The Arctic conjures two images for most people. The first is of one of the last pure wildernesses. The other is of a battleground for powers greedy for its oil, gas and other resources as the rapid melting of the ice cap opens the way for commercial development. The first image is overly simple and the second is almost certainly exaggerated.
The Arctic has already seen several rounds of human competition, whether for furs, fish, seals or whales. Intruders have already damaged local cultures and the environment, and have sometimes resorted to violence. What is different this time is that the speed of climate change could allow much wider access to much greater resources including, for the first time, the large-scale extraction of hydrocarbons. It could also open up ice-free passages in summer for other bulk sea trade over the top of Canada and Russia, and it seems bound to attract more tourism as well.
Not surprisingly, the past few months have seen a rash of policy declarations by states and organisations keen to stake their claims in a potential polar “Great Game.” In October, the European Parliament adopted an Arctic strategy resolution, echoed by a similar communication from the European Commission last November. Russia published its robust national strategy for the region in September 2008, and the U.S. followed suit early in the New Year. Later in January, NATO held an official conference and an academic round table on the High North in Reykjavik and produced tentative guidelines on its own future role.
Anyone reading these documents might ask what all the concerns are about. Already in May 2008 at Ilulissat in Greenland, the five states that own the northernmost territories – Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Norway, Russia and the U.S. – signed a text pledging themselves to approach the development of the Arctic in a peaceful, lawful, cooperative and environmentally responsible way. All other “strategies” issued so far say the same. So what could go wrong?
The more alarmist version of the Arctic story starts with the fact that no one agrees on who owns the polar seas and the potentially lucrative sea bed. Norway, Russia and others have competing geographical claims that await adjudication under the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). The U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS (although the Obama Administration wants to) and has been conducting a sometimes-acrimonious dispute with Canada over the right to transit the Northwest Passage. The Russian stunt of using a submarine to plant a flag under the ice at the supposed North Pole has made many people wonder whether military power might be used to press national claims. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the Arctic has no local disarmament or confidence-building regime, and that the institution where Eastern and Western powers have so far met to manage its problems – the Arctic Council – is a well-meaning but relatively weak body without military or direct legislative competence. Finally, and especially if the Northeast Passage becomes navigable, other powers such as China and Japan are expected before too long to join in the game.
It has been interesting to see, in recent debates, how strategic experts concerned about such possibilities have come face to face with scientists, lawyers and others who have worked on Arctic issues for decades. The latter are anxious about the impact of climate change, but they also point out that Arctic nature is a powerful and unpredictable force that could have the final say over human aspirations. Melting ice may change wind and current patterns, no doubt creating more unstable conditions for shipping even in summer. Commercial exploitation will face unique technical challenges and financial risks, as well as renewed ice barriers every winter. With the present economic crisis forcing down oil prices, constricting capital and slashing shipping demand, any actors who rush to step up military preparations in the Arctic could find themselves with little or no business activity to protect.
Onto this somewhat confusing scene the EU has stepped boldly with the Commission's outline of an Arctic strategy. The paper got a general welcome from the European Council in December and will be the starting point for further work in the contexts of the maritime strategy, the Northern Dimension and elsewhere. But is the EU joining the “grab for the Arctic” as a knee-jerk reaction of global self-assertion and typical Commission activism? Or does it have real interests to protect, contributions to offer and useful assets for promoting them?
First of all, it would be hard for the EU not to be interested when three of its member states – Denmark, Finland and Sweden – are members of the Arctic Council, and Denmark's Greenland territory makes it one of the five littoral powers with lands above the Arctic Circle. True, Denmark's voice has not been as prominent on the issue as might be thought, for reasons probably linked with its treaty opt-outs, its government's recent strong alignment with the U.S., and the growing autonomy Greenland enjoys. The European state with the clearest and most assertive Arctic policies has in fact been Norway – but Norway also belongs to the European Economic Area and was closely in touch with the Commission on drafting the Arctic Communication. Another important driver now emerging is the possibility that Iceland (as a consequence of its economic crash) might apply for early entry to the EU, a step that would extend the EU policy grip over a sea area central to the projected growth of Arctic traffic.
