Arctic countries puzzled about EU’s engagement in the region

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Three years after the EU adopted its Arctic Policy, it is preparing work on a new strategy document. But countries in the region are confused about what the bloc really wants.

Last December, the Council of Ministers under Finnish leadership, adopted new conclusions on the Arctic, calling the bloc to continue contributions in both regional and multilateral fora dealing with Arctic matters and initiating the process to update the EU’s Arctic policy.

“Developments in the Arctic are progressing at rapid pace, the EU needs to ensure that its own policy approach would take account of relevant developments,” EU foreign ministers noted, agreeing to initiate an effort to update the strategy document.

Previously, the EU side under the helm of the Finnish presidency had already decided on several policy areas such as maritime and space policy with a special reference to the Arctic region.

However, when on Thursday (29 January), the European Commission adopted its work program for 2020, the document made no reference to the anticipated intention of the new Commission to update the bloc’s stance on Arctic policy.

“We have a situation where we are still in transition, both in the Commission as well as in the European External Action Service, but the policy objectives regarding the Arctic will remain the same as before,” an EU source told EURACTIV and confirmed that the first step of choosing a new EU Arctic Ambassador is likely to follow next week.

A Finnish legacy

“Despite putting a lot of emphasis on MFF and other issues, the Finnish presidency legacy is the demand for the update of the EU’s Arctic position,” the source added.

Finland, like Norway and Denmark, is currently in the process of updating its own national Arctic strategy. The country’s previous Prime Minister, Antti Rinne, had repeatedly called on the EU to do the same.

“We believe there should be more EU in the Arctic and more Arctic in the EU,” he underlined last autumn, adding that the development of a new Arctic strategy should be a priority for the incoming EU Commission.

“The EU has a lot to offer in the Arctic,” he said last year.

“One way or another, the process will start this year,” the EU source told EURACTIV, adding that working groups are expected to start their preparations in the next few weeks.

In the Commission’s current line-up, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius is expected to take the lead on the draft together with the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell.

“The question is, however, which role Ms von der Leyen will take for herself,” the EU source added, noting that if she wants to hold true to the idea of a ‘geopolitical’ Commission, she will need to show more involvement in the process.

According to experts, the EU’s policy update is likely to be modelled on the recommendations from a European Political Strategy Centre study, initiated by the previous Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, on the strategic significance of the Arctic to the EU.

European Arctic strategies

Meanwhile, an increasing number of European countries have produced their own national Arctic strategies.

A few months ago, the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs was left baffled by statements from the French Defence Minister Florence Parly, who presented the brand new French defence strategy for the Arctic. After Brexit, France is the only EU country with a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and with a nuclear arsenal.

In its preamble, the new strategy document states, “the Arctic belongs to no-one” and “only cooperation between states will lead to meaningful results,” and went on to quote former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard comparing the Arctic to a lawless Middle East.

With Britain due to leave the bloc, Germany wants to focus on taking more responsibility and introducing more environment-related limitations on the region.

Estonia on the other hand, has started preparing a bid for observer status in the Arctic Council, highlighting the country’s interest in the Arctic with regard to science, economy and security.

To many, however, the role of the EU in the Arctic is still unclear.

Despite years of diplomatic efforts, the EU is still not even an observer with limited rights to speak in the Arctic Council, where Arctic governments decide on common goals and policies. The Arctic Council members are Russia, the United States, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

The EU’s outsider role is a result of Russia’s blocking its membership bid, as a tit-for-tat for the sanctions the Union has imposed on Moscow over the Ukraine conflict.

Experts and Arctic stakeholders appear confused with regards to the EU strategies. They also see it as a problem that many European countries do not acknowledge the Arctic as eight different countries with eight different objectives, but as a homogeneous region.

To Andreas Raspotnik, researcher at The Arctic Institute in Washington DC, the EU gives the impression that on the one hand it is not much concerned with the Arctic, yet on the other hand it shapes a rather sharp policy towards those who reside in it.

“The EU’s approach to the Arctic went from a very symbolic stance on engagement, to a situation where it became much more focused on legitimising its relevance in the region, where the new Commission needs to figure out how it wants to engage with the Arctic,” Andreas Østhagen, Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, told EURACTIV.

According to him, it is likely to follow the mindset of the previous Commission: “don’t rock the boat too much and stress the right things like development, cooperation, international law”.

“But if von der Leyen wants this to be a ‘geopolitical’ Commission, it will be more interesting to see how the EU intends to react to the growing strategic importance of the Arctic,” Østhagen added.

Expectations

Asked by EURACTIV what were the expectations in the region from the EU Arctic Policy update, Audun Halvorsen, state secretary of the Norwegian foreign ministry, stressed that the general view is that “it is important that the EU engages in Arctic questions”.

“We are, of course hoping, for a knowledge-based policy built on full understanding of the region, built on inclusion of regional local indigenous stakeholders and engaging with the Arctic countries,” he added.

The Norwegian official said it was sometimes difficult to convey to policymakers that “the Arctic is a place where people live, with five Arctic coastal states and eight states that have already developed very good governance framework mechanisms for cooperation, mechanisms for dialogue” and it is about taking that into account when creating policy.

Audun also pointed towards the geo-strategic developments in the region, which need to be better taken into account, as strategic competition in the region is re-emerging after a 35 year hiatus.

“Looking at that from the European perspective, it is an important dimension, because the developments of the region have strategic security implications for the whole of Europe.”

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Benjamin Fox]

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