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EU bid to become Arctic Council observer deferred again

EU was denied Arctic Council observer status at the Canadian Ministerial Meeting last month.

The European Union was snubbed once again at the ninth Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Iqaluit, Canada last month.

The Arctic Council postponed observer status applications for another two years. The council decided to further review observer issues before coming to its long-awaited decision on the EU. 

After mending broken bridges with Canada, the EU hoped to finally achieve observer status on the Arctic Council. Tensions between the EU and Canada stemmed largely from an import ban on Canadian seal furs, skins and meat.

Canada has denied the EU observer status since 2008 as a result.

But in October last year, Canada and the EU finally reached an agreement. The EU decided to exempt indigenous seal products from the European market ban. This is a big win for Canada’s Inuit people, as many of their livelihoods depend on seal product exports.

“I can start off by saying that Canada supports the EU application for full observership,” former Arctic Council chair and Canadian Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said at an April 24 news conference.  

A Russian roadblock

Canada didn’t thwart the EU ambition for observer status this time around, but that doesn’t leave the EU unopposed. 

Russia-EU relations have deteriorated steadily since last September when Brussels targeted sanctions on Russia that could impede its arctic activity.

In retaliation over Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis, the sanctions forbid EU companies from engaging in new contracts in oil drilling and exploration in Russia’s Arctic, deep-sea and shale oil projects.

The sanctions even affect Russia’s famous oil giant, Rosneft, where BP, a British multinational oil and gas company, holds a 19.75 per cent stake in the company. The sanctions also restrict Western firms from offering industry services such as well testing and drilling, as well as supplying float vehicles to Rosneft pipeline operators.

These Russian sanctions could pose more difficulties for the EU in its bid to gain observer status in the future.

What is an observer member?

As Arctic activities tend to revolve around the ocean, the EU is among many other countries and industries with legitimate interest in the Arctic.

The Arctic Council offers observer status to non-Arctic states, global or regional intergovernmental bodies as well as non-government organizations.

Unlike the Arctic states however, observers do not get to vote.

Observer countries of the Arctic Council, such as China and Japan, are allowed to make statements, participate in discussions, propose projects and are formally invited to all Arctic Council meetings, according to the Arctic Council website.

As of now, the EU will remain ad-hoc, meaning it has to apply to attend meetings.

But the EU isn’t excluded entirely. Sweden, Denmark and Finland are permanent members of the Arctic Council. And six EU members (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK) are also Arctic Council observer nations.

The EU is nonetheless determined to get observer status, which could enhance its credibility as an Arctic actor and partner.