The Arctic: what are the EU’s interests in this rapidly changing region?

, by Eurosorbonne, Joanna Cáp, Translated by Paola Lo Bue Oddo

The Arctic: what are the EU's interests in this rapidly changing region?

The European Union constantly seeks to develop its Arctic policy because it is directly affected by the geopolitical, climatic and scientific changes in the Arctic. Is the EU able to defend its interests in the Arctic, at a time in which the geopolitical appetite of various actors is increasing?

The interests of the EU in this vast icy region have historical, geographical and scientific foundations. Ever since the 16th century, Europeans sought a Western shortcut by sea from Europe to Asia. However, this quest ended in 1845, following the disappearance of a British expedition commanded by Captain John Franklin. The geographical links are rather obvious, especially considering that the territories of three EU Member States extend into the Arctic (Sweden, Finland and Denmark via Greenland), as do the territories of two EEA Members (Iceland and Norway).

This explains why the EU is “one of the main beneficiaries of the resources and goods deriving from the Arctic region”. Relations between the EU and the three other countries which border the Arctic (the United States, Canada and Russia) are of immense strategic importance. All these factors explain why the Arctic plays an important role in legal and economic matters concerning the EU.

The “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”, adopted in 1982, lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas, defining States’ rights and uses with regards to certain sea areas and the resources within. Essentially, a State enjoys full sovereignty within its territorial waters. Coastal States may exercise exclusive rights to explore and exploit natural resources in the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf extending to a maximum distance of 350 nautical miles, provided that this area is constituted by the physical extension of the continental shelf at sea. On the other hand, the high seas fall outside the jurisdiction of any State.

Following the media coverage of the abundance of natural resources in the Arctic, States began to present geological arguments early in the 21st century. The strong rhetoric of governments only intensified the conflicts in the quest for the Arctic. The deadline for filing claims with the “Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf”, has expired for all coastal States. Only the United States, not having ratified the Convention, did not have the opportunity to present its claim.

Still, this whole situation has been followed by the emergence of several disputes, such as the one between Russia and Norway concerning the Barents Sea or Russian, Canadian and Danish claims concerning the Lomonosov Ridge. Presenting claims was more of a race against time rather than a race against other countries, considering that all these States had collaborated in the past on scientific research.

We should also consider the impact which global warming has on the region. It led to a record increase in temperatures in the Arctic in 2016. The actors involved in the quest for the Arctic are considering sailing along new paths, unveiled by the melting of ice. In light of these new economic opportunities, can the EU still hold its ground in the struggle against climate change?

Overweening ambitions?

Faced with all these transformations in the Arctic, the EU seeks to promote stability in the region, which is very important from a geostrategic and geopolitical point of view. Nevertheless, the EU is still seeking legitimacy for its participation in the Arctic Council. The latter was created in 1996 and is an intergovernmental body of neighbouring countries and organisations representing indigenous peoples. Three EU Member States are members of the Arctic Council (Finland, Sweden and Denmark), and five EU countries are permanent observers (Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland).

The EU is still waiting for the permanent members of the Arctic Council to grant it a permanent observer status. Its 2008 nomination for the title was rejected by Canada, a permanent member of the Arctic Council. As the EU imposed an embargo on seal products that same year, the conflict of interest between the two parties seemed to be rather obvious. Moreover, in 2008 the European Parliament’s proposal to render the Arctic Ocean’s status similar to the one of the Antarctic (a territory ruled by sovereign neutrality), called into question the provisions of the 1982 Convention. The European Parliament’s project could not obtain approval amongst the permanent members.

Even though the relationship between the EU and Canada softened, the EU’s candidacy was again blocked in 2015, this time by Russia. Permanent participation seems vital, if not important, for the EU. Even though the Arctic Council has very limited authority to make decisions and does not concern itself with security issues, it is nonetheless a privileged space for sharing knowledge and research on climate change. Still, the absence of permanent observer status does not prevent the EU from participating in working group meetings within the Arctic Council itself.

In addition, in October 2018, the European Commission, Finland and Germany organised the “Second Arctic Science Ministerial” conference in Berlin. Although not on the Arctic Council’s agenda, it provided the opportunity for stakeholders, leaders and media representatives to debate societal and environmental issues.

Actions against climate change

This initiative is fully in line with the integrated EU policy for the Arctic, adopted in 2016 by the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security. Its aim is to boost research on climate change, support sustainable economic development, and pursue a constructive dialogue with Arctic countries and indigenous peoples.

In concrete terms, it is a question of putting various actions in place such as the creation of protected marine areas and better management of fish stocks. In addition, the European Commission has committed to allocate €1.5 million to an initiative to “reduce black carbon emissions in the Arctic region”. Black carbon is the result of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass. This phenomenon causes the darkening of snowy and icy layers, thus amplifying the climatic repercussions.

The EU, through this integrated policy, has defined its common position on the Arctic, which has enabled it to sign an agreement with 9 other countries in October, banning unregulated commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean’s high seas for at least 16 years. Indeed, the EU, the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Greenland / Denmark, China, Japan, Iceland and South Korea anticipated the adverse consequences of the entry of fishing boats in the region.

Is China closer to the Arctic than the EU?

China, constantly asserting its commercial supremacy in the world, continues to emphasise its growing interests in the Arctic region. In January 2018, it unveiled its “Polar Silk Road” project as an integral part of the New Silk Road. This project includes infrastructure projects related to the seas, land and air. Indeed, China has confirmed its financial support for the construction of a Russian offshore port in Arkhangelsk and by the year 2035 its size will allow for an annual transit of 38 million tons of goods.

In addition, a Chinese conglomerate called “Poly International Holding Co.” is interested in investing $5.5 billion in connecting Arkhangelsk and Siberia through railroads, thus reducing the current distance by 800 kilometres. A Chinese company called “China Communications Construction Company” is participating in a tender for the construction of three airports, launched by the Government of Greenland. The Chinese project is still being processed because Denmark is worried about the region being too dependent on Chinese investments. However, by granting China the status of observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, the permanent members have demonstrated that they trust China.

Indeed, the Chinese government has used scientific diplomacy skilfully, as demonstrated by its establishment of a research center in 2013 in Shanghai called “the China Nordic Arctic Research Center.” China has also recently focused on scientific projects with Iceland and Finland. The EU feels the effects of China’s Arctic policy directly. Indeed, the close relations of the Nordic countries with China may call into question the cohesion and strategic autonomy of the EU.

On the other hand, although China still declares that it never seeks to interfere in the internal situation of countries, the case of Greenland demonstrates that the interference of an external actor is inevitable. In addition, it is difficult for European companies to be competitive with Chinese state-owned enterprises which are receiving numerous grants for strategic projects. Finally, the “Polar Silk Road” risks compromising the environmental and social standards that are at the heart of the EU’s soft power.

This article was originally published in French in Eurosorbonne.

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