Challenging times for the EU Arctic policy

On 11 September, owing to the seminar “EU in the Arctic, Arctic in the EU”, Brussels EU district experienced an influx of Arctic experts


On 11 September, owing to the seminar “EU in the Arctic, Arctic in the EU”, Brussels EU district experienced an influx of Arctic experts and EU decision-makers. The seminar presented the results of a project testing the feasibility of the EU Arctic Information Centre (EUAIC) initiative. High level participants discussed not only the EUAIC concept, but also current challenges and the future of the EU Arctic policy. The speakers included, among others, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Erkki Tuomioja, representatives of the European Commission and Members of the European Parliament. 

The network of European expert institutions presented the results of an extensive “Strategic Assessment of Development of the Arctic” which described the Arctic trends, their drivers, implications of Arctic change for the European Union and the role of EU policies and actions in shaping Arctic developments. The process how the assessment was implemented was unique as it integrated Arctic stakeholders and interest groups throughout the process and they also influenced its findings and recommendations. The results that also present information about Arctic-relevant activities of the EU as a compendium, analysis of gaps in Arctic knowledge, and other information are all available on-line. 

The event was held at an interesting time for the EU Arctic policy, as the European Union faces a number of choices regarding the future of its Arctic policy-making. First, it is unclear how the Arctic affairs will be organized within the new European Commission. Second, the EU will have to decide whether it needs a structured mechanism for collecting Arctic information, facilitating two-way communication with Arctic stakeholders and supporting EU institutions in shaping EU policies relevant for the Arctic; and if so, whether this mechanism should take a form of the proposed EU Arctic Information Centre. Finally, it seems that there is no clear understanding in Brussels how the cooperation with Russia in the Arctic will be affected by the Ukrainian crisis. 

Balancing between European Arctic and circumpolar dimensions and choosing the EU Arctic leadership
As the new European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker is currently taking shape, the question arises where the prime responsibility for Arctic affairs would be located, and more precisely, who would be the voice of the Union regarding Arctic affairs. So far it has been the European External Action Service – the EU’s diplomatic branch – that was in charge of coordinating EU Arctic policy-making. At the same time, various activities relevant for EU’s presence in the North are managed by a number of Commissions directorates-general, especially maritime affairs and fisheries, research, regional policy, environment, mobility and transport, as well as enterprise and industry. Earlier it was Catherine Ashton – the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy – and Maria Damanaki, Commissioner responsible for maritime affairs and fisheries, who usually spoke on behalf of the Union when the Arctic affairs were concerned. The question is not only about the internal division within the European Commission but also about the distribution of priorities within the EU Arctic policy: whether it has a more circumpolar, global character or it should pay greater attention to the European Arctic. 

The report “Strategic Assessment of Development of the Arctic” (SADA) emphasized the need for the EU to pay special attention to the broadly understood European Arctic (spanning from Greenland to northwest Russia). It is in this region that the EU can impact Arctic affairs to the greatest extent. EU legislation and policies apply directly in Finnish and Swedish Lapland and much of this regulatory framework also extends to Norway and Iceland via the European Economic Area Agreement. Partnership agreement with Greenland and various EU projects funded under numerous cooperation and regional programmes (such as Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme or Kolarctic) channel EU funding to Arctic regions from Nuuk to Urals. The authors of the report argue that by strengthening and highlighting its role in the European Arctic, the EU could gain clearer recognition as an Arctic actor, and as a consequence, become more influential also in the circumpolar affairs. Because of the European Arctic, the EU is in a different position in regard to Arctic than for instance China or India. There appears to be a rising recognition of EU position in the region, as the need to strengthen the European Arctic dimension in the overall EU’s Arctic policy was emphasized also in the European Parliament’s resolution on the EU strategy for the Arctic in March 2014. 

From this perspective, it would appear beneficial to relocate the coordinating role to one of the units responsible for the policy areas most relevant for the European Arctic. However, that is not that simple, as these include a very broad range of issues, both of internal and external nature. And the options are numerous.  A possible choice, if there is a decision to change the current set-up, would be the DG Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, especially that one commissioner will be now responsible for both maritime affairs and environment. That may not be, however, without impact on how the EU Arctic policy is being developed and interpreted, with likely greater attention to maritime and circumpolar issues.  Other speculations include secretary-general of the European Commission, DG Budget or the vice-president for jobs, growth and competitiveness, who showed earlier much interest in Arctic issues. The advantage of assigning the Arctic affairs to one of the vice-presidents is that they coordinate different sectors of EU policy which corresponds to the cross-cutting nature of Arctic questions. If the EU’s “Arctic voice” remains the responsibility of the High Representative, the question arises whether Federica Mogherini, the Italian minister of foreign affairs chosen for the post, proves to be as interested in Arctic affairs as her predecessor, especially now that the situation in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq will be keeping her rather busy. 

