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The E.U. Unveils Its Arctic Strategy

The European Commission has put forward a policy proposal to guide the European Union’s actions in the Arctic, with a focus on the environment, sustainable development and foreign policy.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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With its new communication on Arctic policy, the E.U. hopes to boost its profile in the region.Pixabay

In May 2014, the Council of the European Union asked the European Commission and the union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy to develop an integrated strategy on Arctic matters that would provide the E.U. with a clear structure for its actions in the region.

The new document, released in April, declares that the E.U. has an important role to play in supporting cooperation in the Arctic and helping the region meet the challenges now facing it. As the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the E.U. must be a part of efforts to contain the regional impacts of climate change. Reliant on many of the resources exported from the Arctic, it could be a part of sustainable economic development in the Arctic, by investing in data and research and sharing best practices.

But only three of its 28 member states – Denmark, Sweden and Finland – actually have territory within the Arctic Circle and are members of the Arctic Council.

“A safe, sustainable and prosperous Arctic not only serves the 4 million people living there, our European Union and the rest of the world, it is a region of immense environmental, social and economic importance to us all,” said the current high representative, Federica Mogherini.

The communication identifies 39 actions that focus on three core areas: climate change and the environment, sustainable economic development and security and foreign policy.

Arctic Deeply and members of our expert community explain how this document will chart the E.U.’s course in the Arctic.

What does the communication say about the environment and climate change?

The Arctic contains some of the habitats on Earth least disturbed by human activity. But climate change – warming temperatures, melting sea ice, ocean acidification and changes in precipitation – is the most serious threat to the region’s biodiversity.

The E.U. has already committed 40 million euros ($46 million) to Arctic-related research for 2016-17, including an observation network to understand better the region’s response to climate change. The policy statement also points toward the E.U.’s commitment to achieving its global biodiversity 2020 goals (Aichi targets) and, in particular, to the creation of interconnected marine protected areas in the Arctic.

“These are all positive things,” said Alexander Shestakov, director of the Global Arctic Program at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). But Shestakov said the WWF had hoped to see more explicit commitments to reduce black carbon and methane emissions, as well as support for a ban on heavy fuel oil use by the shipping sector in the Arctic – programs already adopted by the Arctic Council.

What does this mean for oil and gas development in the Arctic?

Norway, which is not part of the E.U., is a key supplier of oil and gas to the rest of Europe. Nearly one-third of the E.U.’s natural gas imports and 11 percent of its crude oil imports stem from Norway, according to figures from 2012. Last year, Norway overtook Russia as the top supplier of natural gas to western Europe.

Despite the E.U.’s commitment to act on climate change, the communication says little about whether it will reduce its reliance on fossil fuels of Arctic origin. “We were expecting the E.U. to say that it did not want oil and gas from the Arctic and that it was not interested in supporting E.U.-based companies doing those projects in the Arctic,” said Shestakov.

The communication does indicate that the E.U. will step up its commitment to prevent accidents from oil and gas activities and participate in measures to preserve the environment by working with international partners, and sharing regulatory and technological best practices. It says that the E.U. should “welcome the Arctic Council Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic.”

What other forms of economic development does it identify?

Adam Stepien, a researcher at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland, said that the communication shows an evolution in the E.U.’s attitude toward economic development. In 2008, the E.U.’s stance focused on large-scale development, including mineral extraction and shipping, he said. “The hype seems to be over,” said Stepien.

Instead, the communication mentions the development of sustainable economic activities, including sectors included in the “blue economy,” such as aquaculture, fisheries, renewable offshore energy, marine tourism and marine biotechnology – as well as the desire to share its knowledge on best practices on the circular economy (a sustainable economy that aims to eradicate waste) with Arctic states.

Juha Jokela, an expert in E.U. foreign and security policy at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said the communication recognizes the need for inclusion of and cooperation with those living in the Arctic. But the communication is vague on implementation, said Shestakov. “The WWF expects a much stronger and more concrete message on how the E.U. plans to ensure ethical and responsible investments and new commercial developments in the Arctic, including new infrastructure projects.”

How is the Arctic important to the E.U.’s foreign security policy?

The E.U. and Russia share a tense relationship, stemming from Moscow’s role in the conflict in Ukraine and the E.U.’s sanctions in response. But the Arctic has historically been an area of cooperation on research, search and rescue and environmental issues.

“The new communication underlines the importance of Arctic cooperation,” said Jokela. “There have been concerns that tensions between the West and Russia might spill over into the Arctic. However, the E.U. is not a hard security actor in the traditional military sense of the term. A politically and also militarily stable Arctic region is clearly in the interest of all the Arctic stakeholders, including the E.U.

What is missing from the communication?

The European Commission set out to produce an “integrated” policy statement. The goal may have been well-intentioned, but may not be possible, said Stepien.

“The E.U. has quite a lot of trouble, with the British talking about leaving, the immigration crisis and Syria. The Arctic is not at the top of any agenda,” he said. “It is unlikely that the E.U. could come up with any one set of objectives, because the Arctic is so diverse.” Stepien and his colleague, Andreas Raspotnik, from the Arctic Institute, examine this question in detail in an analysis for the Arctic Centre.

“Rather than adding themes or new priorities for the E.U.’s Arctic engagements, the key question, in my view, is whether the communication leads to coherent E.U. policies with clear priorities and concrete results,” said Jokela. “While it clearly provides some important steps to do so, much depends on how well it will be received by the E.U. member states and what conclusions they draw about it in the Council of the E.U.


Press conference on E.U. Policy on the Arctic by high representative and European Commission vice-president Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Karmenu Vella, in charge of the environment, maritime affairs and fisheries.

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