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The European Union in the Arctic

By Duncan Depledge

Making sense of the European Union’s interest in the Arctic is far from a straightforward task. In recent years, the complexity of the EU as an entity has too often been brushed aside in favor of stories that generate headlines about their overreaching attempts to influence the Arctic, and its subsequent frustration at being excluded. Such narratives misrepresent both the essential nature of the EU as an actor and the degree to which the EU has been, or indeed can be, excluded from Arctic affairs. 

To frame the EU’s relationship with the Arctic more clearly, it is necessary to first break down the EU into what it is and what it is not. The EU, comprised of 28 member states, is the largest single market in the world, comprising 500 million consumers and accounting for 16 percent of world imports and exports. The EU is not a homogeneous super-state that acts with a single voice, but rather a complex arrangement of treaties, institutions, and legislation designed to promote the collective interests of the member states across a range of issues, with the single, unified market at its core. 

Simultaneously, much of this arrangement is set out in general terms and is broadly applicable across the EU. As in most countries, the EU has no Arctic office per se that deals with all of the EU’s Arctic interests. Instead, EU competences that are relevant in the Arctic (listed here) are distributed across the different Directorates-General of the European Commission, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Inter-Service Group on the Arctic, which exchanges information between the relevant EU bodies. Furthermore, the structure of the EU means that the European Council (setting the policy agenda) and the European Parliament (amending and rejecting legislation) also have a capacity to shape the terms of the EU’s Arctic interests. 

EU Relations with the Arctic Council

The EU’s relationship with the Arctic Council is generally that which attracts most attention. Although three EU member states are also members of the Arctic Council (Denmark, Finland, and Sweden), they only represent themselves, and not the EU. Nor is the EU represented by the six member states that are accredited observers to the Arctic Council (the U.K., France, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Netherlands). In the Arctic Council context, the European Commission is the critical actor for EU representation. However, though the Commission has been able to send observers to Arctic Council meetings on an ad-hoc basis (and is treated like other observers in practice), it has yet to receive the accreditation which would formally recognize the EU as an observer to the Arctic Council. 

The reason for this relates to a number of controversial statements issued by the European Parliament and the European Commission in 2008. The Parliament’s call for an international Arctic treaty (which was perceived by some in the Arctic as being dismissive of the sovereign rights of the eight Arctic states), and the Commission’s pursuit of an ‘enhanced role’ in Arctic governance were viewed in some Arctic quarters as both ignorant and overly assertive.  

The Commission and the Parliament further compounded the controversy in 2009 with the adoption of an EU-wide market ban on seal products. The ban was vociferously opposed by Canada in particular (based on the damage it could cause to the livelihoods of indigenous peoples), and was subsequently used by the Canadian government as a key argument for deferring the EU’s application to be accredited as an observer to the Arctic Council until a later date. 

However, in 2014, Canada dropped its opposition to the EU’s application to the Arctic Council after announcing a package of agreements on global security, energy development, and the Arctic (shortly followed by a deal on implementing exemptions for indigenous peoples from the EU market ban on sea products). 

Nevertheless, the EU’s application remains in limbo after it was left off the agenda (along with other observer applications) at the 2015 Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Iqaluit, Canada. This appears to have been related at least in part to the deterioration of relations with the EU and Russia, and the possibility that given the chance to vote, Russia would have exercised its own veto against the EU’s application. The tightly packed agenda in Iqaluit, as well as feeling that the issue of observers had for too long dominated the Arctic Council’s Ministerial meetings, is also likely to have contributed. In the end, no new observer applications were discussed in 2015. The EU will now have to wait at least until the next Ministerial meeting in 2017 to get a response. (Although in the meantime, the EU can continue attending the Arctic Council as an observer in principle.)

Delimiting the EU in the Arctic

Meanwhile, it needs to be stressed that the EU’s failure to gain accreditation as an observer does not amount to an exclusion from the Arctic Council, and even less to an exclusion from Arctic affairs in general. Even if the Arctic states did want to exclude the EU from the Arctic (and, with the exception of Canada and Russia, there is little to suggest they do), any attempt to do so would fail on the basis of some fairly concrete political and geographical realities. As noted above, three Arctic states are EU member states (although it should be noted that Greenland is not part of the EU) and thus subject to most EU legislation. Moreover, the Arctic territories of Sweden and Finland are directly affected by the EU’s economic and social cohesion goals. 

