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What does the EU want, what can it offer?

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This article originally appeared in The Circle, WWF’s quarterly Arctic journal, issue 01.16. See all articles here. Previous issues of The Circle can be downloaded here.

One of the few things most people know about the European Union (EU) in the Arctic is that it has repeatedly been denied formal Observer status at the Arctic Council – the region’s dedicated organ for cooperation. That may give the impression that one of Europe’s strongest organizations is still knocking on the door of the Arctic from the outside. As ALYSON BAILES writes, that is not the case. Bailes is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Iceland specializing in Nordic & Arctic security issues.

Map: The EU and the ArcticMap: The EU and the Arctic

THE EU IS ALREADY interlinked with the Arctic at many levels: membership, partnership, trade, rule-making, and practical cooperation. Whether this complex relationship is optimally managed is a different question. Is the EU clear on what it wants from the Arctic process, and effective in pursuing it? Is it working as best it might for a peaceful, sustainable Arctic future?

Conflict or even violent competition around the Pole would be bound to spill over southwards, bringing strategic as well as economic risks.


To start with the facts: three of the Arctic Council’s eight member states – Denmark, Finland and Sweden – are full EU members. Two more, Iceland and Norway, as members of the European Economic Area, belong to the Single Market and the Schengen Convention – agreements that make them part of the EU’s single territory without internal borders or regulatory obstacles for the free movement of goods and services, and with a common visa policy.

The remaining three, Canada, Russia and the US, are key partners of the EU in trade, investment and other policy areas. All EU rules and agreements accepted by these countries apply equally to their northernmost territories and, indeed, to their Extended Economic Zones in the Arctic seas. This EU ‘regulatory footprint’ is particularly strong in the case of fisheries management – on which Greenland and the Faroe Islands, while not included in Denmark’s EU membership, also have agreements with Brussels – and on climate change policy.

Given the way ‘money talks’ however, European economic and financial involvement is at least equally important. The EU is the leading foreign customer for oil and gas already produced in the Arctic by Russia and Norway, and for Arctic catches of fish. It registers and insures a significant proportion of Arctic shipping and generates an increasing flow of tourism into the Arctic lands and seas. Brussels also supplies funds for cooperative projects from Russia to Greenland through its Northern Dimension regional programme and other cross-border frameworks in Northernmost Europe. It spends a large and growing amount on Arctic-related monitoring and research.

When the EU first began framing an Arctic policy in 2008-09, it made clear that its main interest lay in a peaceful Arctic future grounded in law-based cooperation. Conflict or even violent competition around the Pole would be bound to spill over southwards, bringing strategic as well as economic risks. Accordingly, the EU supports the Arctic Council’s current policy of working as normally as possible with Russia on Arctic issues despite the Ukraine-related crisis.

Brussels has consistently backed other goals of the Arctic Council such as environmental protection and sustainable economic development, shipping safety, scientific cooperation, and the rights of Indigenous peoples. It can use its powerful regulatory clout and financial incentives to promote these. On other issues, such as its anti-whaling policy and trade ban on seal products, the EU has sometimes clashed with Arctic interest groups. This was initially complicating its bid for Arctic Council observership, though recent moves have been made for compromise. On fisheries, the EU is close to the Arctic Council mainstream in believing that the exploitation of new ice-free waters should be delayed pending a full scientific assessment.

So far so good: but why then is the EU still not seen as a suitable Arctic Council observer? Politically, the latest complication is that the EU economic sanctions adopted during the Ukraine crisis have angered Russia and are, in fact, starting to block off some funding options for Arctic projects. The EU’s problem here is that it has an overall stance towards Moscow in which the Arctic plays only a limited part, and its legalistic nature gives it less scope than a national government to vary its approach in different cases. At least temporarily, therefore, Brussels finds it hard to come forward as a clean-handed supporter of the Arctic peace it sincerely seeks.

There are also more mundane problems. The EU’s ‘diplomatic service’ (the European External Action Service) claims coordinating rights over Arctic policy, but the more important practical fields like shipping, fisheries and climate policy development are run by the European Commission. Maintaining coherence is a struggle. Moreover, many EU nations have yet to take Arctic issues seriously and two of the front-liners – Denmark and Sweden – have mixed feelings about possible Brussels interference. Germany, the UK and France have only very recently defined their Arctic aims.

All this said, further delay over the Arctic Council Observership is more a symbolic than a practical block to stronger EU involvement. Much could be achieved by tighter coordination, more flexible funding, and a more sensitive grasp of Arctic partners’ own aims and feelings.

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