The EU needs to be prepared for rapid developments in the Arctic

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Arctic is a unique region and is becoming more important in the international politics. The region is under high international attention as the Arctic itself is changing quite a lot, mostly due to climate change. However, with the attention, also the responsibility must come.

Keeping the region sustainable is a key challenge for all, who show their interest in operating in the high north. There needs to be a strong cooperation and coordination amongst the many actors. It is clear that with the increasing attention, also the policies involving the Arctic region must be up to date.

The Arctic, being very fragile and exposed to climate change, will definitely profit from the European Green Deal and the EU’s goal to become climate neutral by 2050. The action plan, which outlines the activities under the European Green Deal involves investments to innovate and develop environmentally-friendly technologies, decarbonise the energy sector, improve global environmental standards, all of which the Arctic region will benefit from. And foremost the EU fights for its values to turn the innovative and sustainable mind-set from merely a political commitment into a legal obligation through the proposal of the European Climate Law.

Due to the rapidly changing scenery in the Arctic, there is a strong need for a new EU-Arctic policy — the EU constantly needs to improve its knowledge about the region. One of the recent activities from the European Commission and the European External Action Service was to jointly hold a public consultation, which closed last month, on the EU’s Arctic policy. Its aim is to map the new challenges and opportunities, including the EU’s ambitions under the European Green Deal.

The consultation will help to re-examine the role and current EU’s activities and identify several new policy areas where the EU can implement its policies. The European Parliament will also have its say with a new EU-Arctic policy resolution within next year.

The EU has a clear role in fighting climate change and advancing sustainable development, but it also needs to have a defined role in security issues. As mentioned, the international interest is growing, for example, Estonia submitted an application to become the Arctic Council observer state on 9 November.

It is necessary to repeat that the Arctic must be kept a low-tension area on security matters. It is essential to keep the region peaceful, stabile and international cooperation on the ground must be predictable; only then we can ensure a secure and sustainable life there. Nevertheless, new navigation routs are developed and there is a bigger need for raw minerals and creating alternative energy sources. These are potential reasons for non-cooperative behaviour if interests overlap.

For example, Russia is mobilising its infrastructure on the ground and increasing its military presence rapidly. In early March 2020, a decree by the Kremlin signed by President Putin ‘On the Basics of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the Period Until 2035’ confirmed Russia’s 15-year plan for the Arctic. The decree specifically addresses national security threats and lists six primary national interests including sovereignty and territorial integrity. More specifically, it states that it is in Russia’s national interest to develop the region as a key strategic resource base and the Northern Sea Route as a means for further economic growth and as a globally competitive national transport network.

The key measures of the plan are intended to attract private investment and develop new large-scale energy projects on the Arctic shelf, while enhancing the Northern Sea Route to export oil, gas and other resources to overseas markets and to become the main trans-Arctic shipping route.

Russia did invite also Chinese investment into large-scale energy projects in the Arctic, like the current Russian Chinese cooperation on the Yamal LNG project.

It is the news very often that Russia tests missiles and other military equipment in the Arctic. It was only last month, when Russia ran another test with a Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missile from the Barents Sea, with a range of 1,000 km, which has the capacity to reach Lofoten archipelago in the Norwegian Sea.

Russia has established a special Security Council commission on protecting Russian interests in the Arctic. In October, at the first meeting, the chairman, Dmitry Medvedev, highlighted that in light of Russian upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2021–2023 they will make sure to protect their position in the Arctic and claiming that many NATO members impose a threat to it. Additionally, stating that they have a growing interest in the Arctic and they will make national security and economy as their priority. This speaks loud and clear.

We know that the EU needs to be more prepared for rapid developments in Arctic. And that is exactly why the EU needs an updated Arctic agenda. If Europe does not step up its game, we will be left behind within the next decade. At this point, the cooperation with NATO has an important role.

The European Commission will present a new communication as announced in their Work Programme 2021 on the Arctic with a longer perspective to update the EU Arctic policy.

EU stands out for its soft power in the region with tackling climate change and promoting sustainable development as well as investing into science, research and innovation. Which is the strength and expertise of the EU — the European Green Deal priorities illustrate it perfectly.

Nevertheless, there are policy areas, which can be developed in the context of the Arctic, most significant ones being energy security and better regional cohesion and connectivity to support capacity building. Large INTERREG projects such as the Northern Periphery are important as well as the Arctic Programme and the European Neighbourhood Instrument, which funds Cross Border Cooperation projects, such as Kolarctic and Karelia.

Given its unique position the EU has a good platform to seek to act as a facilitator of discussions on many levels also involving various participants like the US, Russia and China in particular, this should not be underestimated. The EU should also continue to strive for an observer or member status for the Arctic Council.

Today, we can say that the EU must be ambitious and proactive in its policies, be it the European Green Deal or the future updated EU Arctic Policy. Responding to regional and global challenges the EU should broaden its scope in existing as well as new policies and keep its position as a strategic partner to countries involved in the Arctic.

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