Illustration: Juan M. Sarabia
The city of Bodø, North Norway’s second largest community, recently saw a number of relatively unfamiliar visitors: Members of the European Parliament (MEP). Several MEPs ventured to North Norway to familiarize themselves with the European Arctic, its challenges and opportunities and the people living in it.
Although the Arctic has indisputably not been a foreign policy priority of the European Union (EU), it is not the first time the EU looks beyond its northern frontier. However, one of the MEPs ‘exploring’ Bodø, Jørn Dohrmann from Denmark, announced that it is now time for a renewed EU engagement in the north, explicitly based on the premises of the people living in the region.
And indeed, after a new College of Commissioners has taken over the European ship and the MEPs (old as well as new) have settled in Brussels again, the Arctic returns to the EU’s policy agenda. There are undoubtedly other foreign policy issues that rank higher; nonetheless 2015 could become a seminal year for the EU’s Arctic engagement.
As the European Commission (hereinafter ‘Commission’) and the European External Action Service (EEAS) aim to produce their third communication on a EU policy for the Arctic, two essential questions remain to be answered:
- Is there a space, both politically and economically, for the EU in the Arctic?
- Have the Commission and the EEAS found a path to legitimize EU Arctic actions?
After two policy documents without a clear direction, one could impatiently argue that it is time for the EU to carve out its own role in the Arctic.1)The first Communication, COM(2008) 763 final, was published in November 2008; the second, JOIN(2012) 19 final, in June 2012. This could, for instance, be accomplished by emphasizing those policy areas where the EU carries a high degree of relevance for the Arctic, like in the maritime or environmental domain, and by focusing on the parts of the Arctic closest to the European home. Karmenu Vella, the new Commissioner in charge of both the environment and maritime affairs and fisheries, will undoubtedly have his hands full. Yet, he should not neglect the importance of a clear EU policy for the Arctic.
For years now The Arctic Institute has covered the EU’s Arctic endeavor and extensively debated not only the EU’s role in the Arctic, but also the Arctic’s role in Brussels. As a matter of fact, the EU’s Arctic policy making process serves as a striking example of the prevailing EU-dichotomy of what is essentially internal or external, domestic or foreign policy. On top of that and as extensively argued by Kobza, we have seen an actor whose classic foreign policy approach was the “externalization of its internal policies”: initiatives and strategies based on reciprocity, contractual relations and the engagement of regional partners.
However, the Arctic picture was slightly different. The EU was eventually constricted in the regional concert of Arctic powers where a straightforward promotion of its internal policies remains a naïve approach.2)See Kobza, Piotr (2015): Civilian Power Europe in the Arctic: How Far Can the European Union Go North? EU Diplomacy Papers 1/2015, College of Europe, Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies Furthermore, Arctic realpolitik seems to have made the EU behave like a deer caught in the headlights. The official positions have been a combination of caution and reluctance, mixed with a certain portion of regional inexperience and ignorance.
Internally, debates in Brussels have often been trapped in polarity, for instance, between the environmental interests located in European capitals like Berlin, Paris and London, and the interests of those living in, and developing, the northern areas. It is the role of the Commission and the EEAS to embark on a balancing act between these varied interests, as they are set to release the third communication on the Arctic sometime in late 2015.
2008, 2012 and…
The EU policy-making system is, without exaggerating, complicated – a structure sui generis. This is especially the case when dealing with multi-policy areas like the Arctic, where ‘foreign’ policy demands meet those of ‘domestic’ ones, such as energy, environment, regional affairs, fisheries, industry and trade. Consequently, many voices want to be heard and find a seat around the Commission’s Arctic table. The Commission has therefore established so-called interagency working groups where officials from the various Directorates-General (DG) meet to make sure that all their interests are considered and incorporated, before eventually releasing a communication.
The alternative, which was the case in the formative years (2006-2008) of the EU’s Arctic policy development, is a process dominated by specific interests groups. At that time, disagreement prevailed between those few working on Arctic issues in the Commission who understood the foreign (and sectoral) policy sensitivities of the region, and those politicians in the European Parliament with a specific interest group to defend.
Consequently, this mixture led to a Brussels-based Arctic debate that touched upon relatively delicate topics such as the ‘need’ for an Arctic treaty, a potential moratorium on resource extraction, Russia as the great Arctic antagonizer, and a ban on importing seal products. The geopolitics of the Arctic in the 21st century had arrived in Brussels, but Brussels did not really know what to do with it.
After the Commission’s first communication in 2008, some of the Arctic coastal states consequently started to question the need for a EU Arctic policy. The new communication in 2012 emphasized neutrality in some of the more delicate matters outlined above, and watered down potential policy goals and the overarching strategies. The debates in Brussels have sobered, using the same language as in the Arctic countries themselves. Now focus is on sustainable development, local concerns and resilience, combined with the three new European keywords knowledge, responsibility and engagement.
The Arctic in 2015 entails a number of sensitive issues for the EU, for instance how to maintain cooperation with Russia, while still acting firm over actions in Ukraine and a potential resolution on the EU’s Arctic Council (AC) observer status. The EU’s member states (MS) have to take first steps concerning the legal implementation of the Polar Code. In addition, long-term Arctic considerations should not be neglected and at least be debated internally. This includes, inter alia, the following questions:
- Could the Arctic serve as the EU’s green blue print, focusing decisively on environmental protection and renewable energy?
- Does the EU’s Arctic future include a strengthened EU-Greenland partnership or even the re-incorporation of Greenland into the EU’s political system?
- Will there ever be a Northern Neighbourhood that comprises the European Economic Area, the Northern Dimension and the higher Arctic?
