29th Sep 2023

MEPs: Security concerns must be part of EU Arctic policy

  • EU lawmakers warned that military activity in the Arctic needed to be 'predictable' and 'transparent' (Photo: Christopher Michel)
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The Arctic region seems to be warming twice as fast the rest of the planet, which has not only a direct impact on sea levels and ecosystems, but also on trade routes and geopolitics.

This week, MEPs raised the alarm over the security challenges emerging in the Arctic, in particular the military build-up of Russia and the increasing investments of China in this fragile region.

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  • Russia previously imposed restrictions on navigation rights in the strategic Northern Sea Route (Photo: UW News)

Under a report, adopted on Wednesday (6 October), EU lawmakers said that the new EU Arctic policy should address environment and maritime security issues, especially given the "growing economic and geostrategic significance of the region".

The call comes just a few days ahead the presentation of an updated policy, in which the European Commission has re-examined the role of the 27-nations bloc in the Arctic.

MEPs expressed concerns about Russia's "competitive, even confrontational, perspective on the Arctic" - with the deployment of sea-based nuclear forces and a fleet of icebreakers, some of which Moscow appears to be planning to equip with cruise missiles and electronic warfare systems.

This is particularly important since Russia has previously blocked freedom of navigation in the Azov, Black, and Baltic Seas, and imposed restrictions on navigation rights in the Northern Sea Route, running along the Russian and Norwegian coast.

EU lawmakers warned that the military activity in the Arctic needed to be "predictable" and "transparent," otherwise it may lead to incidents and increased security risks.

They called on Russia to respect international law, pointing out that mutual cooperation in the Arctic should not undermine sanctions measures adopted against the Russian government for their actions elsewhere.

Yet, they also slammed Russian companies for the impact of their production and mining activities on the environment and quality of life in certain towns across the Arctic.

It is estimated that the Arctic lost, between 1979 and 2020, a sea-ice area about six times the size of Germany.

China's growing influence

Meanwhile, China's investments in new icebreakers and strategic ports on the northern route were also flagged as an area of concern for MEPs, who said that "the EU should avoid losing important ground to third countries in this field".

They urged Brussels to examine China's attempts to integrate the Northern Sea Route into its 'one belt, one road' initiative - a massive infrastructure project of trade routes across the globe, because it puts at risk the idea of the Arctic as a region shielded from global geopolitics.

"The race to the Arctic has gained new momentum with the melting of the ice sheet and the opening of the Northeast Passage … what is a major trump card for both Russia and China," Estonian MEP Riho Terras, from the centre-right European People's Party, said on Tuesday, during a debate on the file.

"China is being given the opportunity to influence the security of Europe and the whole of the West," he added.

Additionally, MEPs said that cooperation in the Arctic could help the bloc reduce its dependence on China for rare-earth materials. Although China has also been attempting to obtain mining rights in the area.

But for Danish liberal MEP Karen Melchior, the report somehow suggested that the European Parliament mainly saw the Arctic as an instrument to further its own interests.

"The exaggerated emphasis on geopolitical tensions is counterproductive for international cooperation in the Arctic, which is exactly what this report calls for," she said.

Last month, a delegation of MEPs went to Denmark, Greenland, and Iceland to discuss international cooperation with politicians and local representatives.

Austrian socialist MEP Andreas Schieder, who took part in this mission, said that although climate change may have an impact on the geopolitical arena, "the Arctic should and must remain the zone of low tension as it is now".

"We are not allowed to import or export other conflicts into the Arctic," he said.

The EU commission is expected to unveil its new EU Arctic policy next Wednesday (14 October).

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