The EU and the Arctic: European Foreign Policy in the Making

By Njord Wegge,

Research fellow at the Department of Political Science, University of Tromsø, Norway

Shorten version. Full article is available as PDF attachment at the end of this page


 Abstract: The EU is currently reviewing its interests in the High North and has recently started developing an Arctic policy. This article aims at explaining this foreign policy expansion by applying a theoretical framework consisting of three levels: (1) the internal level – viewing EU foreign policy (EFP) as the product of an “organization;” (2) the state level – in specifically accounting for the role played by external actors, primarily states; and (3) the systemic level – viewing the EU and its foreign policy as dependent on structural conditions within the global system. Through interviews, document studies, as well as existing scholarly research, the article identifies impact from all three analytical levels, including how the supranational and member-state level combined has been decisive in shaping the final policy outcome. The research identifies the crucial role played by other Arctic states, particularly Canada and Norway. Finally, on the systemic level, key conditions such as global warming and economic forces are recognized as relevant explanatory factors behind the development of the EU’s Arctic policy.

Key words: EU Arctic policy, European foreign policy (EFP), International relations (IR).

1. Introduction

Over the last few years the EU has become more aware of its interests in the Arctic and begun developing an Arctic policy. With increasing global temperatures leading to less sea ice and more human activities in the Arctic, the EU’s policy development has been a timely extension of the Union’s foreign policy focus. However, speculation from some Arctic states has arisen concerning the reasons behind the EU’s motivation to develop an Arctic policy.

This article reveals new insight concerning the background for the Union’s novel interest in the Arctic, and proceeds by raising the following research questions: First, what explains the EU’s development of an Arctic policy? Second, how did this process evolve? And third, what are the main elements of this policy under development?

Based on other studies of EU foreign policy development, this article identifies three basic levels of analysis to study the evolution of EU Arctic policy.1 These are as follows: (i) the internal level – EU foreign policy as the product of an “organization;” (ii) the state level – the role played by external actors, primarily states; and (iii) the systemic level – the EU and its foreign policy as dependent on structural conditions within the global system. The author identifies the impact of all these levels. First the article focuses on the way the supranational and member-state levels in combination have been decisive in reaching the final policy outcome. Next the research uncovers and discusses the crucial role played by other Arctic states, particularly Canada and Norway. Finally, on the systemic level, key conditions, including global warming and economic forces, are discussed. The article reviews the content of the proposed policy and addresses some important issues at stake, including the Union’s role regarding environmental issues, as well as its role as a major consumer of energy extracted from the region.

The Arctic policy process is unique in European Union Foreign Policy (EFP) development, a somewhat new dimension altogether of the EU. In this respect the author suggests that the methodological approach and theoretical findings may also be relevant to other EFP areas, such as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, European Neighborhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership. While this article addresses the long-term historical background of the EU’s relationship to the Arctic, the main focus will be from the turning point in 2007 – when the “Bluebook” on the EU’s Maritime Policy suggested creating a special report on strategic issues for the EU relating to the Arctic Ocean – until the winter of 2012, when the Commission is due to prepare a new report on the EU’s interests in the Arctic

The structure of the article is the following: Section 2 introduces and discusses general theoretical approaches to EU foreign policy development. In section 3, the EU’s Arctic policy process and outcomes are presented. Section 4 analyzes the empirical data in light of the previously presented theoretical framework, and then section 5 draws some final conclusions.

2. EU foreign policy development – theoretical approaches

The European Union is increasingly attempting to create and coordinate new areas of its EFP. The prospective European Arctic policy explained in this article is an example of one of these new areas. The EU’s Arctic policy is a direct product of the EU (which itself is a unique unit in IR “International Relations”—a sui generis). This process (the output from the “EU box”) is probably the most familiar and well analyzed aspect of EFP-making in the existing literature.2 However, while Arctic policy flows directly out of the “EU box,” this box is influenced by the international system as a whole, whose specific actors (states and/or non-states) individually impact the Union as well.3 This simple basic analytical conceptualization of how EU foreign policy is generated serves as a suitable and flexible approach to the subject, in particular highlighting the importance of the external level as a crucial supplement to internal EU processes. Methodologically the theoretical model has a rationalist foundation, where the framework combines insights from EU studies and mainstream IR approaches, such as the liberal complex–interdependence paradigm and neorealism (“neo-neo synthesis”).4

2.1 The internal dimension: EFP as the product of the EU as an organization

“Single by name, dual by regime, multiple by nature – this is the Union’s institutional framework in a nutshell.”5 The European Union has often been characterized as a complex moving target, which makes it difficult to develop lasting theoretical concepts of the interaction between its formal structures and policy output. While EFP is currently an established part of the study of the EU, it is a relatively recent addition to the vocabulary, with no standard theories attached.6 Identifying the most relevant and important organizational elements impacting foreign policy development is therefore a demanding task. When examining established theories on EU policy development, Andrew Moravcsik’s liberal intergovernmentalism stands out. Moravcsik portrays EU policy development as a two-step process where the preferences of each member state are first decided by the balance of interests on the domestic level, and then EU policy is determined as the result of traditional intergovernmental bargaining.7 However, liberal intergovernmentalism has been heavily criticized for not paying enough attention to the long term effects of political integration on the formation of preferences among member states, as well as for allegedly overemphasizing the role of the Council in policy formation, as opposed to the roles played by the Commission and European Parliament. The traditions emphasizing the importance of these supranational institutions are often labeled today ‘supranational governance,’ a perspective associated with scholars like Gary Marks, Paul Pierson, or Markus Jachtenfuchs.8

