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E.U. Ambassador at Large for the Arctic.

“The challenges that the Arctic is facing can only be addressed through cooperation.”

Photo courtesy of Marie-Anne Coninsx.

Photo courtesy of Marie-Anne Coninsx.

Marie-Anne Coninsx, in conversation with Erica Dingman, emphasizes the European Union’s commitment to constructive cooperation and inclusiveness in the Arctic as the way forward for solving many of the globe’s most pressing challenges.

Erica Dingman: Why is the Arctic important to the European Union (EU)?

Marie-Anne Coninsx: The latest EU Arctic Policy of 2016 clearly stipulates that a safe, stable, sustainable and prosperous Arctic is important not just for the region itself, but for the EU and the rest of the world.  

The Arctic is of strategic interest for the EU for three main reasons: 

First, because the EU is part of the Arctic.  We are an Arctic entity: three of our Member States are Arctic States – Denmark, Finland and Sweden – and by extension Iceland and Norway, which are closely associated EU partners. This is not a purely dogmatic question. It means that the EU’s high standards in areas like climate action, safety of off-shore drilling and environmental protection also apply to the European Arctic. This means that we are able to play a constructive role in addressing some of the key challenges in the Arctic.

The second reason is because what happens in the Arctic impacts the whole of the European Union. The most dramatic are the effects of Arctic climate change, which negatively impact Europe and the rest of the world. But also what happens in the EU impacts the Arctic. The EU, for example, is a major consumer of products, such as fish and energy coming from the Arctic. European companies are investing in the Arctic and European tourists are visiting the region, which means that our footprint in the Arctic is significant and vice-versa. 

The third reason is because of the geo-economic and geopolitical implications of Arctic warming. When transformations of the Arctic create new economic opportunities in key sectors, such as energy, shipping or mining, this has an impact on the EU as a global economic power. At the same time, it is crucial that economic developments take place in a sustainable way, especially in the Arctic. The EU contributes by ensuring sustainability, a delicate balance between development and protection. Geopolitics are important for the EU as a global political player. This is why the EU´s strategic interest in the Arctic is also addressed in the EU’s Global Strategy, initiated in 2016 by EU High Representative Mrs. Mogherini. 

The EU Arctic Policy emphasizes multilateral cooperation and inclusion. How does the EU advance these principles? 

MAC: Promoting international cooperation, including multilateral, is one of three pillars of our Arctic policy. In general, promoting cooperation is in the DNA of the European Union. The EU´s major achievements are the result of working jointly and finding solutions together. This also applies to the Arctic, as the challenges that the Arctic is facing can only be addressed through cooperation – global problems require global solutions.  To this end, we work closely with specific Arctic fora – most importantly the Arctic Council, but also with multilateral organizations such as the UN. The most well-known example relates to climate change, which is a top priority of EU Arctic policy. As a global leader in combating climate change, key is the implementation of the UN Paris Agreement. The same applies to our efforts to protect the fragile Arctic environment, such as combating plastic pollution.  The highest levels of microplastics are found in the Arctic Ocean, which we address through strict EU legislation and international cooperation, for example assisting ASEAN countries to tackle plastic waste. The EU has, moreover, the capability to combine policies with substantial cooperation programs. This makes us, for example, a major contributor to Arctic research through Horizon 2020 and the EU´s Space programs.

Another aspect of our Arctic policy is the concept of inclusiveness. This is evident through our engagement with Arctic States, which have the primary responsibility for their territory. We work well with all Arctic States.  I stress the word “all” because this includes Russia, with whom, despite differences in other fields, we cooperate on the Arctic, and also through our northern polices – the Northern Dimension Policy and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council Cooperation. But cooperating with non-Arctic States is also of great importance to the EU. We believe that Arctic cooperation should include new actors, who are increasingly engaged with the Arctic, because major challenges like climate change can only be addressed if all countries are onboard. Equally important is the opportunity to work with all Arctic and non-Arctic States to ensure respect for international law.  

I’ll give you an example of the benefits of inclusiveness.  The Second Arctic Science Ministerial, that took place in Berlin in October 2018, brought together ministers from Arctic States, non-Arctic States, Indigenous Peoples and the scientific community. It was a great success, because we all worked closely together. It allowed everybody who wanted to contribute to scientific research an opportunity to do so. At the Third Arctic Science Ministerial conference, organized by Japan and Iceland for 2021, progress of commitments made in Berlin will be closely monitored. 

Finally, a key element of EU Arctic policy is our strong engagement with the people of the Arctic. Their voices must be heard. We have an annual dialogue with Arctic Indigenous Peoples and hold regular high-level conferences with Stakeholders. An important EU Arctic Forum will be held in Umea, Sweden on October 3, 2019. 

ED: What are your views of present geopolitical conditions in the Arctic?

