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17th Sep 2021

Arctic Council rejects EU's observer application

  • The Arctic Council does not approve of the EU seal product ban (Photo: Stein Arne Nistad, Gazette)

The Arctic Council on Wednesday (29 April) put on hold the European Union's application to gain permanent observer status with the council as a result of Brussels' expected approval of a ban on seal products.

Canada, the world's largest sealing nation, convinced the council to push back consideration of the EU's application, furious that Brussels is moving ahead with the ban despite its insistence that the seal hunt is sustainable and not cruel to the animals.

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Gaining permanent observer status with the council had been a key element of the EU's new Arctic strategy, announced last November.

The Arctic Council ministerial meeting's final declaration from Tromso, Norway, said that it had "decided to continue discussing the role of observers in the Arctic Council."

But as the next full ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council is not due until 2011, the council has in effect turned the EU's application down for the time being.

"Canada doesn't feel that the European Union, at this stage, has the required sensitivity to be able to acknowledge the Arctic Council, as well as its membership, and so therefore I'm opposed to it," Canadian foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation after the meeting.

"I see no reason why they should be … a permanent observer on the Arctic Council."

Ottawa maintains that seals are not endangered and that the domestic legal requirements for sealing are stricter than those covering European slaughterhouses.

Canadian indigenous groups say that the EU ban would hurt their livelihoods. Despite an exception for traditional indigenous sealing in the ban, which is due to be voted on by the European Parliament in early May, the Inuit say that the ban would still result in a collapse in markets for seal products.

Ahead of the meeting, Eva Aariak, the premier of Nunavut, Canada's majority Inuit territory, said: "The Arctic Council… was formed to promote co-operation and co-ordination and interaction in regards to member states in the Arctic. What [the] European Union is trying to do is not those."

Denmark, one of the Arctic Council's eight member states, is strongly opposed to the EU's plans and has excused itself from its common position on the matter. Sealing continues as a traditional activity in Greenland, which is part of the Kingdom of Denmark but not of the EU.

Norway and Canada are both considering taking the EU to the World Trade Organisation over its seal product ban should it be passed.

Nevertheless, the decision to exclude the EU from the council remains awkward for Oslo, which favoured EU accession as a permanent observer, and frustrating for Brussels.

"Norway shares that view [on the seal ban] with Canada. But for Norway, that's yet another reason to invite the observers in," said Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, reports AFP.

Norway, which is not a member of the EU bloc, has territorial access to Arctic oil and gas whereas the EU does not and thus the Nordic country is viewed by the bloc as key to its energy security. It is estimated that a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas lies under the Arctic seabed and Europe's other traditional sources of fossil fuel energy, Russia and the Middle East, remain highly politically unreliable.

Beyond Norway, Denmark and Canada, the Arctic Council also included Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Russia as full members. Six indigenous groups from around the Arctic, including the Inuit, the Gwich'in, the Aleut and the Saami, sit as permanent observers.

China, Italy, the EU and South Korea had also applied as permanent observers and were also turned down for now, alongside the EU.

The EU may yet get another chance, however. Due to the increased activity and interest in the Arctic, the Tromso meeting decided that the Arctic Council from now on will meet at political level once a year.

Separately, the council agreed to negotiate an international instrument on cooperation on search and rescue. As maritime activities in the Arctic increase, there will be increasing need for Arctic search and rescue services.

The council also urged the International Maritime Organisation to urgently develop new guidelines for ships operating in Arctic waters, as well as mandatory regulations on safety and environmental protection.

Guidelines on oil and gas exploration and a taskforce on how to reduce non-CO2 drivers of climate change such as methane, which play a prominent role in Arctic climate change, were also established.

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