Federica Bicchi has analyzed EFP-making towards the Mediterranean.9 By focusing on the internal dimension of the Union she points out how EFP processes generally should be considered ideational processes, driven by cognitive uncertainty, and where three conditions need to be met in order to turn ideas into more concrete policy initiatives. The three conditions are: (i) A policy window, or window of opportunity. This new window could open up, for example, by uncertainty at the national level regarding how to respond to a particular external challenge. (ii) A dedicated policy entrepreneur. This may be an EU institution, a member state, or even a group of interested states. (iii) A convergence of ideas on the definition of what the problem is between member states and EU institutions.10 This article applies the theoretical insights derived from Bicchi’s analysis of EU policy towards the Mediterranean, and reviews empirical findings from the Arctic in light of her framework.

2.2 The role of external actors

Traditionally political analyses with the dominant realist tradition at their core have viewed states as the most important actors in the international system.11 While no international relations analysis can exclude the state, multinational enterprises, multilateral governmental organizations, and NGOs are also often regarded as important actors in IR,12 especially within the liberal tradition. When analyzing the EU and its interaction with actors in its external environment, it seems reasonable that the scope and substance of the matter at stake should determine which actors should receive the most attention.

When reviewing the process that led to the development of the most important documents outlining EU Arctic policy (the Commissions Communication of 2008, the Council Conclusions of 2009, and the European Parliament’s report on the Arctic), the role played by the Arctic states themselves is a powerful explanatory factor.13 As the Union moved from its traditional position of being more or less politically uninvolved in the Arctic to becoming engaged in the region, it suddenly entered into an area heavily dominated by a few essentially content and self-contained nations, which carefully protect their sovereign rights and privileges as Arctic Council member states. In this situation EU efforts to create a role for itself had to take the Arctic states’ opinions into careful consideration. Due to the geopolitical nature of the Arctic, it is reasonable to expect Arctic states to be the most important external actors in the EU’s pursuit of a role in the High North. Among the Arctic states the five Arctic Ocean coastal states (Norway, Russia, USA, Canada and Denmark/Greenland) were the most important to the EU, as a result of the maritime nature of this region.

Finally, even though the EU may possess certain properties of a unique post-sovereign state, it generally cannot escape the reality of the anarchical international system of which it is a part, and where relative gains tend to play a critical role.14 While this situation might be overlooked with regard to some parts of the Union’s ‘near abroad’ – for instance in the European Neighborhood Policy and Eastern Partnership, where the Union uses its ‘soft power’ to attract neighboring states in the south and east which desire to join the community – the Arctic subsystem in IR, with its great powers and high economic and military stakes, is considered another matter entirely.15

2.3 The systemic level: the EU as an actor in the global system

According to Knud Erik Jшrgensen, the role played by the external environment in particular has been (strangely) downplayed in research on the EU and on the world. “Systemic factors, whether conceived of as polarity structure or international society, play a minor role, and systemic change also does not figure prominently on the research agenda or among explanatory factors.”16 He continues by stating that scholars generally “do not pay attention to how the EU has been shaped by the environment. Instead they aim at explaining how the EU aspires to shape the environment.”17 Similarly, when looking at pre-existing scholarly literature on EU foreign policy analysis, the main approach seems to focus on the unique nature, value or identity of the EFP, and how it is created as a mixture of the supranational community dimension and the impact of member states’ national foreign policy.18 This article considers systemic conditions influencing the EU’s Arctic policy. In this respect ‘geopolitics/realism’ and the ‘liberal complex-interdependence’ frameworks will be evaluated.

The realist and geopolitical traditions share many features. They are both crucially interested in power capabilities and their distribution and source. They also both regard conflict and struggle as immanent parts of international relations and of civilization itself. At the same time, while geopolitical traditions have been devoted to analyzing how specific geographical characteristics, like space, topography, position of territories, climate, and distances interact with people and largely determine events, realism and neo-realism have been more state-centric, emphasizing the effects of properties in the state system.19 When interpreting the Arctic policy development in the EU, questions of access to, or control of, strategic territories, communication lines, waterways and natural resources become paramount in the geopolitical tradition. For neo-realists, issues concerning enhancing security and minimizing threats through the possession and distribution of military and economic power capabilities are vital.20 While realists may question the role of the EU as an actor, at the same time they may endorse the notion of the EU seeking to advance its relative advantages in trade and political influence, while simultaneously seeking to minimize foreign threats.21 Hence, Arctic policy development in the EU may be accounted for as being a response to systemic change, where the Union seeks to protect its interests in a region of increasingly higher stakes in matters of wealth and security.

