Spurred by Chinese and Russian activity, EU President Juncker is making the Arctic more central to EU policy

By commissioning a fresh EU Arctic policy papers just before the next EU Parliament elections, Juncker is ensuring the region takes on new importance for Brussels.

By Martin Breum - February 20, 2019
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attends weekly College of Commissioners meeting in Brussels, Belgium, February 6, 2019. Juncker has commissioned a new Arctic policy paper to be released in May, increasing Brussels’ focus on the region. (Yves Herman / Reuters File Photo)

Just as it is in Russia and in China, the Arctic is rapidly rising to the top of the political agenda of the European Union. Increased geopolitical focus on the Arctic is creating renewed urgency in Brussels when it comes to securing a proper role for the EU in the Arctic and to increasing European access to Arctic oil, gas, minerals, fish stocks and shipping routes.

During a stopover in Copenhagen last week, Jari Vilen, Senior Advisor for Arctic Policy within the European Political Strategy Centre, the rapid deployment think tank of the European Commission, shared with me some of the most recent developments.

The EU has played for a number of years an increasing, if somewhat disjointed role in the Arctic. Sweden and Finland, both members of the EU, embrace large Arctic regions that are subject to EU legislation. The Kingdom of Denmark consists of Denmark, which is a EU member country, and the Faroe Islands and Greenland, both territories that are not part of the EU. (Britain, by the way, will not be the first territory to leave the EU. Greenland was part of the EU from 1979 but opted out in 1985).

The Faroe Islands and Greenland are both influenced by economic ties to the EU and by a number of international agreements involving the EU. The two non-EU-countries Norway and Iceland, both members of the Arctic Council, are members of the European Economic Area and thus part of the inner market of the European Union and its customs regime. The EU is an important importer of Arctic fish, shrimp, minerals and gas and a central sponsor of Arctic science programs. The EU is a key signatory to the recent moratorium on fishing in the central parts of the Arctic Ocean, the Polar Code of the IMO and several other key international regimes (and European industry contributes significantly to emission of carbon dioxide and black carbon that accelerates climate change in the Arctic).

But recently, the EU has taken a more urgent interest in the region, Vilen says.

EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker has personally positioned the Arctic in the very foreground of policy making in Brussels by commissioning a policy paper on the EU’s Arctic priorities. The timing of this initiative is a point in itself. The forthcoming policy paper, due in the early part of May, will have the potential to influence not only electoral campaigns prior to the elections to the European Parliament later that month, but also the next EU Commission, which is to be formed most likely late this year, and the next seven-year budget of the European Union, which is currently very much on the table.

“The idea is to build a bridge between the current and the next commission. Hopefully it will provide input already in the initiation-phase of the next EU Commission and in the birth-phase of the next European Parliament,” Vilen told me.

President Jean Claude Juncker has asked Vilen, who was born in the Arctic part of Finland, to author the Arctic policy paper — some 25 pages — and include in it clear priorities for the Arctic engagement of the entire European Union, its 28 member states and its more than 512 million inhabitants.

New geopolitics

“The Arctic policy importance comes with the change of the geopolitical setting of the Arctic,” Vilen told me. “The position of the Arctic is different today due to China’s increased interest, Russia’s increased interest, increased American policy positions and because of the needs and demand for natural resources, gas, oils, minerals and fishing stocks. The Arctic has changed, but what has not changed is the European positions and assessments on how we should be engaged. I am trying to argue that the European Union should be ready to take a leadership role in the Arctic, because if we don’t do it, someone else will try to.”

He had just come from talks in Finland, which will take over the chairmanship of the EU in July, and from Iceland, which takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May. He was now briefly stopping over in Copenhagen to consult with Danish and Greenlandic officials, who were all most likely introduced to his focus on China’s Arctic interests.

“The Chinese role in the Arctic is extremely interesting and has to be taken into account. The global set-up forces the EU to be more active in the Arctic, so we need a more coherent and inclusive policy for the Arctic,” Vilen told me.

I was reminded of an analysis in Andreas Raspotnik’s lucid book from 2018 “The European Union and the Geopolitics of the Arctic.

“As climate change leads to new geostrategic dynamics in the region, the Arctic is perceived as a neighbouring area of emerging instability and insecurity — a volatility that may disturb the stability of Europe in a variety of ways. Moreover, although the effects of climate change are particularly obvious in the Arctic, its sources mainly have an external character and hence require external support as well. Consequently, European action is inevitable,” Raspotnik wrote.

After years of preparation, the European Commission and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy adopted in 2016 the European Union’s first comprehensive Arctic strategy, the “Integrated Arctic Policy,” legally binding for all 28 member states. Such a policy would normally not be overhauled for another four or five years, but Juncker has obviously seen a need for a quicker update.

The upcoming policy paper will not be legally binding for the member states, nor will it formally change the policy adopted in 2016, but as Vilen explained it will likely strengthen focus, priorities and overall attention to the Arctic in Brussels at a conspicuous moment in European affairs.

Oil, gas, minerals

The wish to secure European access to oil, gas, minerals, fishing stocks, shipping routes and other Arctic resources is a main pillar of Vilen’s approach.

“The European Union need the Arctic resources also in the future so our Arctic policy should be focusing on sustainable development. We need the oil, we need the gas, but the Arctic is extremely precious, so whatever is done there has to be done with the best available technology and taking into account the fragility of the Arctic nature. To put it in positive terms, the Arctic can also be seen as a laboratory for sustainable economic activity that can be multiplied in the larger Europe as such,” he said.

Under the dual thematic headers — geopolitics and resources — he has selected four prioritized entries: Climate change, science and innovation, connectivity (internet, trains, air transport, roads, other infrastructure) and the demography of the Arctic — urbanization is creating new challenges all over the Arctic.

Climate change is an overriding priority in several EU policies. Science and innovation already have a prominent role in the Integrated EU Arctic Policy from 2016, and Vilen wants to sharpen this focus. Science and innovation is the only policy area likely to receive additional funding in the European Union’s next budget. Serious overall cuts are expected after Brexit, but funding for science and innovation will grow, and Vilen recommends a particular Arctic focus:

“The next financial framework and its investment in research should have a specific angle also for the Arctic,” he said, describing a dual set of objectives. “Science and innovation is meant in our Arctic policy to enhance the possibilities for exploiting the natural resources in a sustainable manner and to respond to climate change challenges,” he said.

Dialogue with Russia

Traditionally, the EU has not involved itself in Arctic security and Vilen has no intention to change this approach. The EU is engaged in a prolonged and deep sanctions standoff with Russia following Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014, but like the Arctic states and the Arctic Council, the EU still treasures its dialogue with Russia on Arctic affairs; this allows for the dialogue that is otherwise missing. Russia is still blocking the EU’s admission as a formal observer to the Arctic Council, but Vilen downplays this aspect of the EU’s Russia relations:

“In practice, it has not affected the European Union’s engagement in any way. We continue to work as a de facto observer in the working groups [of the Arctic Council], and a lot of the material information to the groups come from the European Commission services and also a lot of the financing for the projects. So we are in. The de jure position is not here, but our de facto position is in place,” he said.