The EU and the Arctic: take responsibility; seize opportunities?

By Amélie Schurich-Rey 

The Arctic region is the theatre of ever-evolving geopolitical relations, and the interests at play are often misunderstood or ignored by the European community. The region is as complex and multifaceted as the different countries, populations and microclimates it encompasses, and is a nexus of social, political and economic issues. The future of the region will depend on the successful design of sustainable paths of development that bring environmental adaptation to the forefront.

The Arctic represents Europe’s first experience with the critical situational reshuffling caused by climate change. The geophysical implications of global warming are modifying most of the region’s parameters, which is attracting the interest of a great variety of actors wishing to claim their stake in the newly emerging structures of political, economic, and social governance. In this context, the EU has a duty as well as the ability to seize opportunities that will ensure the centrality of the social component in the forthcoming economic and political development of the region.

WeBuildEurope.eu spoke to Dr. Piotr Kobza, Polish diplomat and researcher on the EU, about the EU’s realistic margin for maneuver and the opportunities for European involvement in the Arctic.

Read the interview below:

WeBuildEurope.eu: Since 2008, the EU has been in the process of developing an Arctic Strategy focused on climate change and the environment, sustainable development, scientific research, and peaceful international cooperation. April 2016 was a milestone as the European Commission and the HRVP for Foreign Affairs brought out a Joint Communication on this progress. However, the Communication did not concretely address the issues of security, economics or natural resource management. Is this an indication of a prudent and paced approach by the EU, or rather of an overly reserved approach to the development of an Arctic policy for the EU? What is preventing the formulation of an elaborate policy that encompasses security, sustainability, as well as technology and industry? How can we ensure an active and coherent engagement on Arctic issues? What is the role of the Common Foreign and Security Policy as avenue?

Dr. Piotr Kobza: I believe what we see in the EU’s approach to Arctic issues, from the first Communication and Council Conclusions in 2009, is a move from “political idealism” to “political realism”. In 2009 the European Parliament, in a now famous resolution, called for the drafting of an “Arctic Treaty” recalling the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The era of such motivated statements by the EU is clearly over. Of course, the many challenges currently facing the EU – Brexit and the “crescent of instability” on the EU’s borders – do not provide an enabling political environment for Brussels to concentrate on regions perceived as relatively calm and well-managed.

In this sense, the present EU Arctic policy can indeed be seen as “prudent”. By the current policy, the EU is a supplementary actor in the Arctic that does not wish to impose on, or alter, the present Arctic political chessboard. The current policy leaves the primary role to the Arctic states, and does not push for common “EU” engagement. This is wise, because through the existing Arctic system, the European Union has more potential to deal with Arctic issues in a cooperative, rather than confrontational fashion.

Yet, the Arctic should not be regarded as just “a sea”, as was arguably the case under Manuel Barroso’s leadership. It is a complex territory, encompassing open seas, but also territorial waters, continental shelf and land. Some of these territories fall directly under EU legislation, some fall under EEA legislation, and some are under the jurisdiction of third countries. This means that Arctic affairs are complex, and Brussels must address the region accordingly.

Today, the coordination of the EU’s Arctic policy is the responsibility of the European External Action Service (EEAS), and rightly so. However, I believe the EU does have an equally important role to play through its domestic instruments – notably through sectoral policies and the regional development instruments. In regard to these EU instruments, flagship EU policies like transport, the environment and regional development, are frequently cited, but perhaps a less obvious but nonetheless important area is education. For instance, the EU has had a development cooperation programme in place with Greenland since 2007 that aims to improve the local schooling system. The programme is widely regarded as successful and has been extended into the present financial programming period (2014-2020).

WeBuildEurope.eu: Global warming is resulting in a significant geopolitical, geo-economic and ecological transition in the Arctic, and the region has become a hotspot for the economic and political interests of the international community. Therefore, the specific nature of the region calls for an emphasis on multilateral cooperation in the development of an Arctic policy. The EU has submitted its candidacy for observer status to the Arctic Council, the only pan-Arctic regional forum and high-ranking intergovernmental decision- making body. Meanwhile, some EU members (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, the UK, and Italy) are already Observers to the Arctic Council, and have expressed their willingness to strengthen cooperation with its Members. What steps should the EU take to become a leading force in multilateral cooperation on Arctic issues? Would the EU observer role in the Arctic Council be an opportunity, and what else can be done? What potential is there for the integration of the EU’s Northern Dimension (ND) policy and the developing EU Arctic policy by using ND partnerships to promote EU leadership and projects in the Arctic region?