Beyond this, nations all over the EU have concrete interests at stake in Arctic development. Europeans eat most of the fish caught in polar seas. EU companies’ experience with oil and gas extraction could be relevant and commercially competitive in the region. Europe's shipping companies and shipbuilders desire Arctic openings because of their current lack of demand on other fronts. And the EU already spends hundreds of millions of euros on Arctic-relevant research. On the big questions of Arctic governance, the whole Union as a rich but vulnerable community with limited self-defence capacity has an interest in not letting the rush for the Arctic turn overly competitive and violent. And if the EU wants to continue as a leader for managing climate change, it needs to place a hand on the policy tiller in a region that is both deeply affected by mankind's activities elsewhere and liable to cause some of the most dramatic challenges for the whole globe through rising sea levels and diversion of major sea currents.
The Commission's proposed guidelines for an Arctic strategy make a lot of sense against this background. The three main themes are: protecting the Arctic environment, promoting the sustainable exploitation of resources, and improving multilateral Arctic governance. These points obviously have been chosen to paint the EU's stance in a positive, highly principled light – as are such other suggestions as a dialogue with indigenous peoples and EU restraints on sealing and whaling. The suggestion on governance also underline that the EU wants to reinforce existing frameworks like UNCLOS, the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organisation (for shipping codes), rather than try to supplant them. Yet the Commission text is assertive where tangible EU interests are at stake. Notably, it spells out the importance for the EU of “freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage” – in the circumstances, a gauntlet thrown down to Canada. Other clauses effectively demand equal access to Arctic opportunities for EU companies. Institutionally, the EU's tactics are reflected in a demand for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council.
The EU has made its bid and awaits governments' final reactions to the Commission paper. But why should other powers and institutions make way for the Union, as a relative newcomer, to join in the High Northern game?
One answer is that the EU is already partly there, and in more than just a territorial sense. Its Northern Dimension initiative recently has been reinvigorated. For Russia, the EU is a strategic counterpart of growing importance through its role in energy and other economic relations. For the U.S., the EU is the most obvious potential partner in President Obama's new course on climate change. For energy corporations, the EU is a major customer for any new oil and gas brought out of the Arctic. For governments and the private sector, the EU sets norms in several relevant areas through the EEA membership of all Nordic states.
A second set of arguments emerges if the EU's potential role is compared with NATO's. The alliance has to tread softly in any part of the larger Europe for fear of escalating tensions with Russia, and the January conference adopted a position against “militarization.” The EU, by contrast, enjoys greater freedom of action thanks to its relatively soft, non-threatening image (unless as a commercial rival), and might even be seen as a cushion or moderator between great-power interests up North.
Third, the EU's wider range of activities gives it – more than any other Arctic institution – established competence in just about every part of the emerging Arctic agenda except hard defence, but including “hard economics.” And fourth, the EU combines two other assets that its institutional rivals in this region lack: large central funds and direct legislative powers, both of them highly relevant to the complex management challenges the Arctic presents.
The EU's main handicap is the flip side of the last two points, which boil down to its vast scope. The Commission's proposed strategy limits itself to eight main headings (environment, climate change, indigenous peoples, research, energy policy, sustainable exploitation, transport and tourism), but just addressing those would mean coordinating between dozens of different offices scattered through all the EU’s bodies. On top of the bureaucratic challenge comes the political challenge of getting consensus among 27 states (as well as with vital partners like Norway) on what overall priority to give to Europe's Far North, which goals to push for there, and how much to invest in pushing them. Lastly, the EU has to calibrate its relations with all the other institutions, including NATO, which see themselves as at least equally entitled to sit at the Arctic table.
All this adds up to a stern test of European maturity, coming at a time when the economic crisis already confronts decision makers with more than enough challenges on more obviously sexy topics. It would be much too early, however, to write down the test as one that Europe is bound to fail.