Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Over the past decades, the Arctic has been a region of peace, low tensions and constructive international cooperation between the eight Arctic states, namely Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Canada and the USA. However, in recent years the situation has changed dramatically. An increased Russian military presence has been reported in the region, and China is seeking to integrate the Arctic’s northern sea route into its Belt and Road initiative.
Therefore, as the region’s geopolitical importance grows, the future of the Arctic and the global challenges the Arctic region faces, which go beyond those of the littoral Arctic states, require multi-level governance. This makes it all the more important to pursue regional cooperation and international solutions. There is a direct link between the geopolitics and security of the Arctic and its environmental situation, which in turn is strongly influenced by the impact of human activity in other areas of the planet.
In light of the increased global interest in the Arctic, the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs organised an ad hoc mission to Greenland, Denmark and Iceland. This took place just before the Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy issued the Joint Communication on “A stronger EU engagement for a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous Arctic”, which replaces the 2016 Joint Communication “An integrated European Union policy for the Arctic”.
With it, the European Union commits itself to an increased engagement in and around the Arctic, representing its response to the geopolitical, environmental, economic, security and social challenges the region faces. For the first time, the strategy includes a chapter on security policy, signalling the region’s growing geopolitical significance. The strategy also supports a partial moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the Arctic region to achieve the Paris Agreement and to promote stability, safety, and peaceful cooperation in the region. In order to raise the profile of Arctic matters in the context of the EU’s foreign relations, the Union also plans to open a permanent office in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, another key topic raised during the mission.
Having recently visited Greenland, Denmark and Iceland as the Vice-Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, I want to stress the need for more coherence between the EU’s internal and external policies with regard to Arctic matters. Since the Union needs to include an Arctic dimension wherever appropriate in its sectoral policies, I welcome the ongoing updating of the EU’s Arctic policy.
Not only should this reflect the EU’s interest in the Arctic, but it should also address the combined challenges of increased international attention and climatic, environmental, geopolitical and geo-economic changes in the region. The policy should include new actors such as China and cite the need to address the security dimension of the Arctic in the EU’s common foreign and security policy. In particular, it should incorporate a comprehensive approach to security, with a notable emphasis on environment and health, as well as maritime security issues. A comprehensive updated policy, based on consensus among all Member States, will enable the EU to play an effective, proactive and more ambitious role in the region.
Because of climate change, the strategic and geopolitical importance of the Arctic and its archipelago has never been higher. In the past, the Arctic region has been relatively unaffected by global geopolitical conflicts, but its military importance and geopolitical strategic role are increasing. Moreover, reduced levels of Arctic ice may also lead to economic and strategic opportunities in the Far North, opening up, for example, shipping lanes in the region.
It is precise because the Arctic region is affected by rapidly warming temperatures and considerable changes to its landscape that the security strategies of global superpowers are again becoming a factor. The potential exploitation of natural resources, the economic appeal of new shipping routes, and continuing disputes over state territorial boundaries are making the region an arena for security competition as numerous states seek to influence the region’s future.
Yet even with the region’s rapidly growing geo-economic importance as interest increases in its rich and abundant natural resources and critical raw materials, the experts grow more concerned that natural resource exploitation could exacerbate the detrimental effects of climate change and accelerate the rise in global temperatures. This, in turn, would accelerate the melting of the polar ice. Arctic countries, while having the right to use the resources of their own territories, also have a duty to do so in a responsible manner. Much of the friction between states derives from the difficulty of determining exact boundaries in the Arctic, which can result in disputes about the exact ownership of natural treasures found within the region.
The Arctic has been especially affected by the dramatic impacts of climate change, which should be viewed as a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing trends, tensions and instability. The melting Arctic ice cap and the resulting rise in sea levels would have serious global environmental, economic and human security implications.
With a fifth of its territory located north of the Arctic Circle, Russia is undeniably the dominant power in the region. The stability of the Arctic has long been relatively well preserved. However, more and more, it is affected by growing international interest in the region and the changing security landscape, including the progressive re-militarisation in the region. The Russian Federation’s economic and military investments in the Arctic far exceed those of the rest of the Arctic states. For example, Russia has established new military bases while modernising older ones in the northern regions.
It has also boosted the anti-access/area-denial capability restricting navigation rights in the strategic Northern Sea Route, which it falsely claims as an internal waterway. Such geopolitical developments have led to an increase in exercises, deployments, patrols and capability investments in the Arctic, while the militarisation of the area runs counter to the spirit of cooperation that has guided the relationship between states in the Arctic so far.
Additionally, China’s far-reaching projects and initiatives are a cause of great concern. The Chinese government released its first White Paper on Arctic Policy in January 2018 and engaged in a long-term effort to enhance its position in the region, declaring itself a “near-Arctic state”, with the stated ambition of becoming a “polar power”, as it enhances its collaboration with Russia in the Arctic. Furthermore, China has created a Polar Silk Road for commerce through the Arctic region, an extension of its Belt and Road Initiative, and has organised regional scientific exploration missions, establishing research centres in the Arctic and developing 24 polar observation satellites.
In recent years, the Chinese government has invested billions of dollars in the Far North. Despite this, not everyone is comfortable with their financial offers of support. China has offered to renovate Greenland’s airports in an attempt to buy an old military base, but this has led the Danish government, which is responsible for Greenland’s foreign and defence policy, to express concerns about the Chinese interest in the autonomous territory.
Arctic security and politics have become ever more linked to global issues, with developments outside the Arctic likely to have consequences for Arctic states and vice versa. Because of this, avoiding any spill-over effect on the Arctic from geopolitical tensions and conflicts in other regions becomes even more important. As noted, less ice also means new opportunities in the Far North.
Having been largely overlooked for the past 30 years or so, the Arctic has come back into the global spotlight as an important geopolitical frontline. Thus, the increasingly tense international situation is forcing us to reconsider our policy for the Arctic region. The Arctic will no longer be a remote and inaccessible region, but will actually play a key role in Europe’s future.
EU and the Arctic
The Arctic is home to over four million people, including over 40 different indigenous peoples and local communities and half a million EU citizens from Finland, Sweden and Denmark. When it comes to indigenous peoples of the Arctic, the European Parliament has a long history of engaging with them. We must strive to help them in preserving their language and culture, a matter of additional importance considering that some indigenous peoples have lost or faced the threat of losing their language.
The EU needs to assert its presence for social and economic reasons, but also because of the need for sustainability and ensuring the region remains an area of low tension and zero conflict. Primary responsibility for the sustainable development of the Arctic lies with the Arctic states, but the significant impact of external factors cannot be denied and the international community, therefore, has an obligation to do all it can to protect the Arctic region and ensure its stability and safety.
The EU has the ability to contribute in various ways to solving potential emerging challenges and to prevent conflicts in the Arctic. The Union has clearly indicated its readiness to play an even more prominent role. The EU’s engagement with the Arctic is based on history, geography, economy and research. The Arctic region is of strategic and political importance to the EU, which has already underlined its commitment to being a responsible actor, seeking the long-term sustainable and peaceful development of the region by fully cooperating with international partners.
As a global actor, the EU has consistently demonstrated its commitment to a peaceful, environmentally clean, cooperative, sustainable and prosperous Arctic. It aims to secure a sustainable future for people living in the Arctic.
It is of crucial importance that all stakeholders, including the EU and its Member States, act to maintain peaceful and intense international and regional cooperation, scientific research, prosperity and low tensions in the Arctic while responding to the very alarming effects and consequences of climate change in the region. Our Foreign Affairs Committee will keep the Arctic high on its agenda to ensure that in the future there will be both more EU in the Arctic and more Arctic in the EU.