What a recent EU Arctic forum shows about the bloc’s efforts to handle the complexities of Arctic politics

The EU is already active in the Arctic — and will only become more so. But its engagement in the region still has some hurdles to overcome.

By Martin Breum - October 22, 2019
Carsten Gronbech-Jensen State Secretary for European Affairs and the Arctic, Kingdom of Denmark, Carmelo Abela, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion, Malta, Ine Eriksen Soreide, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Norway, Ann Linde, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sweden, Pekka Haavisto, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Finland, Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Iceland, Edgars Rinkevics, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Republic of Latvia and V. Muraleedharan, Minister of State for External Affairs, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and a Member of Parliament (MP) in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, attend a news conference at EU Arctic Forum in Umea, Sweden October 3, 2019. (Erik Abel / TT News Agency via Reuters)

The U.S. is ramping up in the Arctic, Russia banks heavily on its own Arctic provinces, China’s Arctic interests are growing. And in early October the top tiers of the European Union called a high profile event far in the north — the most ambitious of its kind so far — to illustrate how Brussels will also fight to ensure that the 500 million people who live in Europe will have access to the fish, minerals, oil, gas and trade routes in the Arctic, to influence in the region and to do their part to improve life and combat climate change in the Arctic.

In Brussels, the very heart of Europe, and just as Britain’s Brexit is shattering any sense of normality, a new EU commission is readying itself for the reins of power, the EU’s multi-billion budget for the coming years is being hammered into place, and in the midst of all this the rapid developments in the Arctic demand a new, more precise and efficient EU approach.

Thus, a large number of top bureaucrats from the EU Commission and from the foreign service of the EU, the External Action Service, was recently sent to Umeå in Northern Sweden (population 85,000) for the the EU Arctic Forum, a two-day high-level political gathering that got together some 300-400 diplomats, politicians, scientists and no less than six foreign ministers — from Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Malta and India. (Disclosure: I was hired by the EU Commission to moderate two panel discussions at the forum.)

[Brussels seeks new solid ground in melting Arctic]

The event was co-organized by the government of Sweden and gifted with a keynote climate-oriented speech by no less than Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden; a tell-tale sign of just how eager the Swedish government is to promote Sweden as an active player in the Arctic. (Only a few days later, the Crown Princess made another keynote address at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik).

In Umeå, some 400 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, the EU wanted to exhibit and further develop its multi-faceted engagement with the Arctic. During the run-up to the conference, we were promised the presence of the head of EU’s foreign service, Federica Mogherini, as well as high-ranking officials from several branches of the EU administration in Brussels. High-level speakers from the UN, WWF and prestigious European research institutions gave the event additional gravity, but as we moved through the program, a series of underlying obstacles to the EU’s Arctic aspirations also emerged.

Current challenges to the EU in the Arctic had been deftly presented not long before the event. In June, the EU Commission’s own internal think-tank, the European Political Strategy Centre, on the initiative of Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the EU-commission, published a incisive no-nonsense analysis “Walking on Thin Ice,”  that called for far more assertive EU-involvement in the Arctic:

“As global warming causes the central Arctic Ocean’s ice to melt at an unprecedented rate, never has the region’s importance for human and planetary survival been clearer,” the report said.

“Against this backdrop, the EU must step up its engagement with Arctic states and other stakeholders. Stronger coordination of European Arctic policies and a clearer definition of the rules of the game are needed now more than ever in order to ensure the peaceful and sustainable development of the Arctic,” it read.

The EU’s Arctic hot-pot

To many in the Arctic the EU and the role it plays in the region is, of course, still confusing.

Despite years of diplomatic efforts the EU is not yet recognized as official observer at the Arctic Council, where the Arctic governments decide on common goals and policies. EU officials have tried to convince me a number of times that this is merely a formality. The EU partakes in basically all important Arctic Council projects and programs. Only Russia stands in the way of the EU’s recognition as an observer and only because of the row between Russia and Europe about Russia’s annexation of Crimea — not because of any disagreement on Arctic affairs. But this still sends a significant symbolic message of the EU’s somewhat looser grip in the Arctic.

Only three EU member states have Arctic territory: Finland and Sweden both extend into the Arctic and Denmark, my own country, still holds sovereignty over Greenland, Denmark’s self-ruling former colony. But Greenland by its own volition left the EU in 1985. Like Norway and Iceland, Greenland does not like the idea of Brussels handling its rich fish stocks, its prime source of income.

Greenland enjoys a fine and expanding relationship with the EU as an “overseas territory,” but it is not part of the EU. Two other Arctic countries, Iceland (the current chair of the Arctic Council) and Norway are both members the European Economic Area and thus part of the inner market and customs arrangements of the European Union, but like Greenland they are not full members of the EU.

No overview

Confused? Well, you are not alone. Even in her introductory remarks at the Umeå conference the EU’s Arctic ambassador Marie-Anne Coninsx admitted that even she did not have at the top of her mind a workable overview of what the EU actually does or means in the Arctic.

The involvement of the EU’s many branches, institutions and programs in the Arctic amounts to everything from support for the mining industry in Northern Finland, financial support for local communities in Northern Sweden, cultural exchanges between Northern Norway and northern Russia (although this is currently suspended due to the row with Russia over Crimea). Cross-border infrastructure projects are supported by the European Regional Development Fund, the EU’s research agencies are behind generous funding for Arctic science and there are annual grants in support of Greenland’s educational budget.