Within the liberal perspective, the international system is assumed to be anarchic but mitigated by international regimes, trade, and complex interdependence. While certain properties in the external system are vital for explaining actor behavior, the system’s structure is far from being as “deterministic” as it is sometimes portrayed within the neo-realist paradigm. Many actors perceive the absence of a clear hierarchy of issues, and questions relating to military power do not necessarily overshadow other sector interests.22 The liberal perspective stresses the existence of multiple channels of interaction between societies, and downplays the importance of hierarchical state structures. When the liberal perspective framework is used to interpret EU Arctic policy development, the increasingly interwoven status of the High North in the global system (IR) must be taken into account.23 Furthermore, the consequences of the spread of international law, economic interests, trade, and dependencies can and do often predominate over purely military and strategic considerations. When seeking to identify and test any possible system-effects on EU foreign policy development, the Union’s preferences and behavior within a given field of interest should be weighed against the deductive predictions proposed by the system theories. The degree of such a match is discussed later in the analysis.

3. The EU’s Arctic policy: process and results

3.1 The Background

Throughout most of EU/EC history, the Arctic region has been regarded as a peripheral concern of little importance. Greenland has historically been the most important Arctic territory to play any sort of significant role for the European Community. However, after Greenland became a member of the EC along with Denmark in 1973, many Greenlanders saw EC membership as a threat to their traditional lifestyle and economy. In particular, conflicts concerning fishing and hunting of sea mammals created problems in the relationship. The Greenlandic discomfort with their EU/EC membership, and repeated quarrels over fishing rights especially, led to a referendum in 1982 where the majority of Greenlanders voted to leave the EC.24 When Greenland formally left the EC in 1985, the Community was left without any territories above the Arctic Circle, and as a result Arctic topics largely disappeared from its political agenda.

When Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, the Union was again represented with territories to the north of the Arctic Circle. The EU’s expansion into the Nordic area would soon imply a new impetus for dealing with issues concerning the High North, and with the Finnish presidency in 1997, the initiative to create the “EU’s Northern Dimension” (ND) was launched.25 However, while the scope of the ND stretched from Iceland to the Kola Peninsula, and later also came to include “an Arctic Window,” its main focus became the Baltic states and Sweden and Finland’s relationship with Russia. Furthermore, the ND was not given a separate budget line, and no new personnel were recruited to the program.

With the second Finnish presidency in 2006, the Finns sought to revive the entire ND, hence opening up the possibility of a strengthened EU focus in the Arctic. Yet while the ND was re-launched and amended to become a “partnership model,” where Norway, Russia, and Iceland, along with the EU, were given status as equal members, there were still no significant attempts to develop the “Arctic Window.”26 While it is clear that the ND has played an important role with respect to developing regional cooperation between the EU and Russia in the Arctic rim area of Murmansk and Lapland, this effort is more accurately characterized as regional cooperation rather than as an initiative of a genuine Arctic nature.27 So while the ND truly did touch upon Arctic issues, this was not the source of the EU’s wholehearted Arctic policy initiative. Nevertheless, the double Finnish initiative branded the Nordic country as strong advocates for a broader EU engagement in the north, a viewpoint they were to hold in the years to come.28

In retracing the process that led to the Commission’s first communication on the Arctic in November 2008, it can be determined that the starting point for the Union’s Arctic policy directly followed in the wake of the EU’s Integrated Maritime Policy development. The Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) process was a major undertaking in the first Barroso Commission, developed through the production of a “Green Book,” and later a “Blue Book.” While the Arctic was hardly mentioned in the “Green Book” presented in 2006, this had changed by the presentation of the “Blue Book” a year later.29 The attached Action Plan then stated: In 2008, the European Commission will produce a report on strategic issues for the EU relating to the Arctic Ocean … The aim of this action is to lay the foundation for a more detailed reflection on the European interests in the Arctic Ocean and the EU’s role in this respect.30

While Arctic issues at this time were rapidly becoming more important in the global consciousness, largely due to global warming, the topic had not yet ‘exploded.’ According to the IMP taskforce leader, the UK’s Ambassador Richardson, the timing was largely due to external developments including increased media interest in the region and the Russian flag planting at the North Pole sea bottom, as well as specific Norwegian efforts to raise the EU focus toward the Arctic.31 Through two visits to Norway, including a week-long journey on the governmental polar research vessel “Lance” around the Arctic islands of Svalbard, the taskforce leader became convinced of the need for the EU to have an Arctic policy.32

The plan to produce a report on strategic issues for the EU in the Arctic was soon to become a reality, and on the eve of 2008 an EU inter-service working group was created to take on the task. The group was appointed as an elite consisting of 10 to 15 individuals on a partly rotating basis. All but one of the members came from the Commission, primarily from DG Relex (Directorate-General for the External Relations), and the sole external person was an Arctic expert from the European Environmental Agency. The group was chaired by the Hungarian national Jбnos Herman, who was to become the key actor in Arctic policy development.