The EU’s Northern Dimension policy was renewed in 2006 and extends the EU’s influence into the Arctic through regional cooperation activities with Greenland (where the EU also has a partnership agreement), Norway, Iceland, and Northwest Russia. Canada and the U.S. are observers. Norway and Iceland are further bound up with the EU through their membership of the European Economic Area (all single market related regulations therefore need to become binding for Norway and Iceland), and through the annual negotiation of fishing quotas for EU fleets seeking to operate in Icelandic and Norwegian Arctic coastal waters. Between 2007-2013, the EU provided €1.4bn to Arctic regions of the EU and neighboring areas. 

In addition to these relatively formalized geopolitical arrangements, other significant connections exist as well. Forty percent of the world’s shipping fleet is EU-flagged, giving the Union a role to play in setting regulations on maritime safety and pollution prevention for at least some proportion of ships seeking to enter Arctic waters, particularly as the summer sea-ice recedes further in years to come. Moreover, the EU is the largest net importer of energy (54 percent in 2011) globally, and is especially reliant on Norway and Russia, both of which need to develop new hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic in order to sustain current production levels. The EU is also the largest importer of seafood products (24 percent of world trade in 2014; 39 percent of fish imports came from Arctic countries in 2010). Although currently there is relatively little fishing activity in the Arctic, large quantities of fish imported to European markets (for example, cod, pollock, herring, haddock, and halibut) originate in the Arctic. 

In the future, there may also be opportunities for EU fishing fleets to exploit the High Seas area of the Central Arctic Ocean. For instance, recently the EU has actively sought to intervene in discussions about a regional fisheries management organization. There are negative externalities to consider as well, whereby the EU is drawn into the Arctic along channels created by the streams of pollution that flow from Europe to the Arctic in the form of POPs, mercury, black carbon, and more. These in turn have justified a heavy investment by the EU in Arctic-related science (€200 million in the period 2007-2013).

All of these connections create different kinds of demands on EU member states and the Arctic. On the EU side, the actions of Member States in the Arctic will to some extent be shaped by EU legislation and initiatives, whether that happens as a consequence of EU decisions on the implementation of international regulations (i.e., from the International Maritime Organisation on ship design) or because the EU facilitates some kind of activity (i.e., scientific research funded by EU grants). Arctic coastal states such as Norway and Iceland will be affected by EU legislation that is tied to the terms of their membership of the single market, but will also continue to benefit from being able to access EU science funding through Horizon 2020.

Even the U.S., Canada, and Russia are forced to negotiate with the EU when it comes to Arctic economic activities that have trade components involving the single-market. Although it is important to remember that this cuts both ways, as proven by the controversy around the EU ban on seal products. At the same time, of course, the Arctic states should have a real interest in engaging the EU on Arctic issues. By shaping EU policy, they can impact how the Union implements regulations that shape the activities of its member states as they pertain to the Arctic, whether to improve shipping standards, fund scientific research, or reduce pollution.

What happens next

The European Commission is due to publish a Third Communication on the Arctic by the end of 2015. Since the EU is already bound up with Arctic affairs for reasons outlined above, it would be perfectly reasonable for the Commission to set out a clear set of policy initiatives for how the EU will engage with the region on behalf of the collective interests of its member states, using the capabilities that have been bestowed upon it. However, the Commission will need to proceed with caution, and demonstrate clear respect for the very real sensitivities that Arctic states and peoples have about perceived outsiders encroaching on their affairs. 

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Duncan Depledge is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services in London, and a freelance researcher specializing in Arctic Geopolitics, Climate Geopolitics and Security. He received his PhD from Royal Holloway for his research investigating contemporary developments in UK policy towards the Arctic.

[Photos courtesy of Rock Cohen, the Arctic Council, and Wikimedia Commons]

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