The European Union is intensifying its campaign to join the Arctic Council, hoping to wield greater influence over a region thought to hold huge undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels on Thursday (31 January) with an agenda packed by the crisis in Mali and the wider Arab world.
But one smaller agenda item is also attracting intense scrutiny, by oil companies and environmentalists alike: An EU proposal "to promote sustainable and peaceful development" in the Arctic region, outlined by the European Commission in a June 2012 policy document.
The EU has shown great interest in the Arctic, in part because "some countries are thinking about drilling in the Arctic," said a senior EU official who was speaking to journalists on condition of anonymity.
The UK has recently sought to relax EU regulations on deep-sea oil drilling in order to open new opportunities there.
The region is thought to hold 13% of undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas reserves at a global level, according to a note circulated ahead of the EU foreign ministers meeting.
"We would very much like to have a stake into this by becoming observer in the Arctic Council," the EU official said, adding that a decision was expected "around the summer".
"We're going to launch a campaign in order to convince the eight members of the Arctic Council to have a positive answer to our request," the official said.
At European level, the European Commission has proposed steps towards an EU policy in the Arctic in its June 2012 policy document. The strategy aims at protecting and preserving the Arctic but also at "promoting the sustainable use of resources".
Three EU countries are already represented in the Arctic Council – Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
For Denmark, membership of the Arctic Council is ensured by its former colony Greenland, which was granted home rule in 1979 and aspires to greater prosperity thanks to the exploitation of its mineral reserves, including uranium and rare earths.
"By the way, we know how to behave with Greenland and Denmark because we know the status of these partners," the official said.
The other Arctic Council members are Canada, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the US.
The resource-rich Arctic is becoming increasingly contentious as climate change makes the region more navigable.
In June 2012, the European Commission proposed developing an Arctic policy built around three main policy objectives:
- protecting and preserving the Arctic in unison with its population;
- promoting the sustainable use of resources;
- international cooperation.
- 31 Jan.: EU foreign ministers meeting
- Summer: EU hopes to win observer status in Arctic Council
Council of the European Union
- Background: Foreign affairs ministers meeting, 31 January 2013
- Factsheet: EU’s Arctic Policy: Questions and Answers (3 July 2012)
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