27th Sep 2023

EU plays catch-up with US, China, Russia in Arctic

  • 'Walking on thin Ice'. Earlier this year, the European Political Strategy Centre issued an updated study on the strategic significance of the Arctic to the EU (Photo: David Lundy)

The first-ever EU Arctic Forum kicked off on Thursday (3 October) in the tiny city of Umeå, 400km from the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden, where several key EU officials were joined by Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and the foreign ministers of Sweden, Latvia, Finland, Malta, Norway, Iceland and India.

This high-level conference is designed to strengthen the EU's position in the Arctic and to highlight the ambitions of the new incoming EU Commission.

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  • Only three EU member states have Arctic territory: Finland and Sweden, plus Denmark still holds sovereignty over Greenland (Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/

The two day conference, which will host local students and ordinary citizens as well as VIPs, is organised by the EU Commission, the EU External Action Service (EEAS) and the Swedish government.

"The focus will be on international cooperation, the climate-environment-ocean nexus, sustainable investments, and connectivity in the Arctic," the programme says.

A special session of the conference will focus on the role of indigenous people in the Arctic.

The conference will highlight the new EU commission's strengthened ambitions on climate change and on the transition towards a greener Europe; policies that EU officials claim will have positive impacts also in the Arctic.

To many in the Arctic communities, however, the role of the EU in the Arctic is still unclear.

Despite years of diplomatic efforts, the EU is still not even an observer with limited right to speak in the Arctic Council, where Arctic governments decide on common goals and policies. This may only be a formal matter, the EU takes part en most Arctic Council activities, but it still has important symbolic significance.

Just three Arctic EU states

Only three EU member states have Arctic territory: Finland and Sweden both extend into the Arctic and Denmark still holds sovereignty over Greenland, a semi-autonomous former Arctic colony, but Greenland is not part of the EU and most of the EU member states lie far from the Arctic.

The conference in Umeå is to build on already-agreed policies. In 2016, an integrated EU policy for the Arctic, was adopted, bringing together several strands of EU actions on climate change, scientific research, the involvement of indigenous people and sustainable economic development.

Earlier this year, the European Political Strategy Centre issued an updated study, initiated by the president of the EU commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, on the strategic significance of the Arctic to the EU: "Walking on Thin Ice".

"As global warming causes the central Arctic Ocean's ice to melt at an unprecedented rate, never has the region's importance for human and planetary survival been clearer," the report said.

"Against this backdrop, the EU must step up its engagement with Arctic states and other stakeholders. Stronger coordination of European Arctic policies and a clearer definition of the rules of the game are needed now more than ever in order to ensure the peaceful and sustainable development of the Arctic," the report said.

EU officials gathering in Umeå, including the EU's ambassador at large for the Arctic, Marie-Anne Coninsx, will be likely to explain how the EU is intricately connected to the Arctic, even if most of the EU is not Arctic.

They will stress the EU's growing ambitions to contribute to the fight against climate change, which is happening twice as fast in the Arctic as in the rest of the world.

The EU's contributions are widely recognised as crucial to many science programmes in the region and additional funding is to be incorporated in upcoming EU budgets; a trend which will be presented by John Bell, director of the directorate-general for research and development.

Another director, Astrid Schomaker of the directorate-general for environment will talk about the EU's strategies on the circular economy and on plastics.

On the business side, Martin Koch, a policy officer from the directorate general for financial stability is to talk about financing as a tool also for the transition to a greener and more sustainable Arctic, while Matthias Petschke, director of the directorate-general on market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs will present the EU's space and satellite program as a means to improve much needed communications in the Arctic.

The representatives of the commission and of the EEAS as well as the foreign ministers of Iceland and Norway will be likely to stress how these two non-EU-countries are both members of the Arctic Council as well as members of the European Economic Area and thus part of the inner market of the European Union.

The EU is an important importer of Arctic fish, shrimp, minerals and natural gas, and on the negative side, European industry contributes significantly to emissions of CO2 and black carbon that accelerates climate change in the Arctic.

Black carbon turns the snow and ice dark causing it to catch more heat from the sun. This conundrum is also on the agenda in Umeå.

European fishermen are key actors in Arctic waters and in 2018, the EU co-signed a historic moratorium on fishing in the central parts of the Arctic Ocean.

The EU has helped bring to life the Polar Code of the UN International Maritime Organization and several other international instruments that have significant impact in the Arctic.

Trump to buy Greenland?

With this Umeå conference and other signs that the EU is ramping up in the Arctic, the EU follows other key actors.

Russia is vigorously expanding economic and military activity in its Arctic provinces, which now count for some 15 percent of Russia's GDP.

China increasingly invests in Arctic science programmes and in the new Arctic cargo-route north of Russia, which is far shorter than any route from China to Europe through the Suez Canal.

China is also strongly engaged in the development of oil and gas in Russia's north.

The US sees Russia's and China's Arctic inroads as contrary to its own interests and is stepping up its military presence in the region.

A temporary US naval base was recently established in Iceland.

In August, US president Donald Trump caused a diplomatic fall-out with Denmark, when he confirmed that discussions of a possible bid to buy Greenland from Denmark were ongoing in the White House; a notion that was firmly rejected by both Greenland and Denmark alike.

Author bio

Danish journalist Martin Breum is an Arctic specialist and a regular contributor to the EUobserver. He will moderate part of the EU Arctic Forum and receive a fee from the European Commission.

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