The EU needs to adapt how it approaches the role of China and Russia in the region, Michael Mann, EU’s Special Envoy for Arctic Matters, told EURACTIV.
The EU’s Arctic policy proposal had stressed the “geopolitical necessity” for Europe to step up its involvement in the region and, for the first time, included stronger language on geopolitics and security policy.
Asked whether he sees a danger of importing geopolitical tensions into the region when China, Russia and the US are already fighting for influence, Mann said this would ”not necessarily be the case“.
“There is a lot of geopolitical and military positioning going on globally, and what happens in the Arctic is perhaps, to a certain extent, a reflection of that,” Mann said.
“But it doesn’t mean that tension is being imported, and we don’t see a danger of imminent security issues.”
“There is mutual suspicion, but we haven’t seen any flashpoints, and we don’t want to see any flashpoints in the Arctic,“ he stressed.
Distinguishing Russia and China
He also said the EU needs to adapt how it approaches the role of China and Russia in the region, namely distinguishing between the two.
On Russia, Mann admitted that there are “great disagreements in a number of areas” but stressed that there are still certain issues in the Arctic context – environment, maybe transport routes, multilateral fora – that could continue on working levels.
“Obviously, we would prefer our relationship with Russia to be easier, and the fact that we have this difficult relationship with Russia means that our application for observership in the Arctic Council is still not being accepted,” the EU’s Arctic envoy said.
“But in reality, we can still continue to do just what we want to do in the Arctic Council, we’re actually saying in our policy paper that we want to do more, and we should be able to,“ he added.
On China, Mann said that Beijing’s ambitions with the Polar Silk Road, heavy investments in the region into infrastructure and cables, and self-proclaimed near-Arctic statehood would reflect how they’re asserting themselves globally.
“Nevertheless, they’re actually not asserting themselves nearly as much in the Arctic context as they are elsewhere at the moment, and we should deal with China in a practical but non-naive, and, to the extent possible, cooperative way,” he said.
“We have a global policy on China, but we don’t have a specific angle to our actions with Beijing in the Arctic, so this has to follow the guidelines in our global policy,“ Mann said, adding that although the EU would disagree on democratic principles, China’s engagement in fighting climate change is “absolutely vital“.
Asked whether he is worried about the region’s militarisation, Mann acknowledged there had been more military activity, and “the EU shouldn’t be complacent about it“.
“Nevertheless, we take the view that Arctic cooperation still works,” he said, adding that the Arctic Council primarily works well as a forum for non-security issues.
Enforcing climate politics
The EU will seek a ban on tapping new oil, coal and gas deposits in the Arctic to protect the region which is severely affected by climate change, which Mann said is “not an Arctic-specific reference“.
“We are the global leaders on the climate, so it would be odd if we didn’t reflect that in our Arctic policy,“ he said.
However, a day after the EU pledged to pursue a ban on exploiting new fossil fuel deposits in its latest regional strategy, Norway’s new incoming centre-left government said it wants to grow its oil and gas industry while striving to cut carbon emissions.
Mann also responded to the criticism by regional stakeholders whether the EU is applying double standards in asking for a moratorium while at the same time buying resources from the same countries.
“Clearly, this hasn’t gone down well with everybody,” Mann admitted, acknowledging that large parts of the economies of Arctic countries like Alaska, Canada, Norway, and Russia rely on the exploitation of natural resources.
“We’re not naive to think this is going to happen overnight, but we felt the strategy was a good sort of vehicle to raise that discussion and start it in earnest,” Mann said.
He did not comment on how much support he sees for the EU’s new push in the region.
“Those that don’t like it have got three choices in a way: One is to ignore it, the other one is to get angry, and the third is what we want it to be, which is for them to engage in a proper conversation,” he added.
According to the new EU strategy, the EU plans to open an office in Greenland’s capital Nuuk – as the US did last year – to boost its regional presence and develop economic, educational and research ties.
While being an autonomous territory under the Kingdom of Denmark with extensive self-government, most foreign and security issues are handled by Copenhagen. Earlier this month, however, Nuuk took a step towards greater autonomy in those policy areas.
“We have to be very careful about what we do, particularly in Greenland,” Mann said.
“Especially in the current political environment, in order not to be seen in any way as tilting the balance either away from independence or towards independence,” he said, adding the EU “should keep out of this”.
The EU has earmarked financial support of around €220 million over the next seven years.
However, he acknowledged that the EU had not received much recognition compared to the Americans, who have invested $12 million a year.
“As for now, there hasn’t been much European investment in Greenland, but from our perspective, it would be better if European companies were to invest, but of course with very high standards,” he added.
Asked whether he thinks Greenland is where the next fight over raw materials might happen, Mann said it is hard to say.
“We’ve got a critical raw materials’ alliance, and we think it would be a good idea if European companies and countries would invest in raw materials because we’re too dependent on imports,” he said.
According to Mann, the language on this aspect “took a lot of work, and a lot of maximum possible environmental standards and maximum possible social standards” needed to be included.
“After all, it’s all about strategic autonomy,” he concluded.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]