Europe’s tendency toward policy dominated by concerns for the environment in the Arctic risks the perverse outcome of the Arctic being laid waste to unfettered global demand for new sources of commodity extraction. The boat to the Arctic has already sailed. Rapidly melting sea-ice driven by accelerated climate change means that the Arctic sea routes will shortly see ice-free summers, opening opportunities for transcontinental and local shipping, as well as resource extraction from the Arctic’s rich wealth in oil, gas, minerals, green-energy and fish. Europe’s policy inertia means it has caught a cold – too sick to capitalise on the opportunities of change nor able to protect against its more destructive tendencies.
If Europeans want environmental outcomes high on the Arctic agenda, as they have done to date, the best way to achieve this is by not assuming anyone is listening, nor by banging on the table to make people listen. If it is to have any traction, the European approach needs a degree of sophistication built around EU competencies and capacities. It requires a level of honesty regarding its economic and security interests whilst being more cognisant of its constrained powerbase. Here, China offers Europe some lessons. After a period of testing the temperature, China clearly found the Arctic too cold for confrontational politics. Instead China has geared up on the economic front, opening substantial lines of investment via Greenland, Iceland, and Russia that give it a direct stake in exploration and extraction. It has shored up diplomatic ties with emerging Arctic powers, in particular Iceland whilst having gained observer status at the Arctic Council. Finally, it is investing heavily in Arctic research, partly driven by its own domestic environmental concerns, but also to build credibility with the Arctic community.
Europe’s interests and influence in the Arctic are a little complicated. First off, of the European Union member states only Denmark, by virtue of succession seeking, EU adverse Greenland, is one of the five Arctic Coastal States (US, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark). However the wider definition of Arctic Countries – that comprise the permanent members of the Arctic Council – swells European interests through the inclusion of Sweden and Finland (US, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland).
The Arctic Council – although its early interests were rooted in collaborative research and knowledge sharing – is now seen increasingly as the legitimate international forum for considering wider Arctic issues and has recently secured its first internationally binding agreement for search and rescue. A proposal for the Arctic Council to discuss issues of security was vetoed by the US, but with increasing legitimacy and representation the agenda may still widen. Asides from the 3 European permanent members of the Arctic Council, the UK, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, France and most recently Italy have observer status. Europe’s own bid for observer status, unlike China’s was rejected at the last session. Led by Canada, the EU’s protest on seal culling by indigenous people was cited as the reason, but also reflects a broader concern in some quarters of diluting Council decision making and increasing bureaucracy, an undervaluing of the rights and interests of indigenous people, and perhaps a sense that EU interests were marginal to the Arctic debate particularly given bilateral representation of European states.
Europe’s first big foray into melt-conscious Arctic politics started in 2006. At this time Arctic expertise in the assembly was thin, allowing a small group with Arctic interests or expertise to have a big impact on policy direction. Led by Diana Wallis, a European from Yorkshire, the group floated the idea of an Arctic Treaty for its protection, in part modelled on the Antarctic Treaty, albeit that the Antarctic itself does not impinge on sovereign territory. Wallis’ was not a moderate voice, far from it, steering a proposal for a shakeup in Arctic governance. In a controversial move, having no support from any of the five Arctic states, it was proposed that the EU should have a role in the management of the Arctic. The Norwegians took it upon themselves to steer the EU away from a course of conflict that would have resulted in greater marginalisation of EU in Arctic affairs. In November 2008, flanked by the Norwegian Prime Minister, the EU Commission President, humiliated in retreat, issued a joint statement that ‘as a matter of principle, we can say that the Arctic is a sea, and a sea is a sea’. In essence, supporting sovereign claims and therefore primacy under the auspices of the Law of the Seas. With that, any remaining hope for a treaty was dead and buried.
This difficult lesson at least means the EU has graduated class 101. With hindsight the European Commission now states:
“As a matter of fact, the similarities between the two poles are scarce: while the Arctic is mainly an ocean the Antarctic is a continent. The Arctic has been populated by humans for millennia, while Antarctica is the largest uninhabited area in the world.”
Following the demise of the Arctic Treaty in 2008, the EU has switched tracks, focussing anew on developing a less strident Arctic policy, but still grounded in environment outcomes. Since that time, at glacial speed, the organs of Europe, including the new EU Arctic Forum, have issued a suite of policy-like documents – none of them policies per se and most of them talking to future policy yet to be developed. Their overarching themes have, not unpredictably, been to protect and preserve the Arctic in unison with its population; to promote the sustainable use of resources; and international cooperation.
Five years on, cold shouldered by the Arctic Council and with the melt seemingly in overdrive, the EU is starting to see its policy objectives have failed. In 2012, the generally glossy progress report made to the European Parliament had one exception, a tale telling sentence that reveals a bigger truth and the hint of a change in direction:
“However, given the evident speed of change in the Arctic, the time is now ripe to refine the EU’s policy stance towards the region, take a broader approach, and link it with the Europe 2020 Agenda for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth while continuing to support every effort to ensure the effective stewardship of the fragile Arctic environment.”
Indeed, a speech issued by European Union on Arctic Strategy in April this year goes somewhat further, with the announcement of focusing policy on three components:
1. Knowledge – establishing closer links with researchers from third countries.
2. Responsibility – working with Arctic partners and with the private sector to develop environmentally-friendly, low-risk technologies that could be used by the extractive industries and the shipping industry.
3. Engagement – stepping up dialogue with Arctic states and stakeholders.
This smacks more of pragmatism and should be applauded. But, of course, the devil is in the detail and, in the case of the EU, the time it takes to develop it. Certainly, Europe is not in a position to match Chinese economic and scientific investment in the region. Rather, Europe needs to identify its own policy devices that balance economic gain with collective stewardship over the environment. Arctic opportunities are specific and many for which European companies are well place to respond. Research remains an obvious area of strength, but Europe should also be leveraging industrial investment in innovative green technologies that can support economically viable and environmentally sensitive Arctic resource extraction. Consideration of the EU’s role in promoting safe, serviced Arctic shipping, improving Arctic communications, supply-logistics and weather forecasting. Promoting European businesses with competitive advantages such as marine insurance and high value engineering. Supporting and investing in northern European ports so that they remain competitive and responsive to rapidly increasing throughput. Providing technical assistance and funding to support indigenous population dislocated by environmental change. Continuing to lobby for environment protection and conservation resulting from Arctic climate change as well as for new risks such as industrial pollution and accidents. To achieve these, there is a need for a pragmatic EU Arctic policy, forged with the right content and strategic balance, not simply a lament for conservation.
The interminable policy drag is a product of failed leadership in a bloated transnational system that is increasingly concerned most with self-conservation and least with the social and economic interests of its people and beyond. The failure in the Arctic is a microcosm a wider malaise, mediocrity and EU inertia. Now that we have caught a cold, there is no cure in sight.