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27th Nov 2021

EU calls for ban on Arctic oil and gas drilling

  • The EU has called for on moratorium on oil and gas exploration "to promote stability, safety, and peaceful cooperation in the Arctic" (Photo: UW News)
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"The EU's full engagement in the Arctic is a geopolitical necessity," Virginijus Sinkevičius, commissioner for the environment, said on Wednesday (13 October) when the European Commission presented its updated Arctic strategy.

For the first time, the strategy included a chapter on security policy, signalling the region's growing geopolitical significance.

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"Natural balance has been lost due to climate change, and political competition is growing," he said, reminding press this was a matter that directly concerned the commission, because the Arctic was home to "hundreds of thousands of EU citizens."

The EU also called for a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the Arctic region "to promote stability, safety, and peaceful cooperation" in the region.

"Keep it in the ground," Sinkevičius told press.

To "raise the profile of Arctic matters in the EU's foreign relations" the EU also said it will open a permanent commission office in Greenland, which is being eyed for its mineral wealth - especially uranium - by countries as far away as Australia.

The office is to be opened in Nuuk, a municipality that recently decided to scrap all future oil exploration and is now seeking EU support.

The remoteness of the Arctic has long safeguarded it from geopolitical strife - Norwegian admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen in 2013 suggested that the Arctic is "probably the most stable area in the world".

But in recent years, this has started to change.

Canada, Russia, and Denmark have all submitted overlapping territorial claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), aiming to profit from the resource wealth long-hidden underneath the ice.

And a closer look at the EU strategy showed Europe was responding to what it viewed as "increased assertiveness by Russia in Arctic waters and airspace," while also citing an upturn in Chinese interest in "areas like ownership of critical infrastructure, the construction of sea cables, global shipping, cyberspace, and disinformation".

For his part, the then US foreign policy chief Mike Pompeo declared in 2019 that the Arctic "has become an arena for power and competition," and characterised the region as a land of "opportunity and abundance," citing untapped reserves of oil, gas, uranium, gold, fish, and rare-earth minerals.

Nations further afield also formulated Arctic strategies of their own.

India has placed a draft Arctic strategy on the internet for discussion. Landlocked Switzerland is expected to present its own 'polar policy' later this year.

And according to Michael Paul, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Foreign Affairs, the French defence minister, Florence Parly, recently described the north pole as "a second Middle East" in her foreword to the France's Arctic strategy, alluding to oil wealth and conflicts.

Soft power

The EU, lacking an army, is seeking influence in the region through sustainable diplomacy.

By spearheading a call to keep oil and gas in the ground ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November, the commission seeks to pre-empt a scramble for resources.

Wednesday's EU document mentions Nato, the US, and Arctic states Norway, Iceland and Canada as strategic partners.

But Paul wrote in a policy brief earlier this year that this partnership will become a balancing act between "a multitude of conflicting goals", although he was "very much in line" with the updated strategy, he told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, when asked what the chances are of convincing Moscow of the need to keep oil and gas in the ground, Sinkevičius admitted it would require "enhanced diplomatic efforts," but added "the EU will lead by example."

To further enhance its influence in the region, the EU reiterated its application for official observer status at the Arctic Council, a governing body consisting of eight member states, including Canada, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the US, as well as EU members Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.

Sessions are held in Reykjavik from 14 October until Saturday 16 October.

EU was turned down as observer to Arctic Council in the past.

If admitted, the EU - as the only international organisation - could participate in meetings and collaborate directly with Arctic nations, although it would not be able to cast votes.

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