by Mieke Molthof. Originally published on 2014/01/23

Lately, the Arctic region has become a hot topic in global affairs. The opening-up of the Arctic presents significant economic potential through access to natural resources and new shipping routes, but at the same time the Arctic’s unique ecosystem is put at great risk (Blunden, 2012; Keil, 2012). Given the growing strategic, environmental and economic importance of the Arctic region and rising concerns about Arctic developments in the last couple of years, the EU has expressed its intention to step up its involvement in Arctic affairs and to develop its own policy towards the Arctic region. As the pace of climatic change and economic developments is now quickly accelerating, the European Commission and High Representative recently issued a Joint Communication in which it was stated that “the time is now ripe to refine the EU’s policy stance” (European Union, 2012).

The Arctic region is a polar region that covers the northernmost part of the earth. It includes the Arctic Ocean and parts of the territories of Canada, Russia, the US, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark (Greenland) (Emmerson & Lahn, 2012). The EU is intricately connected to the Arctic region via its member states as well as through numerous EU competences, policies and regulations which directly affect the Arctic in matters such as trade, energy, climate change, research, transport, fishery and the environment (Käpylä & Mikkola, 2013). Three main interest areas can be identified. Firstly, the EU is a major destination of Arctic resources and goods. Around one quarter of Arctic oil and gas output is destined for Europe, and around half of the fish caught in polar waters is sold to the EU. Secondly, as the great majority of the EU’s trade is carried out at sea, the EU has a natural interest in securing access to new shipping routes. Thirdly, the EU has expressed deep concerns about the Arctic’s environmental state, and is eager to maintain its reputation as the world’s strongest proponent of fighting climate change (European Union, 2012).

The first official step towards an EU Arctic policy was taken in November 2008 when the Commission published a communication on ‘The European Union and the Arctic Region’ (Raspotnik & Rudloff, 2012). The EU’s policy towards the Arctic is now slowly materializing, as suggested by the 2012 Communication ‘Developing a European Union Policy towards the Arctic Region’ and ‘The Inventory of Activities in the Framework of Developing a European Union Arctic Policy’ (European Union, 2012). Yet, so far, the EU has had little collective influence on Arctic affairs. The EU has never been at the forefront in Arctic governance, nor has it been recognized as a legitimate international actor by all Arctic states (Østhagen, 2013). The EU has to deal with a wide variety of actors, while being itself a highly complex political entity made up of a large number of member states with different perceptions and interests.

While the EU’s position-papers have set out broad uniform guiding principles, there is a substantial gap between the EU’s rhetoric and its actual behaviour in terms of concrete political acts. This seems to be partly due to the fact that the EU has been primarily occupied with achieving international recognition by the Arctic states in order to gain a say over Arctic governance (Østhagen, 2013). Most importantly, the EU has had to moderate its Arctic approach in order to enhance its chances to achieve observer status in the Arctic Council – the high-level intergovernmental body that overseas and addresses Arctic developments and thereby functions as the primary gatekeeper of the region. Yet, even though the EU has substantially toned down its political stance since it first formulated an Arctic policy in 2008, the EU was still unsuccessful in gaining an observer seat in 2013. The Council decided to defer its decision on the EU’s application due to ongoing disputes between the EU and Canada over a trade ban on seal products. Meanwhile, Asian countries like China, South Korea and Japan have recently started to mingle themselves in the Arctic game and are investing considerable effort in trying to enhance their influence over Arctic affairs (Apps, 2012). The Arctic is becoming a geopolitical frontier and a global stage for great power politics. Yet, the EU currently seems to lag further and further behind in the run for the Arctic, and risks missing the boat in gaining an official say over Arctic governance (Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, 9th August 2013).

Nevertheless, the potential for EU political influence is considerable. The EU can make use of its soft power and the expertise of its member states in order to gain recognition on the international stage. As Arctic challenges need to be addressed on a global level, the EU can take advantage of its experience in countering climate change, advocating sustainable development, and conducting multilateral diplomacy. Yet, in order to exploit its potential in a successful way, the EU will first need to work on creating internal cohesion. The EU as a whole is unable to improve its role in the Arctic without member states critically reflecting on their own policy priorities and implementation approach, and on how these adequately fit within a collective EU agenda for Arctic affairs. In this regard, the current trend is rather promising. In a report by foreign policy analysts Major and Steinicke (2011), it was already found that a convergence of interests could be observed between the EU’s leading member states in foreign policy – Britain, France and Germany. According to Major and Steinicke, “[t]he French, British and German understanding of security dynamics and their initiatives – for instance their suggestion to allow for a participation of non-Arctic states in Arctic Council affairs – prepare the ground for a more coherent EU position on the High North” (p.15). In recent years, France, Britain and Germany have shown an increasing interest in Arctic affairs and have started to invest considerable resources in Arctic engagement. The EU’s ‘big three’ could take the lead in advancing confidence-building measures with Arctic states and developing a more coherent and concrete EU arctic policy in cooperation with other member states. While some member states – most notably Denmark – have so far proven reluctant to conduct their Arctic policy through the framework of the EU (Keil, 2012), the growing involvement of the EU’s ‘big three’ could make it increasingly attractive for other countries to channel their efforts through the institutions of the EU. No doubt, there is still some way to go towards the realization of an influential common policy. Nevertheless, joint knowledge-building, enhanced coordination and the pooling of resources among EU member states would certainly support a more prominent role for the EU in the game of Arctic governance.

Further Reading:

Käpylä, J. & Mikkola, H. (2013). The global Arctic: The growing Arctic interests of Russia, China, the United States and the European Union. FIIA Briefing paper, 133 (August 2013).

Keil, K. (2012). The European Union in the Arctic ‘game’: The concert of Arctic actors and the EU’s newcomer role. Paper presented at the 7th Pan-European International Relations Conference in Stockholm, 9-11 September 2010.

References:

Apps, P. (2012, April 3). Melting Arctic may redraw global geopolitical map. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com

Blunden, M. (2012). Geopolitics and the Northern Sea Route. International Affairs, 88(1), 115-129.

Emmerson, C. & Lahn, G. (2012). Arctic opening: Opportunity and risk in the High North. Chatham House – Lloyd’s Risk Insight Report, April 2012. Available at http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/182839

European Union, The European Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (2012). Developing a European Union Policy towards the Arctic Region: progress since 2008 and next steps.

European Union, The European Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (2012). The inventory of activities in the framework of developing a European Union Arctic Policy.

Käpylä, J. & Mikkola, H. (2013). The global Arctic: The growing Arctic interests of Russia, China, the United States and the European Union. FIIA Briefing paper, 133 (August 2013).

Keil, K. (2012). The European Union in the Arctic ‘game’: The concert of Arctic actors and the EU’s newcomer role. Paper presented at the 7th Pan-European International Relations Conference in Stockholm, 9-11 September 2010.

Major, C.& Steinicke, S. (2011). EU member states’ perceptions of the security relevance of the High North. SWP Working Paper FG02/FG03, Nr. 4/5. SWP Berlin.

Mitteldeutsche Zeitung (2013, August 9). EU droht that Thema Arktis zu verschlafen. Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. Retrieved from http://www.mz-web.de

Raspotnik, A. & Rudloff, B. (2012). The EU as a shipping actor in the Arctic: Characteristics, interests and perspectives. SWP Working Paper FG 2, 2012/Nr. 4. SWP Berlin.

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