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An EU Arctic Policy?



New EU Arctic communication by Dr Kristine Offerdal, 17 June 2012

The European Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have taken the EU one step further in the process of carving out an Arctic policy. A joint communication of 3 July entitled “Developing a European Union Policy towards the Arctic Region: progress since 2008 and next steps” holds no big surprises in terms of the direction of EU policy. The document confirms earlier policy, which is very much in line with the policies of Arctic states and which holds few controversial issues. The most important message is that the EU aims to step up its engagement in Arctic affairs. This includes a continued aim to become permanent observer of the Arctic Council and intensification of bilateral dialogues with Arctic states.

Between the lines, one can read a certain increased consciousness about EU interests in the region. These interests are not clearly defined, but they are linked to combating climate change, protecting the environment and at the same time ensuring sustainable development. The document also states that, being a major consumer, the EU has an interest in the resource policies of Arctic states. Moreover, it highlights the EU interest in shipping regimes for the region, underlining the principles of freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage. Accordingly, somewhat more than earlier Arctic documents, this one identifies EU priorities and what the EU will do to meet these. More active engagement is one way of doing it and is one of three key words in the document. The other two key words, which serve to legitimize engagement, are knowledge and responsibility.

Knowledge refers to the EU contribution to Arctic affairs in areas such as technological know-how, developing Arctic monitoring from space and funding of Arctic-relevant research to address climate and environmental challenges. The term fits well with the interests and views of Arctic states. It is widely recognized that new knowledge about the changes the region is going through is needed. The EU already makes a significant contribution in this area. The new communication underlines and seeks to target and fortify this contribution.

On responsibility, the document argues that the Arctic offers challenges and opportunities that will affect the lives of Europeans for future generations. This, the Commission and High Representative argue, requires a responsible EU contribution to the region, by funding regional programs and promoting safe and sustainable management and use of resources. There is nothing controversial about these points. However, under the heading of promoting safe and sustainable management and use of resources, there is a paragraph that highlights the EU interest in the policies of resource developments of Arctic states. If we see this in combination with the aim to engage more actively multilaterally and bilaterally, we are seeing the contours of a message by the EU as a major stakeholder with specific interests that it will pursue i.a. by engaging more actively with Arctic states. Although EU views on challenges and necessary means to ensure sustainable development hardly differ from those of Arctic states, one would expect an automatic response in Arctic states along the lines that they are in a position to manage their natural resources without interference from outside actors. However, this has so far not been and will probably not be the reactions from Arctic states. The overall impression from reading the EU communication is that the EU aims to assist and support, but not meddle in other states’ affairs. In the document the EU confirms its long communicated view that Arctic inter-state relations in the region are based on the existing international legal order, notably the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. There is nothing new in this, but it is important for the EU in its dialogue with Arctic stakeholders to reiterate that the EU has the same view of mechanisms for cooperation in the region as Arctic states, due to the earlier debate about whether a special Arctic Treaty was needed or not, and perhaps also since EU interests and desire to engage more actively is now more clearly communicated. Therefore, it is not by coincidence that the EU, as it has done before, underlines that Arctic states play a primary role in the region.

The EU takes great care to acknowledge the special needs of indigenous populations. Moreover, the aim to engage more actively appears to be motivated not only by EU interests, but by what appears as genuine interest in contributing to meeting the various challenges that the region is facing. As Norway has already done, other Arctic states will most likely agree with the views put forward by the EU in the communication and welcome the EU initiative to engage more actively. Then it remains to be seen whether this will be followed up in practice, for example with inclusion of the EU in the Arctic Council as permanent observer, or through intensified bilateral High North dialogues with Norway.

In sum, the new communication confirms and intensifies the EU policy towards the Arctic. It continues on the path of the 2011 Parliament report, emphasizing the importance of combating climate change and meeting environmental challenges, but at the same time giving emphasis to sustainable development. Throughout the years since the 2008 joint report by the Commission and High Representative on climate change and international security, EU thinking on the Arctic has approached that of the Arctic states, leaving less importance to geopolitical issues and more to finding ways of cooperating to meet common challenges. In light of the EU effort to avoid coming forward as an interferer, and instead being accepted as a legitimate partner in Arctic affairs, the new communication strikes a good and necessary balance between EU contributions on the one hand and interests on the other hand.


