23rd Oct 2016

EU gets cold shoulder in the Arctic

  • Canada and Russia remain wary of the EU bid (Photo: Silje Bergum Kinsten/

Arctic Council ministers have agreed on a new set of criteria for determining whether an external country or institution is eligible for 'permanent observer' status in the increasingly-important forum, but a decision on the European Commission's long-standing application could still be years away.

Finland lobbied hard for the EU application at a ministerial meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, on Thursday (12 May), but Canada and Russia have traditionally been opposed to the move.

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And in a sign of further tensions within the council, 'permanent observer' France circulated a letter, challenging the notion that countries and organisations without territory in the Arctic were somehow less affected by changes in the area.

But incoming chair-holders Sweden insisted on the pre-eminence of the Arctic Council's eight member states: Canada, Denmark [including the Faroe Islands and Greenland], Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US.

"We have agreed on the criteria. A decision [on whether to grant observer status] will be taken at the next ministerial meeting [in two years time] at the latest," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt told EUobserver.

Deputy foreign ministers meeting in one year's time are likely to make recommendations on whether candidates are eligible.

"But let's be realistic," Bildt said. "At the end of the day, members are members, and observers are observers."

The EU bid

China, Italy and Japan are also among non-Arctic states seeking to gain a foothold in the decision-making forum, conscious of the region's growing geo-strategic importance as melting ice opens up new shipping routes.

Despite the fact that three Arctic Council members are also part of the EU, the European Commission's application for 'permanent observer' status was not accepted at a ministerial meeting in 2009.

European Economic Area states Norway and Iceland have also adopted a large chunk of EU legislation, arguably adding further legitimacy to the commission's request, together with the institution's considerable research spending in the area.

Privately EU officials talk of their frustration. "People say that Canada and Russia have a closed attitude," one source said on condition of anonymity. The two countries are reportedly wary of creating an increasingly unwieldy Arctic Council, and question the motives of some applicants.

"Applicants must demonstrate their support for the Arctic Council," Canadian health minister Leona Aglukkaq, who represented her nation at the meeting, told journalists.

Finnish under-secretary of state for foreign policy Jaakko Laajava was unequivocal in his country's support for the EU bid however. "We think the EU's Arctic policy is being devised in a very constructive way," he told this website.

"There are scientific communities way beyond our shores. How can we tap into these if we don't communicate? We should be an open-source organisation."

He also said that the growing stature of the Arctic Council did not reduce the need for further work in another forum - the Nordic Council - of which Finland currently holds the chairmanship, insisting that communication between the two structures had avoided a "duplication of effort".

The French

In a sign that frustration within the Arctic Council is not merely confined to the EU, French delegate Michel Rocard circulated a letter outlining his country's unhappiness with the rights accorded to permanent observers and with the role of the council in general.

"The Arctic Council has no wish to encourage debate," said the former prime minister. "The unspoken assumption is that whatever happens in the Arctic, it is sufficient for each coastal state to shoulder alone but totally the responsibilities … I can certainly not adhere to that view."

Fish, he said by way of an example, were increasingly moving northwards to cooler waters, creating global questions of where future supply would come from.

Another issue was the need to create accurate maps of the Arctic area, together with the building of lighthouses, Rocard said, citing three shipping accidents in the Northwest Passage in the summer of 2010.

"Over the next 20 or 30 years, putting the Arctic to good use is the most colossal of any current human endeavour," read the French ambassador's letter, questioning whether the eight Arctic Council states would have the capacity to tackle the growing list of issues.

"The time has come to call upon all potential users of the Arctic to contribute both to the definition of rules governing such use, and to the funding of major infrastructures."

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