3.2 2008–2009: The formative years – learning and policymaking

The biggest challenge for the Commission’s inter-service group in writing a report on EU interests in the Arctic was to overcome a fundamental lack of knowledge about the region.33 This included politics as well as insight into the region’s geophysics and social demography. Throughout the coming year, by dividing the work among subgroups, contacting experts, and initiating fact-finding missions, the group partially mitigated their initial knowledge deficit.

While concerns relating to the Arctic were new to most of the members in the inter-service group, this was also true for other EU institutions. For example, when the EU Parliament is scrutinized, the same situation is apparent. Only a few individuals of the over 700 elected members had any in-depth knowledge about the region. In practice, this situation allowed a small group of individuals imbued with interest and expertise in Arctic issues, very large influence in the assembly.34 The most prominent among such parliamentarians was the UK liberal and Parliament vice president, Diana Wallis. For years Wallis had been engaged in Arctic governance issues, visiting the Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians as early as the year 2000, and attending her first Arctic Council (AC) meeting in 2001 as the Vice- Chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to Norway. Throughout the years Wallis had developed competence in the topic of the politics of the Arctic, and gained great trust from Parliament. However, Wallis was by no means a moderate nor an advocate for continuing the status quo with regard to Arctic governance. As early as 2006, in a speech delivered to the Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians, she had argued that the parliamentarians should demand an Arctic Charter, possibly regulating and preserving the High North along the lines of the regime in Antarctica.35 But this view was highly controversial and did not have any support among the five key Polar Ocean coastal states (USA, Russia, Norway, Denmark/ Greenland, and Canada), all of whom were crucially concerned with protecting their sovereign rights in the Arctic, and who upheld the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC) as a sufficient legal framework for the region.

In spite of this controversy, Diana Wallis and the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) became the main driving force behind the passage of the European Parliament’s October 9, 2008 resolution, advocating a much more proactive role by the EU in the Arctic: The European Parliament: … 14. Urges the Commission to take a proactive role in the Arctic by at least, as a first step, taking up ‘observer status’ on the Arctic Council, and considers that the Commission should set up a dedicated Arctic desk. 15. Suggests that the Commission should be prepared to pursue the opening of international negotiations designed to lead to the adoption of an international treaty for the protection of the Arctic, having as its inspiration the Antarctic Treaty.36

The resolution was adopted with 597 votes in favor, 23 against, and 41 abstentions. The resolution created quite a racket and resulted in considerable problems for the Commission in relation to the other Arctic states while it prepared its presentation of the Communication of EU interests in the Arctic. 37

While the inter-service group had provoked some European Arctic states in the early phase of drafting the Communication (for example, by proposing that the EU should contribute toward the “management” of the Arctic), this was believed to have been adjusted by the second half of 2008.38 When the highly controversial resolution passed in the Parliament, alarm bells went off in Oslo and Copenhagen again, with both countries mobilizing to prevent the EU Commission from endorsing the Parliament’s position. At this stage it was the Norwegian foreign ministry in particular that responded. After the foreign ministry first suggested having a “workshop” targeted at sharing information about Arctic governance with the Commission, an idea that was turned down by DG Relex (probably due to the uneasiness it felt about the implied dominant role of a non-EU country), multiple bilateral talks between the EU leaders and some of the most senior Norwegian Foreign Affairs officials were arranged instead. The intense Norwegian effort during this period to follow up on the Commission’s work caused the chair of the inter-service group, Jбnos Herman, to exclaim that he felt “surrounded by Norwegians.”39

The climax of Norway’s efforts came in a joint meeting in Brussels on November 12, 2008 between the Norwegian Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. After the meeting Barroso declared that “as a matter of principle, we can say that the Arctic is a sea, and a sea is a sea. This is our starting point.” By so stating he implied that the LOSC should be recognized as a legal framework. While Barroso would not go into detail about the forthcoming release of the Commission’s Communication on the Arctic, the EU Observer reported the next day: “Commission backs Norway’s Arctic vision: no new treaty.”40

During the crucial months leading up to the Commission’s forthcoming Communication, Denmark had also taken advantage of leaks from the inter-service group in order to stress important issues from its standpoint. However, in practice, the Danes viewed themselves primarily as representatives of the Greenlandic population on Arctic issues, which was a position they also were perceived to hold in the inter-service group. While this position was in accordance with formal EUDanish/ Greenlandic agreements, it created a paradox, since Greenland was not a member of the EU. The Danish Arctic officials had furthermore become very unpopular in the Commission at this time, by stubbornly upholding the interests of Greenland’s indigenous population through its fight to stop the expected EU ban on seal products.41 Danish officials also started to question the lack of consultation by the inter-service group, while representatives from the inter-service group itself found Denmark to be the most difficult member-state with which to cooperate in the process.42

In sum, this was a situation where the Commission generally lacked sufficient information and expertise on Arctic affairs. As a non-AC member it had been excluded from all debate concerning Arctic issues in this forum for years, and thus been denied valuable practical and political experience with Arctic governance. In addition it had developed a strained relationship with Denmark. To improve the situation the Commission relied closely on help volunteered by Norway, accepting information and guidance from Oslo before the Communication was published.

