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Image: Maylis Saigot

Published: 2021-02-04

Sweden's new Arctic strategy lacking local input

FEATURE During the fourth edition of the Umeå Arctic Forum, Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde (S) presented the new Swedish Arctic Strategy. A long awaited strategy but one that could be improved according to the participating researchers and actors.

Text: Johanna Fredriksson

Global warming is dramatically affecting the Arctic, both its climate, economy, and the living conditions for the people of the region. The region has also gained geopolitical interests, which increases security policy needs, as well as covid-19 that shed light on the need for preparedness to deal with pandemics.

These changes entailed the Swedish government at the end of 2020 to update the Swedish Arctic foreign policy strategy from 2011. At the 2020 edition of the Umeå Arctic Forum - which was moved forward to 22 January 2021 and held digitally via Zoom due to the pandemic - this new strategy was in focus.

Vice-Chancellor Hans Adolfsson gave the introductory speech and the moderator for the forum was Ola Nordebo, a lead writer at the local newspaper Västerbottens-Kuriren. In addition to the guest of honour, Foreign Minister Ann Linde (S), representatives from the research community and regional actors participated, commenting on the strategy from their respective perspectives.

Sweden believes being a part of the Arctic is a strength

The Foreign Minister answered some questions she received earlier about both local needs for infrastructure in the Arctic, and how Sweden could work actively to ensure that the region doesn’t become a tug-of-war for major powers' military and geopolitical interests, but instead be characterised by peace, climate work and cooperation.

- Unfortunately, we cannot take for granted that the Arctic remains an area of low tension in terms of security policy, says Ann Linde, who wanted to highlight Sweden's long-term strategic approach, which aims to work for cooperation, dialogue and confidence-building measures, as well as strengthen Sweden's national defense capability in the north.
- It is also stated by all the eight Arctic countries that it should be a peaceful and constructive cooperation, says Ann Linde.

How prioritised is the Arctic in Sweden?

Dieter Müller, Professor at the Department of Geography and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Umeå University, expresses that Arctic issue seem to have a considerably low priority in Sweden compared to other Nordic countries. He wonders when there will be a change that also recognize the Arctic region as a protagonist of new solutions to environmental and social challenges.
- I don’t at all agree with that description. Sweden believes being a part of the Arctic is a strength, says Ann Linde, and continues:
- We do everything we can to contribute to a peaceful and sustainable development in the Arctic. At the very least this new strategy is proof of how active we are with Arctic issues and how important we believe it is, says Ann Linde.

The Foreign Minister also emphasised the importance of Polar Research, and that an essential part of the strategy is more international research cooperation.
- It is delightful that Swedish research receives a lot of positive international attention, says Ann Linde.

Research is more prioritised

All research participants at the forum were very positive that Research and Education is more prioritised, with customised chapters in the new strategy.
- We are pleased that the government so clearly emphasize research as an important component in their strong commitment to contribute to a peaceful and sustainable development in the Arctic. I believe that the research conducted in the Arctic will have a major impact internationally, says Katarina Gårdfeldt, director of the Polar Research Secretariat, who seemed very pleased with the strategy overall.

I’m considerably less impressed by the content

Johan Olofsson, Professor at the Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Umeå University, somewhat disapprove. 

- I’m considerably less impressed by the content, he says, and points out as an example that it is inappropriate to use the term Polar Research, as it is such an excluding expression compared to Arctic Research.
He also highlights the fact that the strategy lacks a detailed description of the research and environmental monitoring that will be, or already is, conducted in the Arctic.

- It's not logistics platforms or international networks that conduct research, it is researchers and research projects, he says.
Dieter Müller also has a few remarks regarding the new strategy. He state that the polar research mentioned in the strategy is limited, and reduced to the climate and the environment, while research can be conducted in all areas that the strategy highlights.

Arctic research should primarily consist of research conducted in the Arctic

He believes it’s encouraging that the government through the strategy declare Sweden’s Arctic as Norrbotten and Västerbotten county. But he asks that both research and decision-making then be relocated closer to this area.
- Arctic research should primarily consist of research conducted in the Arctic, and incorporate local knowledge, he says.

Regrettably Foreign Minister Ann Linde had to leave the forum early, and unable to receive and respond to the criticisms made.
Peter Sköld, who at this forum made his last appearance in the context of Director of the Arctic Research Center at Umeå University (Arcum) before positioning as the Vice-chancellors adviser, asked what the government could do to move from strategy to action.
Dieter Müller answers:
- That the strategy is presented as an important document to the other Government Offices, not merely something that "concerns those who live up there".

Local message permeates

The same message was expressed throughout the forum.

Regional and local representatives with focus on their respective challenges and developments also participated. Altogether they emphasize the importance that all actions must be anchored at a local level, and not to disregard the people of Norrland.

They are concerned that the northern part of Sweden beeing exploit without receiving something in return. County Director Lars Lustig expressed his worries.

- During the next ten to twenty years, huge amount of money is invested in the northern part of Sweden, but will this lead to a desired development or will we once again be the commodities pantry from which the rest of Sweden gets its wealth, he says.

- Will the billions that will be invested in Norrland benefit Norrland, and if so, how?

It is the people, the human capital, that we have to cherish and help develop

Marie-Louise Rönnmark (S), Mayor of Umeå, believes that the citizens should be more present in the Arctic strategy.

- As an invitation to the government for Arctic policy: It is the people, the human capital, that we have to cherish and help develop, she says.

A belief that Åsa Larsson Blind, Vice President of the Sami Council, also highlighted.

- We cannot make a transition to a sustainable society at the expense of neither indigenous peoples' rights, or irreplaceable environmental values. There must be a balance so that the investments we make fulfill the requirements of climate justice, sustainability and regionally development, she says.

Anna Pettersson, Regional Development Director of Region Västerbotten, believes that Västerbotten is a good place to implement development that can flourish.

- Västerbotten cities are from a global perspective relatively small, but at a very suitable size to act as test beds and nodes for innovations, that can be passed on and implemented in bigger cities, she says, and believes that the universities have an important role in developing the Arctic.

- It’s absolutely necessary to give collaborations between Arctic universities the possibility to continue, hence strengthening smart specialization, innovation and competence provision.

Umeå Arctic Forum is a good and important step in the right direction

More forums requested

Erik Bergkvist (S) also participated. As a former regional counsellor in Region Västerbotten, and current member of the European Parliament, he has experience from both the local and global perspective. He also wanted to emphasize the importance of local connection.

What is happening in our regions affects the unity in a very important way, without local work there could be no development at national or EU level, he says.

But he calls for more forums like this, providing opportunity for dialogue and cooperation between different levels around the Arctic region.

- The Umeå Arctic Forum is a good and important step in the right direction.