MAC:  Arctic warming leads to a paradox: Aside from the clear negative aspects of Arctic warming – especially in 2019 with record  high temperatures, melting glaciers and massive wildfires – it also offers new economic opportunities such as easier access to natural resource extraction, new shipping opportunities between Asia, Europe and the Americas, and more fishing. All this means increasing economic interest. The step from geo-economic to geopolitics is extremely short. Over the last few months, I’ve observed the increasing geopolitical importance of the Arctic. This is clearly shown by developments in the region, such as the May 2019 speech given by U.S.  Secretary of State Pompeo in the margins of the Arctic Council, Russia’s pursuit of national economic growth and more military presence in the region, and the increasing interest of non-Arctic States, such as China. 

Greater geo-economic interest increases the possibility of economic competition and more rivalry all-around. However, we believe that the risk of conflicts in the Arctic remains low, as the overall objective of all Arctic States is to keep peace and stability in the region. This is also key to the EU’s Global Strategy that explicitly states that we want to maintain the Arctic as a low-tension region, based on constructive cooperation. However, the biggest threat to security is the risk of a spillover effect from conflicts outside the Arctic. This is also why the European Union takes the Arctic increasingly into account in our relations with third countries, especially Arctic, and the non-Arctic States which are Observers to the Arctic Council.  We are also very pleased that the current Finnish EU Council Presidency strongly supports the EU’s Arctic policy.

ED: Please tell us more about Russia’s objectives. 

MAC: The Arctic represents 10-15% of Russia’s GDP, and accounts for 20% of their exports. Hence, it is clear that the Arctic is of huge economic and also security interest for Russia. Russia says it needs the necessary infrastructure in the Arctic in order to match their economic aspirations, but also to address emergency situations in case of search and rescue operations, or oil spills. They also explain that their military presence in the region has a dual-use purpose. This does not mean that the considerable military build-up in the Russian Arctic is not met with some concerns. In fact, it is. Hence, more than ever, there is need for confidence-building measures and for dialogue on security issues, especially when present conditions are not necessarily ideal. 

ED: You have had an illustrious career as an official of the European Union. How has gender factored into your work? 

MAC: When I started my career with the European Union it was certainly not an advantage to be a woman. It was not usual that women had real ambitions and wanted to pursue a professional career. 

I cannot say that I have experienced gender discrimination throughout my career, but I had to fight for everything I obtained. Women still have to struggle to get equal opportunities. Fortunately, I see that this is changing. 

Now, I’m an official of the EU diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (EAAS). Notably, its current Secretary General Mrs. Helga Schmid is promoting gender issues by advancing equal opportunities, providing services such as mentoring young colleagues, and creating networks. As a result we now have far more women in executive positions at the EEAS and also increased the number of female EU ambassadors.

Although structural improvements are having a positive impact, we’re not there yet. Gender equality still requires a change of mentality especially at the management level, and also more solidarity among women and stronger networking between women. 

I often hear as a justification as to why no women are nominated: “We don’t have female candidates.” This does not correspond with reality! As a colleague, the current French Ambassador to Canada, Mrs. Kereen Rispal, said – “cherchez la femme” – look for talented women for the job and believe me they do exist! Over the years, as EU Ambassador to Mexico, to Canada and in my current capacity, I’ve worked with fantastic women who are very engaged, dedicated, and have the highest professional qualifications and skills. In brief, women who are real assets to any team.  

ED: How might that influence your work as the EU Ambassador at Large for the Arctic? 

MAC: I’m proud to be the first EU Ambassador for the Arctic. I continue to meet remarkable women working in or on Arctic issues, who are role models for many others in different fields and sectors, be it researchers, politicians, diplomats, business women, or representatives of Indigenous people. They are all playing a key role in their respective fields of expertise. I actively support the participation of women and youth at Arctic events. We have a policy called “no women, no panel”. Still today, in 2019, I see conferences with large panels comprised only of men. It’s not good and it cannot be justified, because in reality there is plenty of choice of very qualified women! Initiatives, such as “Brussels Binder”, a sector-based data bank, is a very useful tool for connecting with female experts. So, if, for example, you are looking for an Arctic expert, Binder connects you with related female experts. Also for this reason, I firmly support the “Women of the Arctic” network, showcasing remarkable, fantastic and most talented women, who are contributing to a better and sustainable Arctic. They benefit not only the Arctic region and its people, but their work also benefits the rest of the world.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Photo courtesy of Marie-Anne Coninsx.

Photo courtesy of Marie-Anne Coninsx.

Marie-Anne Coninsx is Ambassador at Large for the Arctic, since September 2017. She previously was the European Union' Ambassador to Canada where she extensively visited the Canadian Arctic. She is an EU official since 1984 with extensive experience in EU external policies and multilateral affairs. She has a Law Degree from Gent University (Belgium) and Masters' Degrees from Cambridge University (UK) including Law of the Sea, and from the European University Centre in Nancy (France). She is a proud European of Belgian nationality and speaks 5 languages fluently.

You can follow Marie-Anne on Twitter at @MarieAnnConinsx.

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Aurora champions women and gender equality through a series of interviews inclusive of a wide range of voices. We recognize that freedom of expression is an important step towards equitable outcomes for women and by extension all of humanity.