On November 20, 2008, the Commission was finally ready to present its Communication on the Arctic. The document, with its most controversial elements now purged, focused on three key issue areas: (1) protecting and preserving the Arctic in unison with its population; (2) promoting the sustainable use of resources; and (3) contributing to enhanced Arctic multilateral governance. In the latter section, the Communication specified that “the EU should work to uphold the further development of a cooperative Arctic governance system based on the UN Law of the Sea Convention.” As a proposal for action, the Communication further suggested that the EU should “enhance input to the Arctic Council in accordance with the Community’s role and potential. As a first step, the Commission will apply for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council.”43 These key areas paralleled other regional EFPs, often stressing regional multilateral governance, as well as focusing on sustainable economic evolution as part of regional development goals.44

While the Commission’s inter-service group under DG Relex was the key policy entrepreneur in working out the report on EU interests in the Arctic, one important event preceded their work. This was the presentation of High Representative Javier Solana, and Commissioner for External Affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner’s ‘headline making paper,’ “Climate change and international security.” In this paper to the Council, dated March 14, 2008, the possibility of severe security challenges in the Arctic was one of the prime focuses: More disputes over land and maritime borders and other territorial rights are likely. There might be a need to revisit existing rules of international law, particularly the Law of the Sea, as regards the resolution of territorial and border disputes. A further dimension of competition for energy resources lies in potential conflict over resources in Polar regions … As previously inaccessible regions open up due to the effects of climate change, the scramble for resources will intensify … changing the geo-strategic dynamics of the region with potential consequences for international stability and European security interests.45

While making headlines and putting Arctic issues firmly on the Council’s table, the paper’s alarmist warnings would not be followed up in the Communication presented a half-year later. This omission could be interpreted as being a consequence of the inter-service group and Commission acquiring increased knowledge about the region. Furthermore, after intense work on the topic, the Commission was much more at peace with the LOSC as a robust international framework for governance in the region – a view more in line with that of the Arctic states themselves.

The ministers of foreign affairs welcomed and adopted the Commission’s Communication of November 20, 2008 in the General Affairs and External Relations meeting on December 8th of that same year. This meeting was held at the height of the financial crisis, and very little attention was paid to the report. Nevertheless, the Council agreed that the proposals for action contained in the Communication should “lead to a more detailed reflection and it looked forward to further examining them in the first half of 2009.”46 However, the overshadowing financial crisis, combined with a lack of competency by the Czech presidency on Arctic issues (and severe problems in chairing the EU as a result of the Czech Parliament’s lack of trust in the President), it was soon made clear that the Council’s work on a European Arctic policy should be put on hold until the Swedish EU presidency began in the second half of 2009.

Leaving the issue to the Swedes was a decision of great importance. As a Nordic country with membership in the Arctic Council, Sweden was well informed about Arctic issues and had the ‘sensitivity’ the EU had often lacked.47 Sweden was both an Arctic state with independent interests resembling those of other Arctic states, as well as an EU member state without special obligations, unlike Denmark. In this position Sweden took on the role of mediator, tactfully balancing the EU Community’s interests with those of the Arctic states.48

However, the Union’s ambition to contribute to enhanced governance in the Arctic suffered its greatest setback before Sweden took over the chairmanship. At the ministerial meeting of the AC in April in Tromsш, no new observers were admitted. The official reason was that the AC needed time to further discuss the role of observers more generally and “decided to continue discussing the role of observers.”49 Nevertheless, the real reason for not allowing the EU in as an observer (and therefore no other applicants either) was the ban Brussels was expected to place on all seal products on the EU market. Since seals are not an endangered species, this ban was viewed by many of the Arctic states as an example of the EU “not knowing the Arctic issues,” as well as making decisions in Brussels without consulting those it affected in the north.50 While skepticism about having a potential EU observer of the AC was felt by all non-European-AC members, Canada in particular headed the opposition. While speaking on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon, later explained: “Canada doesn't feel that the European Union, at this stage, has the required sensitivity to be able to acknowledge the Arctic Council, as well as its membership, and so therefore I'm opposed to it … I see no reason why they should be … a permanent observer on the Arctic Council.”51

For the Swedish EU presidency, two questions in particular posed difficulties and were contested internally in the EU. The first had to do with how prominent a role the EU should pursue in Arctic cooperation, after being rejected for observer status in the AC. The second concerned the issue of internal policy coordination. Should the EU countries first seek to internally coordinate Arctic policy issues within the Council, or should the Arctic states decide all issues at the national level as before?52

