EU bids to step up green diplomacy in the Arctic

EU Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius gives a press conference on the new EU Arctic Strategy following the college meeting of the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, 13 October 2021. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Convincing other countries to pursue a ban on exploiting new fossil fuel deposits in the Arctic will require diplomatic efforts, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius told EURACTIV as the European Commission unveiled a new Arctic strategy on Wednesday (13 October) in response to growing geopolitical tensions in the region.

The proposal, drawn up jointly with EU chief diplomat Joseph Borrell, reflects the “geopolitical necessity” to step up Europe’s involvement in the region, Sinkevičius said.

The EU’s new strategy reflects growing anxiety over geopolitical tensions in the Arctic at a time when China, Russia and the US are already fighting for influence in the region.

For the first time, the EU strategy included a chapter on geopolitics and security policy.

“Intensified interest in Arctic resources and transport routes could transform the region into an arena of local and geopolitical competition and possible tensions, possibly threatening the EU’s interests,” the document states.

Among the signals, the Commission notes an “increased assertiveness by Russia in Arctic waters and airspace,” and growing Chinese interest in “areas like ownership of critical infrastructure, the construction of sea cables, global shipping, cyberspace, and disinformation”.

“These developments show that Europe must define its geopolitical interests broadly to promote stability, safety and peaceful cooperation in the Arctic,” Borrell said.

Over the past years, non-Arctic countries such as China and France have formulated Arctic strategies of their own. And Switzerland is about to join them soon.

The EU has only limited political influence in the region because it is not a member of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body. However, it has applied for observer status, which would allow the EU to participate in meetings and collaborate directly with Arctic nations, without casting a vote.

Although it is not a decision the EU can take but the body itself, “we would be happy with our role increasing,” Sinkevičius told EURACTIV.

Five of the Arctic Council’s eight members are either EU member states (Sweden, Finland, and Denmark) or closely associated with the EU (Norway and Iceland). The others are Canada, Russia and the United States as well as six indigenous organisations.

According to the new EU strategy, the bloc plans to open an office in Greenland’s capital Nuuk – as the United States did last year – in order to boost its regional presence and develop economic, educational and research ties.

Sinkevičius stressed that the move was not about geopolitics but about the “establishment of better dialogue and cooperation within the region and being more present”.

Arctic drilling ban

When it comes to the EU’s diplomatic clout in the region, the Commission believes its main contribution will be through green policies.

According to the strategy, the EU will seek a ban on tapping new oil, coal and gas deposits in the Arctic in order to protect a region severely affected by climate change. A ban would also prevent possible tensions over resources, the EU believes.

“The EU is committed to ensuring that oil, coal and gas stay in the ground, including in Arctic regions,” the EU executive’s proposal said, while acknowledging that the bloc itself still imports oil and gas extracted in the region.

“To this end, the Commission shall work with partners towards a multilateral legal obligation not to allow any further hydrocarbon reserve development in the Arctic or contiguous regions, nor to purchase such hydrocarbons if they were to be produced,” it stated.

The EU is a net importer of Arctic oil and gas and estimates it is responsible for 36% of the Arctic’s black carbon deposits.

Asked by EURACTIV whether there is support in the region for this idea, Sinkevičius said the EU has strong scientific backing on this, but acknowledged that “with some countries, this will require deep diplomatic efforts”.

“But we have to start talking about it, we have to inspire a debate on it, and we have to lead by example,” Sinkevičius added.

Both the US and Canada have banned offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, but Russia, one of the world’s largest oil and gas exporters, sees the warming Arctic as an opportunity to expand its hydrocarbon exploration.

Asked about the EU’s hopes of convincing Russia on this issue, Sinkevičius said: “We have to avoid slipping into a competitive mood, and instead focus more on the win-win environmental solutions, which then would allow us to have a respective dialogue”.

At the same time, the strategy also outlines for the EU to “cooperate with NATO on strategic foresight, looking at the medium to longer-term security impact of climate change”.

‘Arctic paradox’

Under its new strategy, the EU also aims to strengthen research into the effects of thawing permafrost that may put oil fields at risk and threaten to release greenhouse gases as well as dangerous germs locked in the frozen ground.

“Over 70% of Arctic infrastructure and 45% of oil extraction fields are built on permafrost,” notes the document, which must still be approved by the EU’s 27 member states.

Potential mitigation measures could include the development of methods for local cooling and stabilisation and the introduction of tougher building standards, as well as the creation of a monitoring and early warning system to detect germs such as anthrax being released from the thawing ground.

According to Sinkevičius, the Commission is committed to promote both economic development and environmental protection in the Arctic, saying the two are not contradictory.

“Our interest in the Arctic is driven by both – first, the European citizens that live there, and it’s our duty to help and protect them,” Sinkevičius said, when asked about a potential trade-off between the two.

“We see that the balance between preventing climate change and enhance economic activities is not there anymore, that grasping the new raising new economic opportunities is actually taken the main stage – and of course, we want to bring that balance back,” he added.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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