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The Arctic as a Geopolitical Bond Among the EU, Russia, and Norway

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.  

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While the EU, Norway, and Russia have conflicting interests elsewhere, the Arctic remains a place of cooperation. In the interview below, World Policy Journal's Natasha Bluth speaks with political scientist Matthaios Melas about the relationship between these three actors as it pertains to the environment, energy, and migration, as well as how these issues may shape future Arctic policies. 

Natasha Bluth: The title of your article is “The Arctic as a Geopolitical Bond among the European Union, Norway & Russia.” Why do you see the Arctic as the glue that bonds these three actors together? Briefly, what are the primary elements that provide this bond?

Matthaios Melas: The Arctic is a place of common interest among these three actors, particularly because they do not have many other areas of common interest. Political freedoms in Russia, for example, are not comparable with most EU countries. But even with the EU’s sanctions on Russia, there are no hindrances to environmental and indigenous cooperation among these three parties. That's why [in my article], I wanted to point out that there are still places that Russia, Norway, and the EU are cooperating on and that the Arctic is a great example of this. Although there are other geopolitical games happening elsewhere between these actors—or at least between the EU and Russia—the Arctic remains a place of cooperation instead of confrontation.

Climate change can be seen in the Arctic much more easily than in other parts of the planet and given the global rise in awareness toward climate change, there is opportunity to further develop environmental protection. Fisheries, too, are a very important issue in terms of protecting the salmon, cod, pollock, and other fish that live in Arctic waters.

There is also the issue of human development—conserving the indigenous populations like the Sami people who inhabit both Russia and Norway. These groups have their own traditions and cultures and the EU helps these communities through programs that they run in both Norway and Russia. 

NB: In your opinion, why does the Arctic provide an important reason for these actors to cooperate?

MM: There is a lot at stake, especially in the Barents and Kara Seas, for both Norway and Russia. These seas are largely ice-free during summer and most other seasons of the year because of the Gulf Stream. Both Norway and Russia have resources in the region that they have the option to extract. What’s more, the EU imports 65 percent of its natural gas and over 40 percent of its crude oil from both Norway and Russia. And even though there is a shift toward renewables in Europe, fossil fuels will remain on the agenda for 10 or 15 years at least.

Besides energy reserves, the Arctic is an unspoiled and very fragile environment, so Norway and the EU has reason to cooperate closely to preserve it. In fact, ice dropped to record-low levels in 2016 and January 2017. Because of these record-low ice levels, Arctic shipping routes from Russia to Asia might be affected. The EU has tried to pass legislation to ban the use or carrying of heavy fuel oil through the Arctic. There is also a need for cooperation with Russia, which is now trying to raise awareness of for climate change, but still lacks strict environmental legislation.

NB: Your article covers three geopolitical bonds, the first of which is energy. As you point out, extraction of Arctic hydrocarbons encounters many obstacles. What are a few of them, and why would Norway and Russia bother to pursue extraction?

MM: Regarding extraction, the first problem is today’s low crude oil prices. Right now, a barrel is about $50 or $55; in 2015, it was $30 or $35. At the moment, it's impossible to convince anyone to invest money in Arctic drilling when you have resources available in the Middle East. There's no market with prices so low.

Russia has abundant resources on its own—it does not have to go offshore, even to the shallow waters of Kara Sea or to the Yamal Peninsula. Its onshore deposits on Yamal-Nenets Autonomous area are huge, even though they have been exploited for so many years. What’s more, despite sanctions that target offshore, deep-water, or unconventional shale gas production, the U.S. and the EU are still investing in conventional and onshore production—otherwise they could not import any fossil fuels from Russia. This puts [Russia] in an advantageous position. The Nord Stream 2 twin pipeline project, for example, is a mutual venture among Russia (Gazprom), the Royal Dutch Shell Company (the Netherlands and the U.K.), ENGIE (France), OMV (Austria), BSF (U.S. and Israel), E.ON (Europe), and Wintershall (Germany).

The same goes for Norway. Norway has successfully licensed ground in the Barents Sea, while the Goliath and Snow-white fields are already operational northwest of the city of Hammerfest. This is a crucial step for Norway because it's a far smaller country and its fields in the North Sea are reaching mature levels—production is going to be steady and then fall off at some point.

The reputation of companies engaged in Arctic drilling is also an issue. The Royal Dutch Shell Company, for instance, recently withdrew from drilling in Alaska, because of geological conditions, but also in light of protests by environmental campaigners. And while proposals by the Norwegian government to expand drilling to the Lofoten Islands received backlash from environmental groups, Norway is going to start drilling in the Barents Sea. If you look through the lens of Greenpeace, this is a negative thing, but if you are looking at it from the perspective of investment, it's quite good.

NB: The second point you cover is the environment. What have the EU, Russia, and Norway done to address environmental protection in the Arctic?