The issues were delicate for the Swedes: they tested their loyalty to a European Union seeking to improve its role on the world stage, while simultaneously challenging excellent cooperation within the AC, and their “national” membership along with Finland and Denmark in the exclusive “Arctic club.” In the end, the Swedish chairmanship took on the role of mediator and strategist, convincing impatient supporters of a prominent EU presence in the Arctic to adjust their course of action, and seek to use language in the Council Conclusion that did not provoke or challenge the role of the Arctic states. In this way, the EU would seek out long-term goals, down-play any differences such as the seal issue, and work for improved relationships with the Arctic states and the AC in the future. The Council Conclusions presented December 8, 2009 illustrate this point, as they pay tribute to the Arctic Council, stating: “The Council recognizes the Arctic Council as the primary competent body for circumpolar regional cooperation.”53 The same declaration also recognized the member states’ role at the EU community level, stating: “The Council welcomes the gradual formulation of a policy on Arctic issues to address EU interests and responsibilities, while recognizing Member States’ legitimate interests and rights in the Arctic.”54 Furthermore, the Conclusion continued to develop the main themes in the Communication from 2008, and passed the ball back to the Commission: “The Council requests the Commission to present a report on progress made in these areas by the end of June 2011.” By January 2012, the progress report has not yet been presented. However, nothing indicates that the delay is caused by a change in policy (but rather caused by institutional changes as the Arctic policy has to find its formal attachment between the pre- Lisboan DG Relex, now the European External Action Service (EEAS), and DG Mare Maritime affairs). The continued drift towards acknowledging the key role played by the Arctic EU-member states as well as Arctic non-EU member states was in fact very explicitly stated multiple times in the European Parliament’s report to the Commission, in response to the Commission Communication on the EU and the Arctic Region adopted January 20, 2011.

Conscious of the need to protect the fragile environment of the Arctic … stresses that the EU should pursue policies that ensure that measures to address environmental concerns take into account the interests of the inhabitants of the Arctic region, including its indigenous peoples, in protecting and developing the region; stresses the similarity in approach, analysis and priorities between the Commission Communication and policy documents in the Arctic States.55

4. Analysis

Any attempt to explain or model the creation of the European Union’s foreign policy is fraught with challenges. First, the Union has almost constantly throughout the last decades operated under treaty revisions impacting the formal rules of decision-making. Second, due to the Union’s unique status in IR and its many-faceted structures, no single generally-accepted framework for analysis exists. Finally, well established key concepts in IR, like sovereignty, actorness, and interests, are at best often merely confusing, when applied to the Union in the same way they are applied in the conventional state-centric fashion. Nevertheless, this analysis seeks to combine the empirical account of how the EU’s Arctic policy was created with relevant theoretical insight, focusing on the key internal and external factors assumed to impact foreign policy outcomes from the Union.

4.1 The internal dimension

Policymaking in the EU is generally often described as a ‘tug-of-war’ between supranational and intergovernmental levels. When examining the process that unfolded with respect to the construction of Arctic policy from the end of 2007, elements at both of these levels were active. According to the pillar system organized in the Maastricht treaty, traditional European Community (EC) matters were expected to be solved through the predominantly supranational ‘Community method,’ while Common Foreign and Security Policy matters (CFSP) were to be solved predominantly through intergovernmental cooperation. However, foreign policy decisions are not always easily placed in pillars, and pillars and methods are blurred, both formally and in practice.56 This blurred status was very much the case in the Arctic policy development. While the substantial focus on the Arctic certainly was external to the Union in scope, and therefore should have been regarded a CFSP matter, the Commission was still the main policy entrepreneur leading the key work of drafting the first Communication on the issue, as with other Community issues.57

According to Federica Bicchi, EFP processes are primarily ideational processes that might gain momentum if an occasion, a “window” of opportunity, arises.58 The changes caused by the melting ice in the Arctic, the fuss in the media about potential conflicts in the Arctic region, as well as the increased awareness of the future shipping and energy potential in the High North, have certainly created a window of opportunity for the Union to forge an Arctic policy. This window has subsequently been exploited by the Commission as the driving policy entrepreneur. 59 While these two key elements for EFP-making were in place, Bicchi’s last condition, concerning the convergence of ideas and definitions of relevant problems between the member states and the EU institution, has been the most problematic aspect internally in the Union.

As stated previously, one of the main early tasks of the Commission and the designated inter-service group was to acquire in-depth knowledge about the Arctic. As it did so, the group came ‘up-to-date’ quite quickly, especially in comparison with the European Parliamentary representatives, whose vast majority had only a very limited interest in and knowledge of the Arctic and its politics. Simultaneously, in the European Council the situation was diametrically opposite from the one in the Parliament. Here the Arctic EU member states dominated, along with the AC observer states like the UK, France and Germany, using their well-established insider knowledge of Arctic politics acquired over a long period of time.

Between the European Parliament, the Commission, and the Council, a spectrum can be identified, ranging from the Parliament’s radical/progressive approach, to the more conservative, status-quo-oriented approach of the Arctic EU member states. In this situation, the development of a common perception of the challenges facing the Arctic, and the EU’s role, would take some time. Nevertheless, the Commission’s role as an active learner and compromise-seeker between the Arctic states and the European Parliament, has finally unified the Union on a centrist position in this first stage of Arctic policy development.

