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.