With geopolitics in mind, EU opens consultation on future Arctic strategy

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Four years after the EU adopted its Arctic Policy, it is preparing work on a new strategy document. In the meantime, the race for the Arctic accelerates.

The EU’s new Arctic Ambassador, Michael Mann, appointed in April, told EURACTIV earlier this year that it was not yet clear when the bloc “will move forward with the actual policy update, and what form it will take”.

On Monday (20 July), the European Commission and the EU’s diplomatic service (EEAS) jointly launched a public consultation on the EU’s Arctic policy, which according to EU officials is meant to lead to a “broad reflection” on the bloc’s future strategy for the region, including the EU’s ambitions under the Green Deal and security.

The Commission said the consultation seeks input on the strengths and shortfalls of the existing policy, with a view to possibly preparing an updated approach.

“The Arctic is a rapidly evolving frontier in international relations,” the EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell said, adding that climate change is dramatically transforming the region, and increasing its geopolitical importance, with a number of players seeing new strategic and economic opportunities in the High North.

“We must ensure that the Arctic remains a zone of low tension and peaceful cooperation, where issues are solved through constructive dialogue. The EU must be fully equipped to manage the new dynamics effectively, in line with our interests and values,” Borrell said.

“What happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic. It concerns us all and the EU must be at the forefront with a clear and coherent Arctic policy to tackle the challenges in the years ahead,” Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius said, adding that “drawing on a wide spectrum of expertise and opinions through this consultation, will help us in preparing a strong strategy for the region.”

The public consultation is open until 6 November 2020.

“We’re hoping that as many people as possible will respond to this consultation,” Mann, told EURACTIV when asked about the next steps.

“It’s a genuine attempt to get frank input, which will help us shape the process of updating the policy and once the consultation closes, we will obviously need some time to process it,” Mann said, adding that “2021 will be a year of intensive work on the EU’s future Arctic policy.”

Late start

Experts and regional stakeholders had been surprised earlier this year that the European Commission’s work programme for 2020 had 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.

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.

Arctic countries puzzled about EU's engagement in the region

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 …

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

“If we don’t create an own Arctic strategy, other global powers will have more and more influence and actions in the region,” MEP Urmas Paet (Renew) told EURACTIV in May.

According to Paet, who is the founder of the European Parliament’s informal Arctic Group, “there is a lot to lose from Europe’s point of view, for whom environmental protection and combating climate change are very important. If the EU is not active enough when it comes to Arctic development, Russia and China will implement their agenda and Europe is very modest in this regard”.

“Things are rapidly changing and here inside the EU it is absolutely crucial that all structures and institutions are provided with the adequate man power – more people dealing with the Arctic with much clearer duties and obligations,” the Estonian MEP said.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of European countries have produced their own national Arctic strategies, while global powers such as Russia and China, a non-Arctic state, are vying for increased influence in the region.

Foreign influence

As Beijing has steadily ramped up its influence in the High North over the last decade, Nordic countries should aim to develop a common approach to the superpower’s increased involvement in the Arctic, the 2020 Nordic Foreign and Security Policy report, commissioned on behalf of the Nordic foreign ministers, warned.

“Several actors’ broad interest in the Arctic underlines the importance of well-functioning, multilateral cooperation, where the Arctic states must assume responsibility and play a key role in the interests of the Arctic environment and its societies,” the report stated. “The Nordics should aim to formulate a common Nordic policy facilitating partnership with states that share similar views on the implications of increased Chinese Arctic involvement.”

The report’s recommendations will be discussed at the next Nordic Group’s meeting in September, when Denmark takes over the presidency from Iceland.

At the same time, other players in the region are stepping up the pressure.

The US and many of its allies have been too slow to react to Chinese and Russian interests in the Arctic region, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Danish public broadcaster DR during a diplomatic visit in Copenhagen.on Wednesday (22 July).

“I think we have all been a little bit naive to watch not only the Russians but the Chinese interest there continue to become more and more aggressive,” Pompeo said.

“We are a little late. That’s alright, I’ve been late to parties before and had a great time. We’ll succeed,” he added.

Norway's 'northernmost Chinatown' eyes Beijing's Arctic investments

Each year, during the Lunar New Year celebrations, a small Arctic Chinatown takes shape near Norway’s border with Russia and Finland. It’s an indication of how China, though a non-Arctic state, is increasingly eyeing opportunities in the region.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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