The EU Policy in the Arctic: the Changing Geopolitical Situation in the Polar Ranges

05 July 2023 /

4 min

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The Arctic is a frozen region of the world renowned for its unforgiving climate, its peculiar wildlife, and with the North Pole at its centre. While climate change has for many been the main reason to discuss the polar areas in recent times, renewed tensions and geopolitical games have attracted the eye of the EU’s policy makers to this region. Accordingly, the geopolitical environment of the Arctic and the creation of the EU strategy for it will be the core elements of this article.

What do we mean by the Arctic Region?

The Arctic encompasses the expansive area within the polar circle, extending approximately 66 degrees of latitude above the equator, and covers about 17,000,000 s. km (or about 3 % of the Earth surface, oceans included). It is mainly made up of seas partially or totally frozen throughout the year. The US, Canada, Russia, Denmark (through Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland constitute the eight bordering countries of the arctic and the member states of the Arctic Council.

The geopolitical situation of the Arctic

With the advent of climate change, there is a growing interest in the emerging sea routes within the Arctic Ocean. According to the Arctic Institute, there are currently three main sea routes called the North-West Passage (NWP), the North Sea Route (NSR) and the Transpolar Sea Route (TSR), each linking the Pacific (through the strait of Bering) to the Atlantic. The NWP route sails through the Northern reaches of Canada to the Labrador Sea while the NSR circumnavigates the Russian coastline reaching the North Atlantic via the Barents Sea. The last lane takes a rather bolder approach cutting almost straight through the Arctic Ocean leading directly from the Bering Strait to the Greenland sea.

While the environment presents greater challenges compared to conventional routes (via either the Panama or Suez Canal), these roads are much shorter saving time, money and fuel for the shipping companies. Traffic has therefore been growing apace despite issues such as poor weather, lack of infrastructures, and uncertainty on the length of the ice-free season still plaguing the routes

Moreover, the region is also abundant in raw resources (both fossil fuels and ores). Exploitation of some of these has already been ongoing for many years. Once again, climate change played a role, opening  opportunities for additional prospecting and extraction work. A study by the estimates from the US Geological Survey, indicates that the area would be home to a significant quantity of gas and oil amounting overall to 22% of the estimated undiscovered reserves of the world. Mining activities are also quite important (for instance, uranium, coal, phosphate…)  in the area’s economy and are bound to expand as well.

On a related topic : EU policy in the global race for critical raw materials

The Arctic Council

In 1996, the Arctic Council was officially established  with the Ottawa Declaration stipulating as main objectives of the intergovernmental organisation, the promotion of cooperation in the area, sustainable development and dissemination of information regarding  the Arctic. A certain emphasis is also laid on allowing  NGOs representing the various indigenous people of the area to be part of the Council as permanent participants and bring in their knowledge and views to the table.

The Council allows for other countries and international organisations to acquire observer status which 13 countries have.  A large intake took place in 2013 when 6 countries were admitted, most of them located in Asia. This was the result of an intense lobbying campaign by some of the countries, especially China, to be admitted in the Council as part of the countries newly found interest for the Arctic region.

In recent times, the turmoil created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has stopped progress on policies in the Council as Russia suspended its involvement in key projects. This has also negatively impacted the attractiveness of the NSR for international commerce as Western companies try to avoid passing near to Russia. 

The European Strategy

The formulation of an EU strategy for the Arctic was slow in its conception. In their article, Raspotnik, A. & Stepien, A. (2020) highlight how its first building blocks were put together in the very early 2010s in the wake of the Union’s renewed interest in the area in  2007/2008.  

The arrival of China in the Council, which coincided with other geopolitical moves such as the setting-up of a meteorological and research station in Iceland, shook EU capitals. The mass entrance of countries outside the permanent members in what was believed to be a closed club of countries urged the EU to redefine itself on the Arctic diplomatic stage. 

In October 2021, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, jointly with the European Commission, released a statement defining the EU policy for the Arctic. Presented ahead of the COP26, its main focus was indeed the preservation of biodiversity in the polar region. However, the joint communication also highlighted the importance of keeping the region as a place of peaceful cooperation (page 2-7 of the joint communication) which, in diplomatic terms, translates the EU’s concern and willingness to redeploy its efforts in this area.

On a related topic : The High Representative of the EU : a role that needs some change ?

The Path Forward

With its rapidly evolving commercial place in the world, the Arctic has attracted the  attention of the major powers of the international stage. Spurred by the geopolitical outlook, the EU slowly and gradually  reviewed its existing policies for the Arctic and brought them up to speed. This redefining of the EU strategy for the Arctic, while reactive in nature instead of proactive, still brings the Union back in the “polar game” and can be interpreted as a stepping stone for future growth. The new impulse sets the course for the cooking years, time will tell if the EU will pursue this strategic course.

[This article was first published in the issue 38 of the magazine]

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