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Sweden's Strategy for the Arctic Region


Sweden’s Strategy for the Arctic Region: priorities and objectives

By Lassi Heininen, University of Lappland


The Swedish Government adopted Sweden’s Arctic strategy in May 2011. It was published in May both in Swedish (“Sveriges strategi för den arktiska regionen”) and in English, “Sweden’s strategy for the Arctic region”).


Since Sweden was the last of the eight Arctic states to issue and approve an Arctic strategy or policy, there was growing international pressure on Sweden as well as domestic calls for the Government to do so, not least due to the Swedish chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Indeed, it was on the very day that Sweden launched its Arctic strategy that the country took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council and published moreover “Sweden’s Chairmanship Programme for the Arctic Council 2011–2013”. Taking into consideration this, and the fact that there was not much time to prepare, adapt and launch Sweden’s Arctic Strategy, it can be taken as something of an achievement. This might also partly explain why the document is rather traditional without surprises or special emphases. Conventionality, however, could also be taken as a mark of strength, insofar as the Strategy is straightforward and clear on its priorities.


Before this statement of policy, there were not so many political statements of Sweden, or speeches by Swedish politicians, on the Arctic and northern issues. One of those is the speech by Foreign Minister Carl Bildt in 2009, where he indicated which key issues may be found on the Swedish agenda. Furthermore, the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) organized in April 2011 the first conference in Sweden on the emerging challenges in the Arctic and how to promote the Arctic Council.


Sweden was, however, one of the founding states of the current international cooperative body on Arctic matters, i.e. the Arctic Council. Historically Sweden has natural and strong ties which have linked Sweden to the Arctic region, as is mentioned in the Strategy, both geographically and demographically. Sweden has been a substantial contributor to Polar research for more than a hundred years. This research is promoted and coordinated by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat. One example of its work is the early twentieth century creation of the Abisko Scientific Research Station.


The Swedish Arctic strategy document consists of a summary, an introduction and three substantial chapters. Included are fact sheets on the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Northern Dimension in the appendices.


The introduction explains why an Arctic strategy is needed. One reason is global warming, and another, living conditions of indigenous peoples. The first substantial chapter “Sweden and the Arctic” identifies the many ties linking Sweden to the Arctic region. They include historical ties, such as Carl Linnaeus’s journeys in Lapland and those of other explorers; security and economic interests, such as mining and the space industry; climate and environment concerns; scientific research, i.e. more than 150 years of Swedish expeditions to the Arctic; and cultural ties, particularly to Sámi culture. The main reason to include this chapter, which is informative, interesting and good on background information, might have been to legitimise Sweden’s definition of itself as an Arctic country; indeed, national identity-building is socially constructed and all the time under discourse.


The next chapter, “Objectives and implementations in Arctic cooperation” the Strategy clearly states that the well-functioning multilateral cooperation on the Arctic is the main priority for Sweden. As forums of cooperation it mentions the Arctic Council; the European Union; Nordic cooperation (including the Nordic Council of Ministers); Barents Region cooperation; the United Nations and its conventions (e.g. UNCLOS), agencies (e.g. IMO, UNFCCC and Convention on Biodiversity) and bodies (e.g. UNEP, WHO); the five littoral states of the Arctic Ocean; and  cross-national Sámi cooperation bodies, particularly the Sámi Parliamentary Council.


This and the long list of forums and organizations of which Sweden is an active member, demonstrate the importance of effective multilateral cooperation on the Arctic. Its mention is most likely due to Sweden’s current chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2011-2013). Nonetheless, it has long been Sweden’s policy to work actively with others in international organisations, though this is the first time it applies to modern international Arctic cooperation.


The second half of the document is all about the three priorities, or priority areas, of Sweden’s Arctic strategy. They are “Climate and the environment”; “Economic development”; and “The human dimension”, i.e. peoples (of the region) and their living conditions. Discussion of each priority starts with a list of objectives, what Sweden intends, or would like, to do in the near future. These are not surprising, nor that the climate and environment are the priorities to be mentioned first. The fact that there are only three priorities shows that Sweden’s Arctic strategy is one of the most focused of the Arctic strategies; all the same, each strategy comes with a rather long list of objectives.


The sub-priorities, or focus points, under the first priority are “Climate”; “Environmental protection”; “Biodiversity”; and “Climate and environmental research”. Of particular interest and importance in this connection is  biodiversity. Among the objectives, Sweden is working or planning to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to ensure that climate change (in the Arctic) and its impact are highlighted in international climate negotiations; to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity (in the Arctic); and to invest in becoming a leading nation in scientific research on climate, the environment, and the impact of climate change on humans.


The second priority is economic development in several areas of business and economic interests. Somewhat surprisingly, Sweden is looking to pursue many business and economic interests in (the free trade area of) the Arctic and Barents Region. These sub-priorities are “Mining, petroleum and forestry”; “Land transport and infrastructure”; “Maritime security and the environmental impact of shipping”; “Sea and air rescue”; “Ice-breaking”; “Energy”; “Tourism”; “Reindeer husbandry”; and “Other activities” (e.g. ICT and space technology). “Educational and research needs” is another sub-priority, as well as a few examples of education in  the mining and mineral industry.


Sweden will be seeking or planning to promote economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development (in the Arctic); highlight the importance of respecting international law when utilizing the energy resources (of the region); promote the use of Swedish expertise in environmental technology; and promote Swedish commercial interests in the Arctic.


The third priority, “The human dimension” includes people (of the region) and their living conditions. The six sub-priorities or focus points are “Geographical conditions in the Arctic affect human health”; “Climate change and hazardous substances affect the population”; “Impact on indigenous cultures and their industries”; “The survival of Sámi languages”; “Knowledge transfer”; and “Research program on the Sami society”.


Sweden’s objectives include taking steps to highlight the human dimension, such as the Sámi Convention, in the Arctic Council; promote the preservation of the Sámi and other indigenous languages; support initiatives promoting a more active participation of young people and women in political processes; and using and utilizing forums of Nordic and Arctic cooperation to promote knowledge transfer between scientific, local indigenous and other Arctic communities.


Of these three priorities, “Economic development” is the richest and most multifunctional, not least its emphasis on free trade (throughout the Arctic region); industrial policy (Barents region); and economic interests in many fields, such as mining, petroleum, forestry, tourism, transport, shipping and ice-breaking, and reindeer husbandry. Rather surprisingly, the strategy emphasizes petroleum, i.e. oil and gas resources in the Barents Sea region, even more than mining which has been, and remains, the cornerstone industry of Northern Sweden. Economic development seems therefore to be a top priority of Sweden’s arctic policy.


The two other priorities, “Climate and the environment” and “The human dimension” are much the same as the focus areas of Sweden’s Chairmanship Programme for the Arctic Council 2011–2013. The three focus areas of the programme, which gives priority “to issues that will promote environmentally sustainable development of the Arctic”, are “Environment and climate”, “The people” and “A stronger Arctic Council”. Here one relevant difference is that ‘Resilience’ which is some sort of flagship project of the Swedish Chairmanship, is not emphasized in the strategy document.


All in all, Sweden’s Strategy for the Arctic covers most of the features of a modern political strategy, particularly in terms of adopting concrete objectives under each priority. The policy can also be seen as a reflection of and response to the recent significant, multi-functional (global) change(s) in the Arctic as much as the growing interest of and pressure from other Arctic states and several non-Arctic states.


See also Lassi Heininen, “Arctic Strategies and Policies – Inventory and Comparative Study”. The Northern Research Forum & and The University of Lapland, Akureyri, Iceland, August 2011 ( /Arctic Strategies).

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