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European Union’s Arctic Policy

(by Willy Østreng)



EU does not belong to the inner circle of the Arctic Eight. It is half in, and half out of the Arctic Council.  It is half in by three of its member states (Denmark, Sweden and Finland) being full members of the Council, and partly out by the EU Commission not being a  member of, or permanent observer to the Arctic Council. The EU also connects to the inner circle of Arctic States through Iceland and Norway’s full membership in the AC and their status as members of the European Economic Area.

The EU’s Northern Dimension initiative, which is a shared policy among the EU, Iceland, Norway and Russia, also connect the EU to the core players of Arctic affairs as do the EU-Greenland Partnership. The political significance of EU comes to expression in a recent White Paper on Norwegian Foreign Policy stating that “The EU increasingly stands out as Europe’s spokesman vis-a-vis Russia, also in questions of significance to us (Norway) in the North1 .” Having a leg in both camps show how the EU Commission can represent the interests of both insiders and outsiders to the Arctic Council.

On 20th of November 2008 the Commission issued a policy document to the European Parliament and the Council on EU interests and priorities in the Arctic. Three main policy objectives were stated:

1.     Protecting and preserving the Arctic in unison with its population;

2.     Promoting sustainable use of resources

3.     Contributing to enhanced Arctic multilateral governance

One year later – on 8th of December 2009 – the Council approved of the three policy objectives proposed by the Commission in the “Council’s Conclusions on Arctic Issues”.

National Security

The Commission takes climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ altering the geo-strategic dynamics of the Arctic with “potential consequences for international stability and European security interests.” The main cause of conflict relates to climate change and the quest and competition for Arctic resources, in particular hydrocarbons.

The EU does not in this document discuss military issues per se. The security threats are civil connected to climate change and consequently the security measures to be applied should be civilian related to the environment and to the sustainability of human activities both in and outside of the region. To be successful in these efforts, international cooperation is a prerequisite in all aspects of policy formulation. The EU meets threats to international stability and European security with civil counter measures. This mirrors the interconnectedness of civil and military issue areas in the concept of extended security and as defined in the Murmansk-program. 

Resource Extraction

When it comes to resource extraction the main focus is on hydrocarbons. Due to the assumed large untapped hydrocarbon offshore oil and gas reserves of the region, the Commission believes these resources can contribute “...to enhancing the EU’s security of supply concerning energy and raw materials in general.” In particular, Russia and Norway is singled out as long-term cooperative partners to facilitate a sustainable and environmentally friendly exploration, extraction and transportation of hydrocarbons in Arctic waters and through the Northern Maritime Corridor.


The transportation focus of the EU is solely on shipping, reflecting the fact that the member states combined have the world’s largest merchant fleet of which many ships use trans-oceanic routes. The melting of sea ice in the Arctic is progressively opening opportunities to navigate the transportation corridors of Arctic waters. As observed by the Commission “This could considerably shorten trips from Europe to the Pacific, save energy, reduce emissions, promote trade and diminish the pressure on main trans-continental navigation channels2 .”

Here the main focus is on transit sailings to increase trade between Pacific and Atlantic countries through an Arctic shortcut, and to find supplementary transportation routes to main trans-continental navigation routes of troubled southern waters – the Suez and Panama Canals, East China and Indian Seas.

The Commission therefore regard it an important asset for the future that European shipyards maintain their competitive lead in developing technology required for Arctic conditions, i.e. specially-designed and environmentally-friendly ships, including icebreakers. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) should, according to the Commission, have a special role concerning the development of navigation rules, maritime safety, route systems and environmental standards in ice covered waters.

International Governance

The Communication states that “No country or groups of countries have sovereignty over the North Pole or the Arctic Ocean around it,” and there are no specific Treaty regime for the Arctic. The Freedom of navigation and the freedoms of the High Seas shall rule these waters. In this regard the EU Council go one step further reiterating “..the rights and obligations for flag, port and coastal states provided for in international law, including UNCLOS, in relation to freedom of navigation, the right of innocent passage and transit passage, and will monitor their observance3 .” In diplomatic terms, this wording is surprisingly clear relating directly to the controversies over the legal status of the NEP and NWP.