The European Community is an important importer of Arctic fish, shrimp, minerals and natural gas from Russia and Norway, and on the dark side, European industries and households contribute heavily to emissions of carbon dioxide and black carbon that are accelerating climate change in the Arctic.

All this amounts to a teeming hot-pot of extremely diverse EU-connected activities and as we learned in Umeå, many of those involved, including from the EU’s own quarters, long for better coordination and more strategic application of it all.

Climate, climate, climate

To be fair, the core discussion in Umeå reflected a relatively clear pattern of EU priorities; first and foremost a focus on climate change in the Arctic, a theme that had already risen to the top in the EU’s first comprehensive Arctic strategy in 2016.

Envoys from the EU’s  Directorate-General for Research and Innovation stressed both on stage and in the corridors in Umeå how EU support is more and more essential for a large number of research projects in the Arctic, and how this flow of money is only likely to expand as a result of the coming EU budget. The happy recipients represent of a series of strong European research institutions so keen on working with the EU that they have established an international network to ensure a continuous dialogue with their funders in Brussels.

Many in the European capitals will applaud the strong focus on climate change within all this EU-funded research in the Arctic, but it also brings with it a difficult dilemma. Some people in the Arctic remain wary that the EU’s many actors are secretly — or even openly — more concerned about the climate and the protection of animals and the environment than about the desire for growth, jobs and a better economy of the people who live in the Arctic. Also, it’s not always clear if many of those who talk about climate change in the Arctic are fully cognizant that the changes there are caused much more by the burning of fossil fuels and industrial activity in continental Europe than by anything happening within the Arctic.

What is sustainable?

To counteract any suspicion in the Arctic — and to further also its own interests in the riches of the Arctic — the EU’s also supports “sustainable development” in the Arctic. And just as within the Arctic Council, sustainability is often interpreted in the EU in very broad and accommodating ways.

As we learned in Umeå, the EU would — broadly speaking — like to support greener, more climate-friendly developments in the Arctic, but only in ways that do not put brakes on economic growth and business development. To the EU, mining, oil production, shipping and other businesses notorious for their contribution to climate change are all fully acceptable, they just have to be greener than today.

A representative from the EU’s Directorate-General for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union (talk about catchy names!) explained how he and his colleagues are developing a set of green criteria to which future recipients of the EU’s support for business development will have to comply, and how banks and other lenders in the 28 EU member states will probably also apply such criteria in a not-too-distant future.

The central players from Brussels also talked a lot about “connectivity,” a buzzword that serves as a common denominator for everything that can tie businesses, governments, research institutions and ordinary people together across the vast distances — and when necessary across national borders — in the Arctic.

We heard how Galileo, the EU’s satellite program, contributes to search-and-rescue efforts and many other complex operations in northern Finland, Sweden and Norway, and an eager representative from Cinia, a private Finnish company, showed us how a new fiber-optic cable running from the Arctic tip of Norway along Russia’s northern coastline to China and Japan will bring the fastest ever internet connection between Northern Europe and Asia, when and if sufficient investments can be mobilized.

Finally, the EU claims to be strongly committed to the involvement of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic at all levels and stages of its Arctic endeavors. The problem is that this involvement is easier to talk about than to execute. As if to illustrate this, the main discussion of the daily lives, problems and aspirations of the Sami of northern Scandinavia and northwestern Russia and of the Inuit of Greenland was not held in the main plenary hall at Umeå University, but as a separate event on day two of the EU Arctic Forum at a separate venue. Among the speakers were the head of Greenland’s representative office in Brussels Mininnguaq Kleist and the president of the Sami Council, Åsa Larsson-Blind. The Sami Council used the opportunity of the EU Arctic Forum to officially publish its first Arctic strategy, but this was never discussed in earnest.

A series of no-shows came to symbolize other limits to the EU’s engagement with the Arctic. The head of the EU’s foreign service Federica Mogherini never came and the director of the External Action Service, who was to make up for her absence, also had to cancel just a day before the conference. Number three on the list of EU luminaries, EU commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella, who holds the overarching responsibility for the EU’s Arctic policies, also sent his regrets at the very last moment, from a hospital in Brussels.

These no-shows were of course nobody’s fault, merely a series of unhappy circumstances, but they seemed to illustrate a broader point: Not everyone in the EU are equally eager to make the Arctic a top European priority.

A number of EU member states — Great Britain, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain — are observer members of the Arctic Council, and many of them have developed their own Arctic strategies, but the Arctic is not really a political issue of much weight in any of these nations.

Finally, as we also felt in Umeå, the EU has no real desire, mandate or capacity to deal with the still more pressing hardcore security issues of the Arctic. In none of the main discussions in Umeå did we deal for real with Russia’s military might in the Arctic or the recent loud messages from Washington that the Arctic should be regarded as yet another arena for competition between the US, Russia and China.

Apparently, the EU still has figure out how, if at all, it may possibly contribute in this context.

Martin Breum is a journalist and author based in Copenhagen. He writes regularly for ArcticToday. In Umeå, he moderated two panel discussions at the EU Arctic Forum for which he received a fee from the EU Commission.

The views expressed here are the writers’ and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.