Germany’s Arctic policy ​​​​​​​calls for more restrictions in the region

The new policy has received mixed responses.

By Siri Gulliksen Tømmerbakke, High North News - September 6, 2019
Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gesture as they meet in Iceland on August 19, 2019 where Merkel traveled to meet with Nordic ministers. (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)

Nordic prime ministers and German Chancellor Angela Merkel highlighted widening cooperation between the five Nordic countries and Germany in Reykjavik, Iceland, last month, just as Germany’s Arctic policy guidelines was made public.

At a press conference after the ministers meeting, Merkel said that “Germany has so far been involved mainly in research projects, but will in the future observe the strategic importance of the area.”

She also admitted that Germany has not paid in recent years enough attention to the strategic development of the Arctic area.

Nevertheless, the new policy guidelines are overall focused on environmental issues and climate change.

The strategy is introduced with a statement that the Federal Government of Germany is assuming greater responsibility for the Arctic region “with a view to shaping it for the future.”

However, taking a closer glance, it seems Germany is advocating more restrictions on the companies operating in the Arctic and total ban in activities in some areas.

Regulations and restrictions

For example, the German strategy calls for compliance with legally binding regulations on the use and explorations of the Arctic.”

Furthermore, the Germans is committed to the further designations of protected areas and quiet zones” and “legally binding regulations regarding the explorations and extractions of mineral resources.”

When it comes to international cooperation and shipping, the German Arctic policy includes recommendations for expanding the regulations in the Polar Code.

Preventive measures for ensuring protection against oil spills in the sensitive Arctic region and a complete ban on heavy fuel oil — as in Antarctica — are other important priorities.

But why is it important for Germany to have an Arctic Policy?

Arne Riedel, fellow at Ecologic Institute in Berlin, describes the new Arctic policy as a sign of the intensified coordination within Germany’s ministries and agencies on this topic over the last years.

“Earlier documents by the foreign office and the ministry responsible for research already captured important elements in their respective realms but did not cover the same range or depth. The Arctic policy aims to provide a coherent and more encompassing outlook for Germany’s partners abroad, most of all the Arctic states and the Arctic Council. It allows Germany to demonstrate its willingness to further engage with Arctic states and Indigenous peoples, following a rule-based approach and respect for their rights” he told High North News.

Positioning themselves

Their strategy could have implications for the economy if implemented in the EU, according to Erling Kvadsheim, vice chair of Arctic Economic Council and international director of the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association.

He has no doubt Germany, with these guidelines, is positioning and preparing itself for the EU Arctic strategy coming up next spring.

“The European commission has prepared a document where they argue a new strategy is needed. In this document, the commission underline not only the need to protect the Arctic, but also a more prudent resource management in the region” he told High North News.

The previous EU Arctic strategy is overall focused on preservation of the Arctic. Kvadsheim is confident the debate in the next months will turn towards weighing the need for protection up against the need for development and business opportunities:

“The attitude of Germany suggests the Arctic should be seen as a region that needs special care and protection and that all activity must  be done with utmost consideration for the environment and its vulnerability.”

The AEC vice chair feels the common view in European countries is that the Arctic is a region that is more vulnerable than others and that energy activity inflicts greater damage in the Arctic than elsewhere.

“This is something the industry disagrees with. There is no evidence to suggest that the industry is doing more harm in the Arctic than elsewhere,” he argues.

Hard to predict the consequences

As for possible consequences the German Arctic policy will have for businesses operating in the Arctic, Kvadsheim is more uncertain.

“It is hard to predict. The document is well written. It does not close any doors. On the one hand, they argue that people in the Arctic have the right to a good life. On the other hand, they advocate strict precautions and a total ban on activities in certain areas. What they do not discuss in the guidelines, it that there are many areas in both Canadian Arctic, Russian Arctic and Scandinavian Arctic with huge activities the world needs, especially in the future” he says, and warns: “If these views are adopted by the EU next year, it will be even more difficult and expensive to do business and live above the Arctic circle.”

Riedel disagrees: “An important aspect that the German Arctic policy advocates for is the consistent application of the precautionary principle. This suggests to explore potential impacts and take protective measures before any human activities would harm the environment, maybe even irreversibly. This principle does not per se exclude any activities and should be a consensus in any sustainable development. In addition, the ‘polluter pays’ principle calls for clear responsibilities and liabilities for environmental damage,” he said.

Many northerners see it as a big problem that many European countries and their politicians do not acknowledge the Arctic as eight different countries with eight different needs, but as a homogenic region.

For example: There are Arctic conditions along the east coast of Canada all the way down to Newfoundland, a region on the same latitude as Paris, while the Norwegian Arctic is much further north.

“This is something the AEC and Norwegian Oil and Gas spend a lot of time explaining in Brussels, and will continue to advocate in the upcoming months” Kvadsheim tells High North News.

Practice and preach

Elana Wilson Rowe is a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. She applauds Germany for making commitments about what changes to pursue within Germany and in Germany’s broader global policies, not only preach on “what the Arctic must do.”

