Past as prologue

Analysis | Italy’s Arctic presence began with ambitious exploration missions in the nineteenth century. A new policy paper maps out its future in the region

The continuation of a colourful history (Photo: Eni Norge)

Marc Lanteigne

In 2013, much news coverage regarding the latest assembly of states admitted to the Arctic Council as observers was dominated by the inclusion, for the first time, of Asian governments, especially China but also those of India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

Lost in much of the debate about the expansion of the observer group, however, was the admission of the sixth country, namely Italy. Over the past two years Rome has quietly sought to bolster its Arctic policies and identity in relation to other non-Arctic states by means of a widening and deepening of its circumpolar interests.

The latest such example was the release, in December, by the Italian Foreign Ministry of the country’s first Arctic white paper, entitled ‘Verso una strategia italiana per l’Artico’(‘Towards an Italian Strategy for the Arctic’). With this paper’s publication (link in Italian), Italy joins other non-Arctic states, including Germany, Japan and South Korea, in recently putting forward government policy statements on their view of the emerging political, scientific and economic roles of the Far North.

In some areas, Italy’s current Arctic policies are similar to those of other observer states. Rome was one of the original signatories of the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty and since 1997 has operated a research station, Dirigibile Italia, in Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard. Italy also oversees two Antarctic installations, the first being the Mario Zucchelli Station at Terra Nova Bay, since 1986 and the second, Concordia, located at Dome C on the Antarctic Plateau, in partnership with France and inaugurated in 2005. The country also maintains research vessels, including the Explora, operated by the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics, vessels which have frequently operated in the polar regions.

Yet what distinguishes much of Italy’s developing Arctic interests of late has been the country’s historical legacy in the region. As the document describes in its introduction, Italy’s Arctic presence began with ambitious exploration missions in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spearheaded by those including Prince Luigi Amedeo, Umberto Nobile and Silvio Zavatti, and this history of exploration was a key point in underscoring Italy’s circumpolar credentials when the country sought formal observer status in the Arctic Council.

Science diplomacy, a common cornerstone among Arctic Council observers, has also been pursued by Rome in recent years, a nod to previous historical exploration missions. This has taken many forms, including participation in the council’s working groups and bilateral co-operation with Arctic states in various polar affairs, including with Canada on science and technology co-ordination, and with Finland on environmental and socio-economic issues. As the new Arctic paper adds, other scientific co-operation projects have commenced with institutes in China and Russia.

There have also been increasing levels of Italian participation on the governmental and sub-governmental levels in regional Track-II organisations, including the Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers conferences. Current projects have stressed links between environmental conditions and economic development in the region, and interests have included local oceanography and climatology.

Economic interests are also forming a major part of Italy’s developing Arctic policies, and once again history has played a role in shaping current thinking. Arctic fishing has been of long-standing interest in Italy, with Norwegian stockfish (stoccafisso) being a favourite in the country, a legacy of a fifteenth-century Venetian noble who first encountered the delicacy after being stranded near Lofoten and then rescued by local fishermen. The small town of Badalucco, in Imperia in north-western Italy, even celebrates an annual ‘Festa del Paese’ dedicated to the stockfish.

Other sectors in Italy, including mining and shipbuilding, have also begun to look to the Arctic for joint ventures. More recently, it has been petroleum that has moved to the forefront of Italy’s economic planning in the Arctic, despite dropping fossil-fuel prices. Rome-based energy firm Eni has been engaged in Arctic oil and gas development, with preparations in place to develop, along with Norway’s Statoil firm, the northern-most offshore oilfield, which will operate in the Goliat region, with a €5.6 billion platform located 88km off the coast of Hammerfest in northern Norway.

Although there have been some delays in beginning operations, Eni representatives have expressed hopes that production could begin in early 2016 and that low oil prices would not deter the project’s development. With potential oil and gas development under heavy scrutiny by groups concerned about the potential environmental impact on regional offshore drilling, Eni, like other energy firms looking to the Arctic, has sought to ensure that local energy products follow high ‘green’ standards.

With other non-Arctic European states, such as Switzerland, likely seeking observer status in the Arctic Council when the question of new observers is again raised, Italy will be under pressure to continue to distinguish its ‘brand’ of Arctic diplomacy. There is also the matter of council observer status for the EU, with which Italy has co-ordinated much of its Arctic activity. The EU was turned down for observer status for a third time in 2015, and Italy is strongly supportive of the Union attaining that designation in 2017. In examining Italy’s Arctic policy paper, it is evident that the country is not only taking a distinctly holistic approach to its circumpolar diplomacy, but is also seeking to combine a colourful history and current expertise in defining itself as an Arctic stakeholder.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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