MM: The EU is a very strong and active player when it comes to the environment. Since 2002, it has spent more than 200 million euros on Arctic research. EU reports from 2009, 2014, and 2016 focus on issues of biodiversity, environmental impacts on economic development, and knowledge and understanding of the Arctic environment. The latest report urged all Arctic countries and EU members to increase cooperation on sustainable environmental policy. The EU is also funding several research programs on the Arctic. One of them studies the long-range transport of pollution, showing that if a natural disaster occurs in the Arctic, it could be far more difficult to control or confine the damage.

Norway has very strong legislation when it comes to the Arctic environment. The High North Strategy, published in 2006, stresses the importance of international cooperation. The country also has a plan in place until 2025 to increase monitoring of Arctic icebergs, shipping, and icebreakers, as well as to improve maritime safety. It already has very strict legislation for offshore drilling. 

Russia lacks legislation, but is on track and trying to increase awareness—it has named 2017 as the “Year of the Environment.” I hope to see some environmental projects from Russia; its cooperation with Norway and the EU on environmental issues could have positive results.

NB: Your third bond is migration, particularly in light of the current refugee crisis. What role does the Arctic play in the migration crisis? How have Russia and Norway dealt with the crisis and what tensions have arisen because of it?

MM: It was migration, actually, which inspired me to write this article because it was a topic that was not played out in the media. When Eastern European countries started to build walls and many refugees were stuck at the border, when others drowned in the Mediterranean in their attempt to reach Italy or Greece, some found the Arctic route to be cheaper and safer. For people who fled, or who are still fleeing civil war or poverty, the Arctic was the last option; it was just another possible route into the Schengen area (a group of 26 European states that have legalized visa-free travel) or the EU.

Oslo and the EU were quite suspicious as to how the flow of migrants existed between Norway and Russia since the Russian borders in these areas are heavily militarized and guarded by the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service]. It may have been a show of power from Russia. After Norway put an end to the flow, new routes opened up between Russia and Finland.

NB: You mention that Norway and Russia are members of the Arctic Council, while the EU is not. Why is it important for the EU to develop an Arctic bond? What role do you see the EU playing in the future?

MM: Even though it may never become a member of the Arctic Council, the EU is active in Arctic discussions, sometimes even more so than those with official observer status. The EU attends all Council meetings and heavily funds Arctic projects.

In the future, the EU may choose to continue its environmental cooperation programs for indigenous populations in the Barents and Kara Seas. In general, it is trying to promote environmental sustainability and cooperation, especially in the “European Arctic”—the small bow of Arctic land above the EU and between Greenland and northwest Russia. 

The EU should promote cooperation and focus on the environment to remain in tandem with the values of the Arctic Council. Neither the Arctic Council or the EU have to be involved with security matters on the Arctic—otherwise any cooperation, even on environmental and human development issues, could be compromised due to military conflicts in Syria or Crimea.

NB: In your opinion, what Arctic policy should these three major actors work toward in the future? 

MM: The EU has only published Arctic reports that refer to sustainability, environmental protection, and the cultural protection of indigenous populations. I believe that these policies will be quite successful for the EU as it continues to promote cooperation with other countries in the name of the Arctic environment. 

But I must point out that these policies do not mention fossil fuels. They do not articulate the word "energy," "extraction," "exploitation," or "drilling," even though a large portion of EU energy imports come from the Arctic. It is a good thing that the EU wants to promote sustainability and environmental protection, but what about the drilling? Is the EU going to prohibit fossil fuel imports from the Arctic, or ban companies that are drilling in the Arctic? I don't think so. It's nice to promote and speak about environmental protection, but you have to make it real and practical, not just advocate for it. One thing the EU could do is stress the importance of strict legislation on offshore drilling or deep-water drilling in Arctic waters. It's a very sensitive topic because different countries and different companies have different interests.

Because awareness of climate change is rising fast, I also believe that Russia will be on track to bolster environmental protection in the Arctic in the near future. Gazprom, [Russia’s government-owned oil and gas monopoly], is quite tied to Europe and wants to be considered a reliable company there. It’s a symbiotic relationship—Gazprom’s biggest export market is the EU, and the EU wants stable energy imports. Rosneft, [another large Russian oil company], which was recently privatized, also wants to enhance its reputation abroad. Environmental sustainability and environmental protection is a good way to improve one’s reputation.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Matthaios Melas is a PhD Candidate at Aberystwyth University in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences funded by the ESRC Wales Doctoral Training Centre. He holds an MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York in the Department of Political Science and a BA in Geography from the Harokopio University of Athens.

Matthaios’ full article, “The Arctic as a Geopolitical Bond among the European Union, Norway & Russia” can be found here.

[Photo courtesy of www.kremlin.ru]

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