An account of the EU’s Arctic policy in recent years by Professor Clive Archer

The European Union’s involvement in the Arctic


The European Parliament’s involvement

  • European Commission's October 2007 Communication on Integrated Maritime Policy - will deal with Arctic by the end of 2008
  • European Parliament October 2008: Questions and debate led by Diana Wallis (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE)
  • Resolution on Arctic governance adopted 9 October 2008:
    • Referred to Russian flag incident (Aug 2007); UNCLOS; oil & gas; global warming
    • Effect on Inuit & wild-life of warming
    • 3 EU member states (Denmark, Finland & Sweden) and 2 European Economic Area states (Iceland & Norway) in Arctic Council
    • Arctic not governed by specific norms and regulations, never expected to be navigable or for commercial exploitation
    • Concern about environment, traffic; energy & security policy in Arctic
    • Wants special mention of Arctic at Copenhagen 2009 Climate Change conference
    • Suggests observer status for European Commission in AC;
    • Outlines basis for European Commission Communication on the Arctic
    • Suggests international treaty for protection of Arctic based on Antarctic Treaty


The European Commission’s Arctic Paper 2008

  • Objectives:
    • Implement existing obligations rather than new instruments (answer to EP)
    • But develop some frameworks and adapt to Arctic conditions
    • Arctic EU members should not be excluded from any discussions (Ilulissat Declaration)
    • Arctic to be integrated into EU policies & negotiations.
  • Proposals:
    • Closely follow negotiations (especially UNCLOS)
    • EU should have permanent observer status of AC
    • Further Northern Dimension projects especially on environment & energy should be encouraged
    • New framework for ecosystem management possible?Cross-border cooperation & programmes
    • Integrate Maritime Strategy Framework directive into EEA
    • Explore idea of European Arctic Information centre
    • i.e. many small steps

Why an EU policy?

  • External reasons:
    • Growing economic importance of Arctic
    • Increased environmental importance
    • Russia’s activism in region
    • US, Norway & Canada developing Arctic policies, later Russia
    • Greenland moving to independence
  • Internal reasons
    • Need for EU presence in all parts of world
    • Inter-agency rivalry: EP, Commission, High Representative
    • What to do after last enlargement?
    • Geographic balance within EU
    • Failure of ND’s Arctic window Where to next?
    • Institutional battles over Arctic: EU, AC, BEAC, NATO, UN
    • The Russian question: what does Russia want in the region?
    • The Greenland question: what can Greenland manage?
    • Norway in between: EEA, Svalbard, Barents. Has the “High North” succeeded as a policy?
    • The next European Commission: who gets what?


See also the web site of the EU on the Arctic region

by Clive Archer, emeritus professor, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK and associated individual researcher of the Geopolitics in the High North programme. Outline of a talk given at The Norwegian Atlantic Committee, September 2009



Council conclusions on Arctic issues
Introduction by Ida Holdhus, Master Research Fellow, Norwegian Instiute for Defence Studies, 3 February 2010

Council conclusions on Arctic issues

  • Adopted at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting 8 December 2009.
  • Builds on the 2008 Commission’s Communication on the European Union and the Arctic
  • Is meant to constitute a next step towards what the Council considers “the gradual formulation of a policy on Arctic issues to address EU interests and responsibilities, while recognising Member States’ legitimate interests and rights in the Arctic” (emphasis added).
  • Supports three main policy objectives proposed by the Commission:
    • Protecting and preserving the Arctic
    • Promoting sustainable use of natural resources
    • Contributing to enhanced governance
  • 23 points are presented - some of a general nature, others reiterate earlier positions but the document also includes specific proposals for action.
  • Provides the Commission with guidelines as to the formulation of an Arctic policy.
  • The entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1st December 2009 gives increased legislative powers to the Parliament, but it is too early to draw conclusions as to the relative influence of the EU institutions in the formulation of an EU Arctic policy.
  • The Council requests the Commission to present a report on progress made in these areas by the end of June 2011.


Some substantial points include:

Protecting and preserving the Arctic

  • The Council invites Member States and the Commission to support efforts to protect Arctic ecosystems, encouraging Arctic states to develop marine protected areas (Point 5).
  • The Commission is invited to present a work plan for monitoring, research, restriction of use and destruction of hazardous chemicals released into and inside the Arctic (Point 9).
  • The Council underlines the importance of supporting sustainable development for indigenous peoples, including on the basis of their traditional means of livelihood (point 3)


Sustainable use of resources

  • The Council underlines that in the implementation of the Integrated Maritime Policy harvesting of Arctic marine living resources should be managed on the basis of scientific advice as part of an ecosystem perspective (point 10).
  • The Council favours a temporary ban on new fisheries in those Arctic waters not yet covered by an international conservation system (point 10).
  • The Commission and Member States are invited to examine the possibilities to endorse the revised Arctic Council Offshore Oil and Gas Guidelines of 2009 (point 4)



  • The Council supports the applications by Italy and the Commission to become permanent observers in the Arctic Council (point 17).
  • The Council welcomes the IMO’s amendment of the existing guidelines for ships operating in polar waters and the agreement to develop a new mandatory instrument for ships operating in polar waters (point 12).
  • It reiterates the rights and obligations for flag, port and coastal states provided for in international law in relation to freedom of navigation, the right of innocent passage and transit passage, and will monitor their observance (point 16).


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