The policy officers working on Arctic issues meet regularly and this should continue to be the main way of developing the overarching EU Arctic policy, no matter who acts as a coordinator. In addition, it was proposed at the seminar by Paula Kankaanpää – the director of the Arctic Centre and leader of the preparatory action project – that the key actors interested in Arctic affairs from the EU Member States and other EU institutions should meet regularly and be involved in a broader EU coordination. That would certainly be of benefit as the Member States, the Parliament, the Council and the Commission speak often with diverging voices, causing confusion among Arctic actors regarding the actual content of the EU Arctic policy.

Moreover, the EU Arctic policy, as an amalgamation of various actions and policy areas is by nature fragmented and diverse. The assessment report provides an overview of the multiplicity of dimensions in which the EU policies affect the Arctic, starting from direct regulatory role in the EU and EEA Arctic regions, numerous EU cooperation and research programmes, the policies which shape the EU’s Arctic environmental and economic footprint and ending with the EU’s influence on international processes of relevance for the Arctic (for example negotiations on the Polar Code within the International Maritime Organization or the enlisting of Arctic species within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

Too strong leadership within the European Commission or too forceful attempt to draft an artificially coherent policy – for instance in response to the demand by the Council of the European Union for “integrated and coherent Arctic policy” in its May 2013 Conclusions – could have adverse rather than beneficial influence on the EU actions in the region. It seems inevitable that the EU policy-makers will have to keep balance between the internal and external aspects and look for golden mean between the extremes of artificial coherence and failure to coordinate. However, what is also important is that the EU communicates clearly when its actions refer to EU’s internal or external affairs and to the European Arctic or circumpolar level. That is not always the case in the current EU policy documents.

EU Arctic Information Centre initiative widely supported but the final decision
The initiative to create the EU Arctic Information Centre (EUAIC) as a network of European research and communication institutions with expertise in Arctic issues with an office in Rovaniemi received much support from the participants to the Brussels seminar. Moreover, earlier this year the initiative was highlighted in the Arctic policy statements by the European Parliament and the Council. 

The results of the project itself were received well among EU officials. The preparatory action has shown that the network works well and is able to achieve innovative results, proving the feasibility of the EUAIC. The next steps are now being considered by the Commission and the decision on the future of the EUAIC initiative may be expected within six to nine months.

The challenge is not only the continuously constrained situation of the EU budget in the light of seemingly never-ending economic crisis and cuts introduced in the 2014-2020 financial perspective, but currently also the transition period towards a new composition of the European Commission and the focus of the new EU team on jobs and growth. In his open letters to the candidates for commissioners, Juncker indicated that he wants the Commission to “be bigger and more ambitious on big things, and smaller and more modest on small things”. As the Arctic is not a particularly “big thing” in the EU when compared to transatlantic relations, development cooperation or youth unemployment, that raises a question on the future of EU Arctic policy.

Considering a comparatively limited interest in the Arctic affairs within the EU, the sustaining of an ongoing long-term commitment of the EU to the Arctic affairs could benefit from creation of a more structured mechanism. The EUAIC concept offers here not only an idea but an already functioning network and structure.

A relatively small group of EU officials dealing with Arctic questions will need to be well-informed on Arctic developments and the character of European presence in the region. The proof here is the “European Arctic Initiatives Compendium” – one of the reports the European Commission requested the EUAIC network to prepare. The report addresses the lack of comprehensive knowledge on the Arctic activities of EU states, European private actors and the EU itself. That knowledge is crucial to avoid overlaps between EU actions and other undertakings. 

If one fully appreciates the scope of the EU influence on the Arctic developments, it is clear that it is in the interest of the Arctic regions that a major player such as the EU is sensitized to the views, values, problems and challenges of Arctic communities, businesses and other stakeholders. That is one of the reasons why the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi and other organizations forming the EUAIC network continue to be committed to the information centre concept.

