Under the helm of the Finnish presidency last autumn, the EU’s new maritime and space policies made special reference to the Arctic region, and ministers agreed to update the EU’s Arctic policy strategy drafted in 2016.
But the European Commission’s work programme for 2020 made no reference to plans to update the bloc’s stance on Arctic matters, in a setback for those hoping it would step up its engagement with the region.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of European countries have produced their own national Arctic strategies, while China has been increasingly active and declared itself a “near-Arctic state”.
The EU’s new Arctic Ambassador, Michael Mann, appointed in April, admitted that it was not yet clear when the bloc “will move forward with the actual policy update, and what form it will take”.
“Internal discussions between the EU’s diplomatic service and DG Mare as the lead service of the Commission are still ongoing,“ Mann told EURACTIV in an interview.
EU member states like Germany and France are observers in the Arctic Council – while the EU is a non-permanent observer, and its current status could be a result of Russia blocking its membership bid as a tit-for-tat for the sanctions the bloc has imposed on Moscow over the Ukraine conflict.
“In the ideal world, we would like to be full observers, of course, but at the moment we are also able to play a role of a de facto observer, even if we’re not permanent observers. It’s not ideal, but it actually works pretty well,“ Mann said.
New forum for security issues?
But while most Arctic stakeholders say the region is primarily an area of cooperation, recent years have seen a militarisation of the region, as well as growing competition to exploit its natural resources.
Mann acknowledged that “there has been an increase in activity recently, but I don’t think we should be accused of naivety“.
“The whole ethos of our policy towards the Arctic is that it should be a region of peace and cooperation. It has been thus far, things have worked relatively well in the Arctic,” he said.
However, the Arctic Council does not deal with hard security issues and the rise in tensions has led some Arctic officials to call for a new kind of forum to discuss security issues in the region.
“From our perspective, the more regional cooperation and multilateralism there is, the better,“ says Mann. “However, I don’t think we should criticise ourselves for being naive, we operate within the bounds of our responsibilities. It’s good to be a sort of honest broker.”
China, which published its first Arctic strategy in 2018, has recently launched its second icebreaker so it will probably be engaged in various kinds of missions this year.
At the same time, Beijing is increasingly eyeing opportunities in the region and has drafted an investment strategy for the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route, which has seen explosive growth in traffic as the sea corridor between China and Europe cuts travel times by 40% compared to sailing via the Suez Canal.
Mann played down China’s reach and influence in the Arctic.
“I am under the impression that people think China is taking over the Arctic, they are a player as they are everywhere in the world, but I don’t think China’s is taking over the Arctic. I really don’t see that,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve underestimated China.”
“My experience from Iceland tells me that they are present, but they are approaching things in a softly-softly way,” Mann said, adding that there have been few areas of “major disagreement”.
“For the EU, it is just a question of making sure that this is well managed”.
Asked if the EU should be worried by the increasing commercialisation of the fragile region, Mann stressed the EU would be one of the actors that could ‘lead by example’ and influence processes with its legislation.
“We’re not naive enough to think that people aren’t going to want to exploit these resources – it just has to be well managed,“ he said.
“We have to make the distinction between global efforts on climate change, where the EU can confidently say it is the world leader, and making sure that there are opportunities to have sustainable or carbon-neutral technologies in the Arctic that would actually benefit people who live in the Arctic,“ the diplomat said.
However, he warned the bloc and other actors against “the danger of patronising“ the region.
“If the Arctic is to be exploited, the indigenous people and those living in the Arctic should be able to enjoy the benefits,” Mann said. “We have to really take the indigenous people seriously, not just pay lip service.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]