Specific questions on how to engage Russia in an Arctic dialogue is not the job of the EU but rather the various Arctic states. It still remains to be seen how much the Ukrainian house of cards – the adversarial nexus of Ukraine-EU-Russia – will actually impact the EU’s cooperation efforts with Russia in the various European Arctic regions, e.g. through existing mechanisms in the Barents Euro Arctic Region (BEAR) and the Northern Dimension (ND).
The Arctic Council Observer Status
Since the Arctic’s geopolitical re-appearance almost a decade ago, observer status to the region’s institutional umbrella – the Arctic Council – has dominated international discussions and public Arctic coverage. There has been much debate over this issue, either emphasizing the absolute necessity for non-Arctic states to become observers, or stating that the status is not much more than a symbolic gesture.
After a lengthy row between Canada and the EU over the EU’s import ban on seal products, Canada lifted its reservations towards the EU’s bid as a deal was struck on assistance to indigenous communities in the Canadian north. The process has been tedious. As once stated by an official in Brussels: “Canada has been waiting for the EU to show what they can do in the Arctic, while the EU has been waiting to be told what to do in the Arctic”.
Yet, at last week’s AC Ministerial in Iqaluit (Canada), the question of observers – and the EU in particular – was not discussed, at least not publicly. Although Canada now supports the EU’s application, it seems that the current political situation with Russia have impacted the EU’s chances of finally getting permitted as an observer. And Russia’s outspoken desire to shelter Arctic cooperation from external events seems to have faltered.
The EU subsequently has to decide how much weight to place on obtaining a more or less symbolic observer status. Participation in the AC’s working groups is not hindered, and EU-representatives have been participating – so-called ad-hoc – at the various meetings of the AC the last decade. Regardless of how the observer question is eventually dealt with in the years to come, the EU should arguably look beyond it, and spend energy and political clout on other aspects of its Arctic engagement.
Shipping, Fisheries and Regional Development
Of particular relevance to the EU and the Arctic alike is the implementation of the Polar Code. The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, which is expected to enter into force on 1 January 2017, will set out mandatory regulations for shipping-related matters relevant to navigation in waters surrounding the two poles. The code itself is a positive step forward, facing necessary challenges of Arctic environmental concerns; however critical voices remain concerning the code’s eventual efficiency.
As the code enters into force the EU (including the European Economic Area countries Iceland and Norway) – controlling more than 40% of world gross tonnage – can play a role making sure its MS adhere to the new regime. Consequently, the EU could assist its MS in their respective Polar Code implementation and ensure the correct execution therefore – if, however, the Polar Code is transposed into EU legislation.
Similarly, one third of the fish caught in the Arctic are sold on the European market, while the EU and its member states also hold approximately 4% of Arctic fisheries quotas. When wielding this leverage, the EU has a chance to actively pursue a fisheries policy that is aimed at a sustainable yield of the stocks. Related, in the discussions over how to deal with potential fisheries in the High Arctic Ocean, the EU has a role to play. Although the Arctic coastal states themselves do not agree on how to approach this topic (should they implement a moratorium or take a research-based approach?), the EU has the power to take a policy position according to its own “precautionary principle”.
Finally, as some of the Arctic regions of Europe have been demanding for a long time, the EU could wield its regional development tools in the Arctic more efficiently. As the Commission itself argues, €1.98 billion went to funding of regional development in the Arctic through EU-led programs, in the period 2007-2013.3)It has to be noted, however, that the budget is substantially backed by Finland and Sweden. These programs are focused on the parts of the Arctic that are closest to home, where the EU also has a natural legitimacy by virtue of its Arctic member states (Finland and Sweden) or economic agreements (Greenland, Iceland and Norway). Streamlining these funding mechanisms, and amplifying them towards achieving some of the lofty European ambitions in the north, is a step forward for the EU’s Arctic engagement.
2015 is going to be a revealing year for the EU in the Arctic. Given the lack of an outcome at the Iqaluit Ministerial Meeting, it needs to decide whether or not to hinge its Arctic engagement on an arguably symbolic title as an observer. Active engagement, or reputation and recognition only, is the question. At the same time, international attention to the Arctic has decreased, with a low oil price, fewer trans-Arctic shipments, and tensions between ‘the West’ and Russia over Ukraine.4)See for instance an article in The Economist, entitled ”The Arctic: Not so cool” from January 31, 2015: www.economist.com/news/international/21641240-hype-over-arctic-recedes-along-summer-ice-not-so-cool
Yet, this should have relatively little impact on the EU’s Arctic engagement. Commercial interests might not be in the driving seat anymore, but the climatic conditions are nonetheless changing, and regional development still takes primacy.
Similarly, diplomatic efforts to include Russia in any collaborative scheme for the Arctic are integral to success in developing the region while also tackling arising challenges. In this respect, the EU plays a crucial role, wielding a multitude of sticks and carrots.
Finally, with a mandate to implementing and improving policy areas that reach beyond each MS, the EU’s role in environmental regulation with regards to shipping and fisheries should not be underestimated. This could also be highlighted to the benefit of the Arctic, as the EU sets somewhat loftier goals in its Arctic policy engagement.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||The first Communication, COM(2008) 763 final, was published in November 2008; the second, JOIN(2012) 19 final, in June 2012.|
|2.||↑||See Kobza, Piotr (2015): Civilian Power Europe in the Arctic: How Far Can the European Union Go North? EU Diplomacy Papers 1/2015, College of Europe, Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies|
|3.||↑||It has to be noted, however, that the budget is substantially backed by Finland and Sweden.|
|4.||↑||See for instance an article in The Economist, entitled ”The Arctic: Not so cool” from January 31, 2015: www.economist.com/news/international/21641240-hype-over-arctic-recedes-along-summer-ice-not-so-cool|