19th Mar 2018

Melting ice cap pushes Arctic up EU agenda

  • New transit routes across the Arctic present great commercial opportunities and enormous environmental risks (Photo: NN -

The rapid melting of the polar ice cap in the Arctic offers Europe a "first-time opportunity" to access new trade routes and massive oil and gas deposits, the European Commission has said - developments that are pushing the EU's polar strategy up the policy agenda.

Speaking in Ilulissat, Greenland, on Tuesday (9 September) to a conference of the Nordic Council of Ministers dedicated to Arctic issues, the EU's fisheries and maritime affairs commissioner Joe Borg said: "As the ice recedes, we are presented with a first-time opportunity to use transport routes such as the Northern Sea Route.

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"This would translate into shorter transportation routes and greater trading possibilities, and will provide a better opportunity to draw upon the wealth of untapped natural resources in the Arctic," Mr Borg told the council, an intergovernmental forum for co-operation between the Nordic countries established after the Second World War.

The Nordic Council brings together EU member states Denmark, Finland and Sweden alongside Norway and Iceland - both outside the bloc - as well as the autonomous territories of Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Aland Islands.

Security risks

In his speech, Mr Borg also highlighted a document published earlier this year by the commission jointly with the EU's chief diplomat, Javier Solana, that mapped out the latest thinking from Brussels on the security implications of climate change.

The seven-page paper authored by Mr Solana and commissioner for external relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, distributed to EU government leaders in March, argued that the European Union should boost its civil and military capacities to respond to "serious security risks" resulting from catastrophic climate change.

The paper, Climate Change and International Security, underlined the risks and opportunities presented by the melting Arctic, alongside concerns about increased numbers of migrants, territorial disputes, water shortages in Israel and decreases in crop yields in the broader Middle East. Political radicalisation as a result of climate insecurity, sea-level rises and extreme weather events also present security challenges, according to the report.

Commissioner Borg emphasised the centrality of the Arctic in EU security thinking: "This document highlights the growing geopolitical importance of the Arctic region ... [with the] opening up [of] new waterways and international trade routes, and the increased accessibility to the enormous hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic region.

"This accessibility, in conjunction with territorial claims, is changing the geo-strategic dynamics of the region with potential consequences for international stability and for European security, trade and resource interests," he added.

Regional governance

Later this year, the commission is to present a communication dedicated to the Arctic region that will tackle issues related to climate change as well as regional governance.

The communication is to propose three main actions. Firstly, the commission is to propose measures supporting scientific research and monitoring with the aim of safeguarding the Arctic environment.

The commission is also interested in the exploitation of Arctic resources such as hydrocarbons and other commodities. The commissioner underscored that this must be done in a sustainable manner, but he also said that the communication hopes to outline how all regions that border the Arctic could gain equal access to such bounty.

"We should seek to apply the principles of a level playing field and reciprocal market access in the Arctic," he said.

The commissioner also said the EU should seek to ensure equal access to any new fishing opportunities via new regulation and work towards an international fisheries conservation and management scheme for the Arctic - something which has never been implemented.

The third element of the commission's new thinking on the Arctic is developing the governance of the region.

Noting that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and work performed by the Nordic Council, the Arctic Council and other bodies have already played something of a function in this area, the commissioner said: "Nevertheless, we should be open to develop this system further," he said, adding that international environmental treaties that apply to the Arctic should be revisited.

In June, the Nordic Council published an extensive study of EU-Arctic policies, and called on the bloc to establish a self-standing Arctic-dedicated unit within the European Commission. The document also suggested the EU needed to "establish, intensify and possibly formalise international co-operation with Arctic regional bodies".

'Crazy situation'

Environmentalists agree with the commission that the melting ice cap is a brute fact and that in the absence of appropriate governance, there could be a ‘scramble for the Arctic' without movement by the EU in this direction.

"There is no environmental management framework for the Arctic," Neil Hamilton, the director of the WWF's Arctic programme.

"There is overlapping legislation in various countries, but nothing Arctic-specific, with a result that everyone is looking to Arctic exploitation instead of sustainable development.

"We have a crazy situation where every one is rushing to get into fishing, shipping and oil and gas, but no one's looking at the manner in which it will occur."

"It's not that there should be no exploitation at all," qualified Mr Hamilton. "Instead, there should be effective management, which we take to mean collaborative management between the different countries.

"Done right, it could be a model for oil and gas extraction for the world."

But green groups are clear that the emphasis should be on sustainable development, rather than the rush for resources.

"On the other hand, if you open up shipping routes, it could have significant global implications.

"The worst-case scenario would be oil spills in the Arctic, which are impossible to clean up, given the conditions there. And a spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic."


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