Dr. Piotr Kobza: I do not believe the EU should, or, for that matter, wants to become a leading force in the Arctic. But I do believe the EU has a unique role to play in the region because of its potential as a global actor, and its global policies. In this regard, especially the efforts of the EU to become a global leader in reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions must be praised, and the EU has committed to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050. However, the EU must promote Arctic interests through all instruments of the CSFP in international fora: in the UN system, in major international organisations, and, last but not least, through individual partnerships and dialogues with major powers in the region: the US, Canada, Russia, China.

EU dialogue with these countries on Arctic issues must importantly be led in a constructive manner: the EU, without giving up its high ambitions on climate change, has to speak to the Arctic countries on a broader range of issues, starting with global challenges, and ending in practical technical cooperation, working out maritime security, new platforms of scientific cooperation, as well as binding environmental standards. Thus, in my view “the global interests of the Arctic”, like combating climate change, are served best when the EU speaks to its partners outside the Arctic – in Washington, London, Moscow, and Beijing. It would be worthwhile to interview high-ranking EU diplomats dealing with these global players to see how much time the Arctic issues really occupy in diplomatic talks.

WeBuildEurope.eu: Economically, the Arctic region is at the onset of a boom in terms of shipping, tourism, and resource excavation. Tapping into the Arctic’s vast natural resources presents great potential for the EU, but should be combined with high environmental standards. The current US chairmanship of the Arctic Council has stated economic freedom in the Arctic to be one of the top-five policy objectives for its mandate, while emphasising the need to promote development that mitigates adverse environmental and social effects. How can the EU, through its Arctic policy, contribute to the development of a strong, transparent, and free economy in the region? Could a strategic partnership combining growth and social inclusion be considered? Would the promotion of long-term strategic investment (in energy, and environmental, transport, and research infrastructure) through the European Investment Bank (EIB) perhaps provide a better channel for EU engagement?

Dr. Piotr Kobza: I will not risk taking sides in the ongoing debate on how to strike a right balance between economic development and the social and environmental needs of the Arctic. Besides, this approach seems to me a little too general, because in reality we have as many different “Arctics” as we have Arctic states, and possibly more. The Russian Arctic is different from the Canadian Arctic; the continental Arctic is different from the sea Arctic, and so forth. So clearly a one-fits-all programme cannot be applied here.

I believe what the European Union certainly can and should do is advice and enable EU/EEA countries to integrate sustainable approaches into the management of “their” parts of the Arctic, with the help of other interested EU stakeholders, be they local communities, municipalities, recipients of EU funds, businesses present in the region, or academic circles. Indeed, this is what is signaled in the last Communication through the slogan “the European Arctic”. The European Union still has homework to do: it needs to integrate the financial instruments available to the Arctic and ensure that Arctic infrastructure – and by this I mean also new technologies – develop in an efficient way.

A proper European approach would link the development of the Arctic with current priorities of the European Union – with issues that are “hot” on the agenda. To give an example, there is an ongoing debate in Brussels about “the EU Digital Market”. If the Arctic potential is to be unlocked, we should regard this vast territory and especially the people living there as fully part of the “European digital space”. Taking this approach, the coordination on issues of “the European Arctic” in Brussels should probably be placed outside the EEAS, under supervision of one the “domestic” EU commissioners.

And that, in turn, will call for a great deal of flexibility from European Arctic countries, who will have to agree to better integrate their visions on Arctic development with the current priorities of the EU. A suitable platform for such coordination between EU Arctic states and EU institutions would have to be created, because it is non-existent today.

Dr. Piotr Kobza (1975) is a Polish career diplomat presently serving as Deputy Head of the Polish Embassy in the Netherlands. He previously served as Deputy Head of the Polish Embassy in Norway, Deputy Director of the EU department of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and worked as advisor on the European Neighborhood Policy. Additionally, Dr. Kobza researches and publishes on a variety of topics concerning European external relations, with a special focus on the Arctic.

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