What happens in the Arctic…does not stay in the Arctic

The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world. As the glaciers melt the geopolitical interest in the region increases, also from actors far outside the Arctic Circle. In a changing environment it becomes essential for the EU to be active and create contacts across the Arctic Region.

In 2007 Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov planted a Russian flag on the seabed, 4 km below the ice at the North Pole. The scramble for the Arctic had begun, and Russia had made a claim for it. What made this event even more noteworthy was that the explorer, Artur Chilingarov also happened to be a Member of the State Duma: the planting of the flag was a political act.
The Arctic is a meeting point for eight Arctic nations (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Russia, USA, Canada) and a crossroad of policy issues, ranging from environment to human security to human well-being. Like the rest of the world, the European Union has also increased its interest in the Arctic Region. In 2016 the EU presented its Integrated EU Policy for the Arctic, yet there have already been calls for an update, renewing the EU’s approach to its northernmost region. As more countries, as well as private actors, get engaged in the Arctic Region, there is also a need for a full overview of why the Arctic matters.

Why does the Arctic matter?

Climate change is not debatable in the Arctic. The climate is changing at an alarming rate, warming faster than any other region on Earth, sometimes up to double the global average. As a result, sea levels rise globally, and there is an increase in severe weather conditions around the globe. The Arctic flora and fauna take a heavy hit, not to mention the people local to the Arctic Region. The Sámi people are the European Union’s only indigenous people. Their livelihood and traditions are today at the mercy of an ever-warmer climate.
With every cubic centimeter of ice that turns irreversibly into water, the geostrategic value of the Arctic increases. The Arctic has long been an area of peaceful cooperation, the Arctic Council often praised for being one of the few tables, around which the United States and Russia do not allow their other foreign policy ambitions to play out.  It is perhaps worth reminding here that the EU has yet to secure its official status as an observer in the Arctic Council, which is currently blocked by Russia due to the sanctions imposed after the Russian annexation of Crimea. The securitization of the region is underway, and it would be naïve to think that the Arctic cooperation will remain void of friction.
[bctt tweet=”With every cubic centimeter of ice that turns irreversibly into water, the geostrategic value of the Arctic increases.” username=”eurooppanuoret”]
Internationally, many countries have understood the importance of the Arctic. Eight non-Arctic European countries, India, China, Singapore, Korea and Singapore are approved observers at the Arctic Council. The Chinese are active on the Arctic front, with investments in Greenland. The Japanese oil and gas industry has also entered the Arctic sector through cooperation with Russian Novatek. The Arctic holds 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves, and as the glaciers melt, the international interest increases. For the EU, also from an energy security perspective, it is worthwhile to turn the eyes up to the North.

What should the European Union do?

What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. The ramifications of the global interest in the Arctic region can be felt far beyond the Arctic circle, and continues to do so. The EU has a number of times approached its northernmost regions, promoting in its most recent policy and integrated approach which touches upon environmental aspects as well as the need for innovation and well-being in the region.
However, it is not only in the EU’s interest to engage in Arctic issues, because the EU has three Arctic Members States. It is also essential for the EU to be active on this front, simply because changes are happening and they are happening at an unprecedented pace. As the international interest increases, the EU is confronted with the choice of whether to take an active role in Arctic matters. The EU now has an Arctic ambassador, which is a welcomed development. Now it is essential to develop also the connections between civil servants and Members of Parliament within the Arctic Region. As we know, when relations between governments freeze over, low-key exchange and contact can be maintained, which can at a later stage facilitate cooperation. This is not to say that this will happen, but these connections can potentially be lifelines in the future Arctic relations. The EU can work closely with a number of Arctic actors such as the Barents Council, or the Nordic Council of Ministers. As the Russian militarization of the Arctic has accelerated dramatically, and find more and more actors from Southern latitudes around in the Arctic, it becomes important for the EU to decide how it should engage in the Arctic.  Just like in all international cooperation, also in the Arctic, if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.
TEXT Matilda af Hällström
PHOTO Matilda af Hällström

The author works as an advocate for Nordic cooperation in Brussels. She holds a master’s degree in Political History and has studied in St Andrews, Paris and Helsinki.