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20th Aug 2017

Focus

EU's Arctic policy targets environment, Russia

  • Four million people live in the region (Photo: Silje Bergum Kinsten/norden.org)

Eight years have passed since the European Commission first floated the idea of an EU strategy for the Arctic region. On Wednesday (27 April), it finally delivered.

”We want to put a soft EU footprint on the Arctic region”, said Karmenu Vella, the European commissioner for environment and fisheries.

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”It’s urgent”, he added.

The Arctic is warming at twice the pace of the rest of the world. It both suffers from and contributes to climate change because of the greenhouse gases that are freed as its ice melts.

The EU aims to help by researching the impact of climate change on the region, making it easier to understand how to respond to the warming, and by unrolling a climate adaptation agenda.

”The importance of the Arctic is also a strategic one. European companies are developing innovative cold climate technologies, farmed fish techniques for the Arctic region and clean technologies”, said Vella.

”This shows our commitment to sustainable development in the region, and to the 4 million people who live there, mostly indigenous people.”

The commission also emphasises international cooperation.

”The Arctic is key in our foreign security policy”, said the high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini.

”It is the only place in the world where three continents and major players in the world meet. It is a region of the world where we have a good example of a constructive, cooperative, regional and international approach.”

Three EU members - Denmark (including Greenland), Finland and Sweden - have territory above the northern polar circle.

But Mogherini joked that the fact she’s Italian, Vella is Maltese, and the commission spokesman who shared the podium, Margaritis Schinas, is Greek is “a good sign” the policy is “a priority for the whole of the EU.”

Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom already have dedicated Arctic or polar policies. The Netherlands, France and Spain will present theirs in the course of 2016. 

Warm welcome

Adam Stepien, a PhD student at the University of Lapland, told EUobserver the strategy is better focussed than earlier attempts that he called a “laundry list” of “every buzzword and slogan that could be mentioned in the Arctic context.”

”This one is more preoccupied with how the EU’s northernmost region can become innovative and socio-economically viable; a driver of European growth rather than a laggard requiring increasing structural support. There’s also a good accent on the environment. The commission luckily abandoned the idea of large-scale industries that were hyped in the previous discussions,” he said.

Arctic issues are marginal in EU policy circles, Stepien added, But he said there are examples of when they have influenced other decisions.

”Arctic research is very present in the Horizon 2020 programme,” he said, referring to the EU’s multi-billion euro research programme.

He mentioned the idea of a European Arctic stakeholder platform, that would bring together national, regional and local authorities as an interesting initiative.

”It’s interesting, especially given that the forum would be ready to provide output by the end of 2017 or early 2018, at the high point of negotiations of the new financial perspective.”

Alexander Shestakov, of WWF Arctic Programme, was also in general positive.

”It’s nice to see that the EU is thinking in a serious way about a more integrated policy for the Arctic”, he told this website. ”The approach is good.”

But the WWF had “expected more” from the commission on oil and gas.

The EU’s Arctic paper is limited to sharing experiences on prevention and mitigation of accidents, not clearly stating the support for creating European “no go” areas to protect vulnerable wildlife, is silent on banning or limiting the use of heavy fuel oils used by shipping companies and saying nothing on addressing black coal (or soot) from polluting the region.

”There’s also nothing on the role of broader civil society”, he added, ”other than local actors.”

Russia

The Arctic strategy opens up possibilities for cooperation with Moscow despite EU economic sanctions on Russia imposed over its invasion of Ukraine.

”We had a long discussion with foreign ministers last month on our relations with Russia”, Federica Mogherini said, ”and agreed on the principle of selective engagement where there is ground for global solutions to common challenges and threats. We believe cooperation is possible and are very interested in that cooperation continues.”

Adam Stepien says it's the right approach.

”It’s true that Russia is modernising its military infrastructure in the region - which was allowed to rot for years - but it’s far from having a military presence in the region”, he said.

The EU shouldn’t inject security concerns into its Arctic relations, he added.

”The EU spoke of an Arctic treaty in 2008, and it provoked an outrage from the Arctic states. The EU is seen as an outsider in the context. It’s not the forum where such discussions with Russia should take place,” he said.

The strategy proposal will now be sent to the Council and the European Parliament for approval.

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