While the Communication on the Arctic of November 20, 2008 was recognized by the Council by the time of the outgoing French presidency in December 2008, the process in effect became halted thereafter, due to the impact of the unfolding financial crisis and inefficiency of the Czech presidency during the first half of 2009. Then, unanticipated events evolved to enable the more-qualified Swedish government to take the lead role in this second phase of policy development. As Sweden took over just after the somewhat confusing and unexpected ‘blow’ to the Union regarding its hope for permanent AC observer status (being one of the most high profile elements of the Union’s prospective Arctic policy), the Swedes then enjoyed considerable autonomy designing the new way ahead, aiming to make the EU a legitimate Arctic actor in future. As the Swedes were well-integrated into Arctic cooperative ventures and had very close ties to other Arctic EU member states, they became the focal point of the process. The rotating Council presidency system arguably allowed the Swedes to make a final compromise showing particular sensitivity to the Arctic states. This included pushing forward non-provocative unifying language, for instance by demonstrating respect for the AC as the prominent Arctic multilateral forum, an organization that still does not accept the Union as a legitimate Arctic actor. This direction was finally also adopted by the European Parliament in their report of 2011.

4.2 The external actors

When the EU decided to proceed in creating an Arctic policy, it entered into a region heavily dominated by Arctic states.60 The important role played by external states might well be illustrative for most EFP processes, yet the role played by external states often remains understated in traditional EFP analyses.

As the empirical investigation has shown, only a few external states seem to have played a decisive role in this particular process. This refers both to the first phase, when the Commission was in charge of the process, but also to the next stage when the process was led by the Swedish presidency. In particular, Norway set the premises during the first phase when the Commission drafted its Communication. In this regard, it is worth noting that Norwegian clout was not a result of any institutional rights (as might be the case in other areas where the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement applies), but rather emerged as a result of its pro-active role, its competence, and its willingness to provide knowledge and information to a Commission in need. The following statement made by one of the most senior EU diplomats is illustrative: Norway was the first country to contact the Commission (after it started to draft its Communication on the Arctic) and has put forward a series of ideas, mainly the ministry of foreign affairs, very early, and therefore, I think that it is not an exaggeration to say that the first EU document of an Arctic policy was designed and conceived in very close cooperation with Norway …61

The “series of ideas” stated here refers to the importance of the EU’s respect for the LOSC as a sufficient legal framework in the region, in particular its provisions for states’ rights and responsibilities with regard to sovereignty claims, its regulation of rights concerning the utilization of renewable and nonrenewable resources, its underscoring of the legitimate role played by the military in protecting state sovereignty, as well as its confirmation of the role played by the Arctic Council as the single most important multilateral regime for the region. In recognizing the role Norway played in its commitment to securing EU support for keeping the LOSC as the main legal framework for the Arctic, it is also worth noting how the Commission’s complicated relationship with Denmark added to Norway’s pivotal role in this phase.

Even though Norway has been identified as possibly playing the most influential role among Arctic non-EU member states in the first phase, Canada, in blocking the Union’s application for AC observer membership, stands out as the most important country in the phase that followed. This is because it directly and negatively impacted the Union’s desire for a more prominent role in the region. Along with Canada, Norway also strongly opposed the EU’s movement toward banning trade in seal products. Nevertheless, neither Norway nor any other European state (including the Greenlandic home rule), viewed it to be in their interest to block the EU from becoming a permanent AC observer.

In addition to the seal issue, Canada also raised concerns about the way the Commission’s Communication pointed to “problems” related to Arctic governance, regarding “the fragmentation of the legal framework, the lack of effective instruments, the absence of an overall policy-setting process and gaps in participation, implementation and geographic scope.” Similarly the Canadians questioned the EU’s intentions in the High North, arguing that the Arctic states themselves were in the best place to address Arctic challenges and opportunities, putting pressure on Sweden to lower the EU’s profile in Arctic governance and management in its drafting of the Council Conclusions.62 Hence, the overall tendency seems to be that over time, the EU’s Arctic policy has in many ways moved closer to the Arctic strategies of the Arctic states themselves.

When drawing parallels to the development of other regional EFPs like the Mediterranean policy initiative, the European Neighborhood Policy, or Eastern Partnership, it becomes clear that these processes included substantial inputs from external states – inputs that made the EU change and adopt its policy. One such incidence recognized in the literature is the ‘Orange revolution’ in the Ukraine in 2004, which led to an increased seriousness and leverage concerning the Ukrainian politicians’ bid for future EU membership.63 Nevertheless, the EU’s Arctic policy development might constitute a more distinct example of how external states influence policy outcomes, as the EU did not possess as strong a position here as in some of the other regional foreign policies.

4.3 The International System

The importance of the external dimension for European policy development has been recognized in prior studies, for example as stated by Simon Hix: “Europe is more a responder to global economic and geopolitical developments than a shaper of these developments. Global developments beyond the EU’s control determine the agenda and timetable of its global policies and the options available to EU policymakers.”64

Hix and Jшrgensen have also emphasized how the role played by the external environment has often been downplayed in research on EU policy processes, and argue that this dimension should be taken into account more often.65 This article is a contribution towards mitigating that deficit, as the research design both identifies and evaluates the impact of external actors, as well as properties of the international system, in explaining development of EU Arctic policy.

