An observer is as an observer does
A gathering of Arctic Council observer states in Warsaw this week offers a chance to be heard, though perhaps not listened to
When the Arctic Council meets, its observer states have a self-explanatory, though perhaps not always wholly satisfying, role. This changes momentarily once every second year, when, at the mid-point of a chairmanship, the council’s observer states (one of three categories of observers) become the observed.
The idea behind the Warsaw Format Meeting is two-fold: observer states (and the EU) meet to discuss their Arctic lot amongst themselves, and, then, to address the chairmanship without other representatives from member states present.
First held in 2010, Warsaw Format Meetings deal with whatever issues are relevant at the moment, but the underling goal is always the same, according to Adam Stępień, a Polish academic familiar with the meetings.
“It’s really a reminder to the council that observer states are looking to get some value out of their participation,” he says. “Observers are asked to make contributions, and this is their chance to remind the chairmanship that those contributions do not come for free.”
Being granted time alone with the chairman of the senior Arctic officials (the individuals who represent each of the eight Arctic states) makes it easier for observer states to speak their mind. Their concerns, according to Mr Stępień, do get heard, and even passed on, but there is no guarantee the council will act on them.
“The discussions here are franker than at Arctic Council meetings,” he says. “Anything can be said, but everything can be ignored.”
The Warsaw meeting is said to differ from those organised during the semi-annual SAO meetings in some important ways. Firstly, it is organised by the observers for observers. They set the agenda and invite the people they want to talk to. Secondly, there are no SAOs in the room.
“That means there are fewer sensitivities to consider,” says one past participant. “At the SAO meetings, most of what happens involves going over items that are presented in a mostly finished version. The Warsaw meeting can potentially influence how those documents look.”
This year, the chairmanship may be taking notes a little more carefully. The Arctic Council is drawing up a roadmap for its future development, and insiders expect representatives from observer states to seek to use the meeting as their opportunity to influence the process.
The thrust of their argument will likely be that the states they represent want to see them playing a more visible role. The most obvious way of doing this is by being given the chance to participate more during SAO meetings. But, that kind of request, according to Piotr Graczyk, of Norut, a Norwegian research outfit, indicates that observers either misunderstand how the council works, or that their real audience lies elsewhere.
Observers, for example, are encouraged to take part in working-group meetings, where, Mr Graczyk explains, most of the substantial work of the council takes place.
“What happens at SAO meetings is mostly a discussion of what the working groups have been doing,” he says. “If you are asking for time there, it is because you want to be seen, not necessarily contribute.”
If observers want more influence, he believes they should start by understanding the options they already have, not by asking for more.
“The Arctic Council is the most important Arctic organisation, but not being aware of how it works shows it is not the most important organisation for Arctic Council observer states.”
When and where
May 11; Warsaw, Poland