To mitigate conflicts, the EU Commission will work to upheld and further develop a “cooperative Arctic governance system” to secure security and stability, strict environmental management and sustainable use of resources.  The UNCLOS III provides the basis for regulations of these waters. Thus, the full implementation of already existing obligations for settlements of disputes rather than proposing new legal instruments is being advocated. This however, “should not preclude work on further developing some of the frameworks, adopting them to new conditions or Arctic specificities4 .”

This flexibility is in accordance with the Union’s Integrated Maritime Policy that each sea-region is unique and needs individual attention in balancing its uses in a sustainable manner. Only one article, article 234, out of 320 articles of UNCLOS III is specifically developed to reflect the specificities of ice-covered areas. The rest are basically developed to regulate blue ocean affairs. 

The flexibility displayed by the EU is not mirrored in the US position, which is affirmative claiming that UNCLOS III and relevant global treaties suffice to meet the regulatory needs of the Arctic Ocean. Here the Commission takes one step towards meeting the position of the European Parliament and the WWF5  both of which have proposed to adopt a simple framework convention – an Arctic Treaty – to the best of arctic governance, but without accepting a full-fledged regional treaty6 .

The Commission also plans to enhance her inputs to dealings of the Arctic Council, and as a first step will apply for permanent observer status in the Council. Such a request was declined at the last Ministerial Meeting of the Council in Tromsø in 2009. The EU Council continues to support the applications of both Italy and the Commission to become permanent observers of the AC7 . It seems reasonable to assume that the long term goal of the Commission is to become a full member.

Environmental concern

The main goal is to prevent and mitigate negative impacts of climate change as well as to support adaptation to inevitable change. In this respect the Commission relates to global and trans-regional processes to battle the negative impacts of among other things, long-range transport of pollutants. The Arctic is the recipient of pollutants from faraway places, which should be involved in solving the problem. To counteract this fact a holistic, ecosystem-based management system should be developed to ensure sustainability of the environment and by integrating environmental considerations at all levels of human activities.

Broad international cooperation is called for to mitigate climate change, to promote high environmental standards, to screen and monitor chemicals in the region, to increase energy efficiency and to assess the impact of marine mammals of increased acoustic noise generated by human activities. One measure of achieving this is, according to the Commission, to promote a permanent dialogue with NGO’s on the state of the Arctic environment.

This policy item is unique to the EU. Another measure suggested is to conclude an agreement on emergency prevention and response with the Barents Euro-Arctic Council. The rights of indigenous peoples have become a thematic priority under the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights and in the Communication on the Arctic.

In connection with the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, the Council invited Member States and the Commission to support efforts to protect Arctic ecosystems and their biodiversity, particularly in the High Seas and by encouraging Arctic States to develop marine protected areas on an individual and cooperative basis8 . Here the Council goes one step further than the Commission.

International Cooperation

As already stated, international cooperation permeates all aspects of EU’s Arctic policy. International cooperation is a prime measure to mitigate and cope with a malfunctioning environment that threatens to rock the boat of international stability and European security. The expressed hope of the Commission is that the present policy document “...will open up new cooperation perspectives with the Arctic States, helping all …to increase stability and to establish the right balance between the priority goal of preserving the Arctic environment and the need for sustainable resources.”


  •  1. St. Meld.nr. 15 (2009)
  •  2. The European Union and the Arctic Region (2008), p. 8.
  •  3. EU Council conclusions on Arctic issues (2009), item 16
  •  4. The European Union and the Arctic Region (2008), p. 10
  •  5. Saksina, T. (2008), Arctic Change: New Management Challenges” in WWF Arctic Bulletin, no. 3, 2008.
  •  6. Østreng, Willy (2009), Trenger Arktis en egen traktat? (Are the Arctic in need of a separate treaty?), Chronicle, Fiskeribladet Fiskaren, 22. May 2009
  •  7. EU Council conclusions on Arctic issues (2009), item 17
  •  8. EU Council conclusions on Arctic issues (2009), item 5
  •  9. The European Union and the Arctic Region (08), p. 12

Willy Østreng, 2010, European Union’s Arctic Policy, CHNL.©

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