If at first you don’t succeed …

Analysis | Switzerland is trying again to get into the Arctic Council. It has all the makings of a good observer, but so far that has not been enough

But is it a pole of accessibility? (Photo: Marc Lanteigne)

Marc Lanteigne

It has become an informal tradition at the annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík for non-Arctic states which are either observers in the Arctic Council, or potential candidates, to highlight their emerging regional diplomatic policies via panels and exhibits.

In the recent past, governments, including those of Brazil, China, Japan and the United Kingdom assumed that role. At this year’s event, which ended on October 9, it was Switzerland that unveiled its Arctic policy ambitions, including making a second attempt to become an observer, following its unsuccessful 2015 bid.

Although Switzerland had been widely viewed as having fulfilled the criteria necessary for observer status, the country was essentially caught in a political imbroglio involving the candidacy of another government, namely the European Union. Due to deteriorating diplomatic relations between the EU and Russia because of the on-going Ukraine crises, a de facto veto by Moscow on granting the union formal observer status was a strong possibility.

Ultimately, in the Iqaluit Declaration, which was issued following the council’s ninth ministerial meeting in April of 2015, the question of new observers was deferred until the next such gathering, in 2017. Both Switzerland and the EU then had to rejoin the queue, along with other likely observer candidates Greece, Mongolia and Turkey.

Much of Swiss foreign policy, including its polar interests, is similar in scope to that of its neighbours in western and central Europe. Yet Switzerland does have many distinct features in its international relations policymaking that may play a part in future interactions with Arctic governments and organisations. Chief among these is the highly decentralised nature of the Swiss government, with both formal and informal input on international issues at the cantonal (provincial) level, and frequent use of referenda to resolve a variety of foreign and domestic-level issues.

Polar research with Swiss characteristics (Photo: Marc Lanteigne)

There is also the long-established conception of Swiss neutrality, which has dominated the country’s politics at least as far back as the Battle of Marignano in the early sixteenth century, and was further codified at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Neutrality principles, coupled with the idea of ‘Sonderfall Schweiz’, (‘Switzerland as a special case’), had contributed to a traditional wariness towards joining international organisations.

For example, Switzerland only joined the United Nations in 2002 following a close referendum vote, and remains outside of the European Union and the European Economic Area. However, in the post-Cold War era, Switzerland has begun to soften its views on engaging international and regional organisations. At the same time, Switzerland has traditionally been a strong supporter of economic integration and liberalised trading, especially given its location in the heart of Europe and the need for trade for many goods and services. The country is a member of both the EU’s single market and the Schengen Agreement. Therefore, the potential importance of the Arctic as an emerging economic area further explains Swiss policy of engagement with the council.

Since 2015, the Swiss government and various domestic agencies interested in the polar regions have sought to further bolster the country’s Arctic identity and underscore its potential contributions to the Arctic Council should its second bid be successful.

At the Arctic Circle event, Switzerland’s contribution to the proceedings featured a keynote speech by Yves Rossier, secretary of state of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, a showing of excerpts from the 2015 Swiss/US documentary Sila and the Gatekeepers of the Arctic, which detailed the effects of climate change on a Greenlandic community, and a panel and breakout session on regional research cooperation in circumpolar affairs, featuring Swiss experts. In addition, a multimedia display, ‘Swiss Camp’, which further illustrated Switzerland’s contributions to Arctic research, was offered at the conference venue at Harpa.

In explaining its Arctic credentials, Switzerland can first point to its considerable record of regional exploration and scientific endeavours, most notably in Greenland. As one of the Arctic Circle panellists noted, Switzerland was operating in the region ‘before it was trendy’. These feats included the work by explorer Alfred de Quervain, from Uebeschi, Canton Bern, who led expeditions in Greenland in 1909 and 1912-3, and led the first team to winter there by drilling into the island’s vast ice sheet in order to build a campsite.

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De Quervain was also responsible for naming the then-isolated eastern region of Schweizerland in 1912. Greenland has remained a major focus of current Swiss research in the Arctic, work which includes measuring the effects of the erosion of the Greenland ice sheet on the local environment. Other recent scientific projects at both poles have included the studies of the impact of far-northern climate change on European weather patterns, polar oceanography and regional effects of greenhouse gases.

Switzerland’s polar scientific credentials were further enhanced by the founding this year of the Swiss Polar Institute (SPI), an interdisciplinary network based in Lausanne and bringing together five partner institutions, namely the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH), the University of Bern, and the publisher Éditions Paulsen. The SPI was created to act as a nexus of polar research, as well as to promote education and public awareness of the Arctic and Antarctic.

It was confirmed earlier this year that the first major project to be undertaken by the SPI will be a multinational and multifunctional research mission to circumnavigate Antarctica via the polar vessel Akademik Treshnikov, the first such scientific mission of its type. This Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) is to take place between December 2016-March 2017, with stops in Cape Town, Hobart and Punta Arenas, as well as several austral islands in addition to Antarctica itself. As well, a series of meetings under the aegis of POLAR 2018, co-hosted by the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), was recently announced, to take place in Davos in June 2018.

During this year’s Arctic Circle, there was much discussion about Switzerland as a ‘vertical Arctic’ state. The term refers to the Swiss Alps and the country’s traditional familiarity with glacier and mountain conditions, (the highest mountain in Switzerland is Dufourspitze in Canton Valais, with an elevation of about 4.6km). The concept is not unlike the idea of the ‘third pole’, meaning the Himalayas and more specifically the Tibetan/Qingzang Plateau, which China has frequently included as part of its own developing Arctic identity and potential contributions to polar research and climate change effects.

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In the run-up to the next Arctic Council ministerial, being held in Fairbanks on May 11, it is inevitable that much attention will be given to the subject of observers, given the growing spotlight placed on the Arctic by the international community. Assuming that the matter of new observers is not subject to further postponement, Switzerland remains hopeful that it will finally attain its place in the expanding ‘Arctic club’.


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