Environmental concerns are the driving factor in the policy, but not just what must be done to protect the Arctic regionally, but how Germany can contribute globally and domestically. For example, they underline their commitment to the Paris Agreement on reducing climate change emissions,” she says.

Rowe finds it important that Germany highlights their role in reducing the overall volume of waste produced nationally to address the broader problem of maritime plastic pollution. 

She also notes that Germany is funding a great deal of the science in the Arctic region, funding a greater number of research projects than Sweden or Finland, according to a 2017 study from UArctic. The assessment was based on research project funding from 2006-2015.

Rowe describes the policy as “sensible” in many ways, yet reflecting a view on the Arctic in most European countries as a monolithic place with shared problems and challenges.

“However, the Arctic actually varies a lot. And the policy does not differentiate between the countries in the region and what some of them are and are not doing to ensure good Arctic economic development practices. Norway, for example, has written a lot of the rule book on this, and the policy could acknowledge this ongoing dialogue and efforts made by the Arctic states themselves relating to environmental regulation, sustainable use and management and protected areas already”. 

She can understand that the language in the policy is perceived as a “teacher’s scolding all the pupils,” especially by the Arctic nations who already are active in implementing stringent environmental rules and regulations.

“But I don’t think this is a message directed towards, for example, Norway. And it is not politically strategic to name specific actors in this type of document,” she argues.  

Different perspectives

Rowe points to the fact that Arctic and non-Arctic states have different views on the region as one explanation.

“Non-Arctic states often see the Arctic as part of a global system, whilst those living there want it to be treated as a region rather than a global space.”

She uses the recent disputes over the Amazon as an example.

“The world sees the Amazon as a global heritage and our gut reaction when it burns is to help and instruct and engage. Brazil, on the other hand, considers it as their national territory. Despite the differences between these two globally significant places, the world sees an Arctic going through a state change forced by climate change and does not want to stand idly by.” 

Riedel argues the regional diversity of the Arctic and the Arctic countries is understood by German Arctic scientists and experts: “As a strategic policy document of a non-Arctic state, the German Arctic policy certainly takes a more simplified approach that covers the Arctic region as a whole. That is not to say that all aspects of the policy apply in the same way to or have the same relevance in all Arctic regions.”


The Arctic Economic Council, founded by the Arctic Council in 2014, uses every opportunity to advocate their interests and provide input to eurocrats and politicians, whether in the form of hearings or directly to the policy makers

“We had meetings with the author of the draft for a new EU Arctic strategy. And the number of requests to speak at events, not only in Brussels, but also elsewhere in Europe, are increasing,” Kvadsheim tells High North News.

Over 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas, are believed to lie north of the Arctic Circle. Large quantities of oil and gas are already being extracted in Russia, Norway and the U.S. (Alaska).

The organization Norwegian Oil and Gas has a broad network that allows old-fashioned lobbying and they are prepared to use it.

“What is most pressing for Norwegian Oil and Gas, is that the EU policy is founded based on knowledge, not myths. We appreciate that the Arctic is high on the agenda in big and important European countries, but we worry that the common view is leaning towards protect and preserve, not how to exploit and use the resources in the region the most sustainable way. Resources the world not only need today, but will depend on in the future.”

Less shipping

The policy acknowledge that the changing environmental conditions are making it easier to access the region for research and to exploit Arctic resources.

The Northeast and Northwest Passages along the northern shorelines of Europe, Asia and the American continent are becoming increasingly navigable during the summer months. An ice free Northeast Passage would be the shortest shipping route between the ports of Europe’s Northern Range and East Asia.

“The decline in sea ice enables more intensive use of shipping routes through Arctic waters, thus placing an increasing burden on them,” the policy determines.

And further argues that “The advantages of a shorter shipping route must still be weighed against several factors: the sea ice’s unpredictability, the fact that, as of yet, there is insufficient emergency rescue capacity, and the lack of Arctic capable cargo ships.”

The Arctic in the G7 summit

This phenomenon and the future of the Arctic made it all the way to the recent G7 summit in Biarritz France.

As High North News reported last Monday, CMA CGM’s Chief Executive and Chairman Rodolphe Saadé announced that the company will not be using Russia’s Northern Sea Route to ship goods between Europe and Asia. It is the first major shipping operator to step away from Arctic shipping.

The company’s decision follows calls by French President Emmanuel Macron to avoid using new Arctic shipping routes: “This route will kill us in the end, because this route may well be quicker, but it is the consequence of our past irresponsibility,” Macron argued.

The new German policy includes similar arguments.

“The precautionary and polluter pays principles are fundamental principles of all environmental policy making and economic activity in the Arctic. Developments that could lead to environmental pollution in the future must be avoided from the outset,” it reads.

At the same time acknowledges that the Northern Sea Route could create significant opportunities for German shipping, thanks to shorter travel times, reduced fuel use and lower costs. But the Federal Government ensure they are committed to “the unimpeded, safe and peaceful passage of vessels through Arctic waters taking into account strict environmental stipulations and the interests of the indigenous population.”