This approach of the EUAIC experts is manifested both in the process and in the key messages of the “Strategic Assessment of Development of the Arctic”. The report aimed at presenting a balanced overview of Arctic development and emphasizes modest expectations various actors have for the future. At the foundation of the EUAIC concept is interaction with Arctic stakeholders, reflected also in the assessment process. Actors coming from around the circumpolar North and representing a broad range of interests and values participated in the study through structured workshops and online questionnaires.

The key findings of SADA are to a great extent the result of stakeholder engagement. The report outlines that while it is clear that Arctic environmental and socio-economic changes are driven primarily by the demand for Arctic resources and climate change, the crucial role of regulatory frameworks and policy choices should not be overlooked. It is sometimes forgotten that the traffic in the Northern Sea Route is still well below the tonnage shipped in the 1980s and the very slowly rising number of transit passages is enhanced by the political encouragement especially by the Russian government and the simplification of bureaucratic procedures required for transit. 

Furthermore, the report highlights that despite often expressed claims, it is far from certain that opportunities connected with climate change – in terms of maritime transport, fisheries or resource extraction – will balance out or even outweigh the impacts and risks associated with it. While climate change already adversely impacts Arctic environment and landscape, it has a restricted role in triggering Arctic economic development, in particular in the European part of the region. For instance, oil and gas exploration off the coast of Greenland and in the Barents Sea is not a result of retreating sea ice, but of the market demand for hydrocarbons and political decisions to open these areas for exploration. Personally, I have come to call the discussion on the Arctic climate change opportunities a “failed discourse”, not holding either in the light of facts or ethics.

Moreover, the pace of economic and social developments is generally moderate with modest expectations for the near-term future. That view departs from the hopes and fears of an “Arctic boom”. Although they generated global interest in the Arctic, these hopes and fears cannot be considered good foundations for a sustained, long-term policy responses. Clearly, EU should act appropriately to actual developments in the region rather than imagined dramatic narratives. And the latter are still too often heard in Brussels.

The role of assessments is to give account of the most up-to-date state of knowledge and the current status of the environment or social and economic development. The general findings of the comprehensive SADA report may not be news for those who do not acquire their understanding of the region from sensational newspaper articles. They are also no surprise for many Arctic residents and experts. However, too often the prevailing vision in the Western and Central Europe is that of the Arctic as an unspoiled wilderness only currently opening for exploitation due to melting sea ice. Consequently, such messages still meet with some degree of bafflement. 

Challenging Arctic partnerships
To no surprise much of the discussion during the seminar was dedicated to the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis for the Arctic cooperation. Especially as the SADA report highlighted that the EU should attempt to cooperate with Arctic partners despite mounting challenges. 

The good news is that at least among the speakers at the Brussels seminar there was a consensus that an effort should be made so that the current conflict between Russia and the West has as little impact on the practical and down-to-earth aspects of Arctic cooperation as possible. However, the Arctic cooperation cannot be completely detached from the events elsewhere. Technical cooperation in the Arctic Council or in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region appears to withhold the storm, although not without problems. However, we are yet to see the effects of the conflict on the new post-2014 EU programmes (in particular the Kolarctic financing agreement between the EU and Russia) or developing more ambitious projects with Russian partners, including research cooperation. 

Since the early 1990s, Arctic cooperation has been largely a trust-building project and the primary result of the tensions between the West and Russia is the collapse of this trust, at least at the national level. Without trust, the cooperation may continue, but could deteriorate to technical issues and purely formal communication lacking any real content. Even local actors in the Barents region cannot escape the burden of international politics, and that is even more true for the EU policy-makers. 

On the brighter side, the weather appears to clear up on other EU-Arctic fronts. After the WTO panel issued its decision on the EU ban on seal products last spring, it seems that Canada and the EU are slowly coming closer to striking a consensus on the issue. The concrete results – involving probably strong EU support to certification system for Inuit seal products – are to be expected during the upcoming EU-Canada summit connected with the adoption of the new partnership and free trade agreement. That could mean that the EU may finally receive an official observer status in the Arctic Council. The issue is still much discussed in Brussels, despite its very limited practical relevance. Currently, the EU acts an observer in the Council in all but  name. Observer status would constitute mainly a symbolic acknowledgment of the EU as an Arctic actor. Hopefully, the EU would be able to conduct its Arctic policy with practical results in mind as it has a greater imprint in the region than most of the Arctic actors seem to realize. 

The reports prepared within the preparatory action project and presented on 11 September 2014 in Brussels are available at the project website