As the European Commission and the European External Action Service started to work on the new Arctic communication, the EU officials have begun a tour around the European North. On 29 April, the Commission organized in Rovaniemi the first of a series of consultation workshops. The focus was on the economic development in the European Arctic.
The event involved a standard mix of regional authorities, persons responsible for distributing EU funding in the North, the Sámi representatives, researchers, environmental NGOs and few business actors. Organized with a support of a Brussels-based consultancy, the workshop felt at times like re-discovering the wheel, especially for those who attend dozens of seminars on mining, sustainable development or regional cooperation taking place regularly throughout the Barents Region. Discussions in Rovaniemi revolved, among others, around environmentally sound mining, East-West transport connections, and ways to coordinate multiple funding mechanisms operating in the European Arctic.
What is more, while DG Maritime Affairs and Fisheries was running the meeting, questions raised in Rovaniemi clearly fell under the competence of directorates-general responsible for regional development, transport or industry and entrepreneurship. DG MARE, following the earlier online questionnaire on streamlining EU Arctic funding, carries out consultations in the name of all units responsible for Arctic affairs, but the absence of officials working directly on the discussed topics could not go unnoticed.
However, most participants agreed that it was a welcome change to see the Commission reaching out to the region rather than awaiting regional lobbyists’ in Brussels corridors. Even if the discussions included a well-known spread of viewpoints and opinions, a direct exposure to the ongoing debates about development in the region could prove useful for the Commission officials. This raises hope among actors from the Northern Fennoscandia that the new EU policy statement will reflect to a greater extent the needs, concerns and issues specific to the European part of the Arctic. European northernmost regions have been arguing for such an approach for many years. This course was advocated also in the Strategic Assessment of Development of the Arctic report, published last year by a network of institutions under the lead of the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland (co-edited by the present author). After all, it is in the European Arctic and Barents Region, where the EU’s presence and influence are the most evident.
Last year, the Council of the European Union requested the Commission and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs to present – by December 2015 – a new communication outlining a more coherent and integrated Arctic policy.
Meeting the deadline is far from certain. It is also unclear what a “coherent and integrated” Arctic policy might mean.
One trend coming out of Rovaniemi workshop is that the increased attention towards the European Arctic may be followed by a greater emphasis on economic development. That resonates perhaps all too well with the new “jobs and growth” focus of the Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission. However, the Commission will also need to integrate environmental and strategic concerns connected primarily with the Arctic Ocean challenges. Finding a balance between these two dimensions – European Arctic and maritime High Arctic – and defining what is actually meant by the sustainable development of the European Arctic may prove to be among the most challenging elements in drafting the new policy document. Watering down of a relatively strong environmental stance – if it comes to that – would mean that the EU’s identity as an Arctic (environmental) actor is changing and its objectives shift even closer towards those of the Arctic states.
Next in the Commission’s itinerary are workshops in Oslo - dedicated to energy and renewables, Reykjavik - on fisheries and shipping, and a high level meeting in Brussels in the beginning of June. If the new communication proposes a credible mechanism for coordinating a variety of EU activities and multiple funding mechanisms in the region that would constitute a tangible outcome of this consultation process and a clearer added value of the EU Arctic policy.