The European Union on 20 November announced its intention to become an important stakeholder in the Arctic, mainly by promoting an environmental agenda. The European Commission also indicated that Arctic multilateral governance "could be upgraded and adjusted" to changing realities.
The Commission has decided to apply for observer status in the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for countries and peoples, including the Arctic indigenous communities.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, announced the initiative on Thursday (20 November), presenting a much-anticipated Communication on the Arctic.
Ferrero-Waldner said it was the first time the Union had presented a comprehensive review of its interests in the vast spaces of the Arctic, which are believed to host large amounts of oil and natural gas.
Member states of the Arctic Council include Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
But the commissioner downplayed the Union's interest in developing the Arctic's natural resources. She explained that according to recent surveys, up to 25% of the planet's undiscovered oil and gas could be located in the Arctic, and most of the discovered ore and other resources are either on the territory, or within the exclusive economic zones of the Arctic states.
"Therefore our main concern […] is clearly under the aspect of environmental sustainability," she explained, so that any exploration or exploitation activities would be carried out in accordance with the highest environmental standards.
Regarding the delineation of Arctic territories, Ferrero Waldner there was already an extensive international legal framework in operation, but added that this did not prevent the development of "new specific sectoral instruments". "Adjustments and modifications might be possible, but not indeed to change the whole basis. We think it is the right basis," she said.
Asked by EurActiv how the Union hoped to counter attempts by Russia to unilaterally move sea borders, symbolised by the 2007 planting of a Russian flag on the North Pole sea bottom, Ferrero-Waldner said it remained clear that large parts of the Arctic Ocean are international waters where the principle of freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage apply.
Russian bombers over the Arctic
Resuming a Cold War practice which had been discontinued since 1992, a pair of Russian Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers took off on 21 November from the Engels airbase in southern Russia on a routine patrol flight over the Arctic Ocean, an Air Force spokesman said, quoted by the Russian media. The spokesperson added that the Russian flights were "performed in strict compliance with international law on the use of airspace over neutral waters, without violating the borders of other states".
It was also indicated that the decision to resume such flights was taken by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself.
Canadian Foreign Minister David Emerson recently expressed concern over illegal Russian flights over Canadian airspace, adding that his country treated such actions in the context of recent Russian actions in Georgia.
Similar concerns were recently expressed by a senior US coastguard commander. Rear Admiral Gene Brooks, in charge of the coastguard's vast Alaska region, appealed for a diplomatic deal to be struck, warning of a risk of conflict in the Arctic unless disputes over international borders are solved.
The Norwegian government’s position was presented as a memorandum over a lunch with Commission President José Manuel Barroso on 12 November. It presents certain contradictions with the Commission view that legal adjustments may be needed in international legislation covering the Arctic.
"The Law of the Sea provides for important rights and obligations concerning different topics related to the Arctic Ocean; the delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf, the protection of the marine environment, including ice-covered areas, freedom of navigation, etc. This framework represents a solid foundation for responsible management of the Arctic Ocean. Hence, there are no legal 'gaps' in the Arctic to be filled, is the position of the Norwegian government."
UK ALDE MEP Diana Wallis, who is also vice-president of the European Parliament with responsibility for Arctic matters, welcomed the Commission proposal.
"The EU has three Arctic states amongst its members but besides this we are all aware that the Arctic is something of a 'nexus' of converging issues: climate change, energy supply, the opening of hitherto closed sea routes, sustainability, rural development, migrating fish stocks and so on. It is only right that the EU develops a cross-cutting policy to deal with these key issues," Wallis said.
Wallis disagreed with the Commission's proposal on one issue, though. "If there is one disappointment with the communication, it is that the Commission has not taken up the Parliament's call to open international negotiations designed to lead to the adoption of an international treaty for the protection of the Arctic. The issue of governance in the Arctic will nevertheless remain key and we will continue to contribute to the debate."
The World Wildlife Fund also reacted to the Commission proposal, warning that some countries and oil companies intended to exploit the Arctic's petroleum resources. "In consideration of its fragile Arctic environment, and the complete lack of any technical ability to clean up oil spills in ice covered waters, WWF calls for a moratorium on oil development in the Arctic at least until such clean up ability has been demonstrated," reads a statement by Neil Hamilton, director of WWF International's Arctic programme.
Acording to the international marine conservation organization Oceana, "there is a real and immediate need for a precautionary European Arctic Policy, especially considering that there is currently no international treaty or agreement governing the Arctic ecosystem."