.
Arctic affairs have steadily been gaining prominence internationally as I have felt clearly during my five years as Minister for Foreign Affairs. At the beginning it was I who put them on the agenda of my meetings with foreign colleagues, while now, it is so that everyone is bringing up Arctic issues firsthand, regardless of the setting and topics under discussion.
And bearing testament to this increased interest, it has only happened twice, that all Foreign Ministers of the Arctic States have attended the Arctic Council Ministerial meetings. Here in Reykjavík this spring and in Rovaniemi two years ago.
The Rovaniemi Ministerial meeting may to a certain degree have been overshadowed by the unfortunate fact that we were unable to agree on a Ministerial Declaration at that time due to differences on how to refer to climate change issues. That was of course highly unfortunate and made the start of the Icelandic Chairmanship much more challenging. I think it fair to say that we took over the Chairmanship at the most difficult time in the Councils history. And in fact, I believe I said that at the time.
However, our Finnish friends came up with a clever way to circumnavigate this obstacle and mandated the work of the Council through a short Ministerial Statement that all ministers could sign. This short statement was then coupled up with a substantial Chair’s statement that provided further guidance to the Council’s work.
So, after all we got off to a good start with our Chairmanship program, Together Towards a Sustainable Arctic. It reflects Iceland’s commitment to the principle of sustainable development and refers to the necessity of close cooperation in the region and beyond. Our four priority areas were: the Arctic Marine Environment, Climate and Green Energy Solutions, People and Communities of the Arctic, and a Stronger Arctic Council.
But then came Covid. The Arctic Council cooperation relies heavily on close personal relations between Senior Arctic Officials, Permanent Participants, Working Group representatives, staff of Arctic Council and Working Group secretariats and the Observer representatives. The Arctic Council way of working is to gather a couple of times each year and work intensively for a about a week at a time. Most often in an Arctic Community of the Chairmanship country.
So Covid could easily have been very disruptive for Arctic Council work but the whole Arctic Council family showed great resilience and adapted quickly to virtual format for meetings and events.
Grateful as I am for virtual solutions, I still believe personal relations are vital and am convinced that it really makes a difference to meet face-to-face. In the context of the Arctic Council this is particularly true for us, the ministers, that only meet biannually.
And despite all of the challenges, we were able to gather in person here in Harpa last May for a successful conclusion of the Icelandic Chairmanship. All ministers were present in person along with three of the leaders of the Permanent Participants while the other three had to avail themselves of the option to participate virtually.
I am very pleased with the results of the Icelandic Chairmanship. We were able to conclude with an ambitious Reykjavík Declaration that sends a clear message about our shared commitment to ensure sustainable development and peaceful cooperation in the Arctic region.
The major accomplishment in my opinion was the adoption of a first ever Strategic Plan for the Arctic Council. The Strategic Plan provides the Council with a long-term guidance to its work covering the next 10 years. It gives the Council a stronger purpose, makes it less vulnerable to policy fluctuations and allows the Council to extend its vision and scope beyond the traditional two-year chairmanship term. The Strategic Plan reflects the shared values and joint aspirations of the Arctic States and Indigenous Permanent Participants. I believe that its adoption was a worthy way to mark this year’s 25th anniversary of the Arctic Council.
So, in conclusion let me just say that with the Reykjavík Declaration and the new Arctic Council Strategic Plan I believe that the Arctic Council is fit for purpose and in good hands under the able Chairmanship of my colleague and good friend Sergey Lavrov.