When applying properties of the international system as conditions affecting EU Arctic policy, system-theories, like realism or the liberal complex-interdependence paradigm, offer different approaches to identifying the most important structural factors. While the ‘scramble for the Arctic’ “hype,” which emphasizes a possible anarchical scenario of escalating rivalry between the Arctic states (manifested in the reactions by many states including the EU to the Russian flag planting at the sea bottom of the North Pole) certainly could accord with realist theories or geopolitical reasoning, the most significant factual response to these public sentiments was instead in line with the liberal paradigm. The political response of the Arctic coastal states, in which all the secretaries of state agreed to meet and sign the defusing Ilulissat declaration, is therefore a strong argument for the important role played by international regimes like the LOSC, as well as the Arctic Council. Furthermore, the declaration illustrates how stakeholders in practice downplayed their opportunities to take advantage of possible individual relative gains at the cost of maintaining peaceful cooperative order. Similarly, while the Arctic states’ policymakers occasionally seem to emphasize the role of military protection of sovereign rights in the Arctic, often for domestic reasons, actual behavior seems to focus most on securing international trade, developing viable conditions for shipping, and the commercial utilization of natural resources according to liberal paradigm assumptions.66

When seeking to identify system-effects on the outcome of the EU’s Arctic policy, the Solana-Ferrero-Waldner paper, entitled “Climate change and international security,” 67 is probably the best example of concerns along the lines of what a realist paradigm would predict. This is because it attaches great importance to the international systems’ anarchical properties, as well as the potential for violent struggle over scarce resources. However, Solana-Ferrero-Waldner’s message was dramatically downplayed in the Commission’s Communication, and particularly in the Council conclusions and the report from the Parliament in 2011, where the sustainable use of resources and stabilizing effect of multilateral institutions applicable to the region are at the core. Nor does actual behavior by the EU or its member states show any sign of increased preparation or new capacity building aimed at upcoming military conflicts or similar situations in the High North. Instead, the Communication from the Commission, the Council Conclusions, as well as the report from the Parliament, seem to emphasize how connected the Arctic region is to the rest of the world, and its global role on issues like climate change, economic growth, trade, and multilateral cooperation. Further, they highlight that, in this respect, the EU’s Arctic policy represents a move toward bringing the Arctic closer to everyday business and political life in Brussels as well.

5. Conclusion

This article has scrutinized the process leading up to the development of an Arctic policy for the European Union. Responding to Hix’s and others’ call for including the external environment in EU analyses, this article addresses the ‘organizational,’ ‘state,’ and ‘system’ levels when seeking to explain Arctic Policy development. In so doing, the analysis has identified a composite picture of events, actors, and factors also likely to be seen in other EFP processes.

In the Arctic policy development from 2007 onwards, various contributory factors have vied for importance, depending on the stage of Union policy formation. Furthermore, as certain important factors have remained static, like the relatively small percentage of Arctic territories represented in the European Union, other variables have taken on significance, for example due to increased knowledge more broadly about Arctic issues in EU institutions.

In sum, it seems reasonable to argue that the process of developing an Arctic policy has been a challenging but enlightening undertaking for the European Union, where multiple causes have shaped political results so far. Regarding the process internal to the Union, research for this paper suggests that the new policy for the Arctic was due in part to a ‘window of opportunity’ brought about by physical and political change in the Arctic. Furthermore, the Commission was able and willing to play a key role as a committed policy entrepreneur. Nevertheless, a major challenge for the Union was to unite on a common understanding of the problems and the potential contribution and role of the EU in the region. Furthermore, the analysis has pointed to Norway and Canada as being the most influential external actors for the Union. While Norway’s influence was partly due to its willingness to proactively cooperate and share its competence, Canada, on the other hand, made its impact by challenging the Union, most notably through its negative stand toward the EU’s desire to become a permanent AC observer. Finally, the impact of the international structural environment, the context in which the Union has been developing its Arctic policy, has also influenced policy development. These structural forces are primarily identified as environmental and economic drivers, and hence best correspond to a cooperative ‘system order,’ consistent with a liberal paradigm.

Regarding what we might expect from the EU on the ‘Arctic front’ in the near future, one should always be cautious with speculation. Nevertheless, an opportunity for EU permanent observer status in the Arctic Council seems likely, as might also be the case with China and other interested states. However, while the EU may become more engaged in the governance of the Arctic, nothing suggests that the Arctic coastal states will lose their upper hand in the most important issues at stake. Similarly, the current economic challenges faced by the Union might put ‘on hold’ a more forward-leaning posture in the Arctic. Nevertheless, the currently established Arctic states will have the responsibility to secure a peaceful, transparent, and cooperative political order in the Arctic for decades to come, as well as an opportunity to welcome ‘southern newcomers’ into a possible golden age for the Arctic of the future.


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