Europe’s High North
The EU must update its strategy as global interest in the Arctic region grows
Source: Wikimedia Commons
As Western Europe basks in the sun with the temperatures reaching unprecedented levels in February, it is good to remember that this just is not normal. Last four years have been the warmest ever recorded in global average temperatures. In fact, the 20 warmest years on record have all occurred over the past 22 years according to the UN-affiliated World Meteorological Organization. Global warming has had a particularly devastating effect on the Arctic, which has lost 95% of its oldest ice cover, and destabilised the northern polar jet stream. In turn, a weaker, wavier jet stream allows warmer air to move unusually north in some regions and colder air to travel further south in others, which has been linked with both the recent heatwave in Western Europe and polar vortex in Canada and Midwestern United States.
At this rate, summers in the Arctic could be ice-free by 2040. The polar region is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the globe and this will have significant implications for the environment, global ecosystems, and lives of the around 4 million people who live in the area. Receding ice will also open up sea routes for commercial opportunities and military use. As a result, the geopolitical status and strategic importance of the Arctic will only grow in the near future, demanding answers to critical questions about security and diplomacy. With three Arctic states as its members (Denmark, Finland, and Sweden) and seven other member states having been granted observer status in the Arctic Council, the EU has a significant interest in the stability of the region.
The EU’s Arctic policy lacks a security angle
The EU’s policy in the High North has so far mainly focused on matters such as environmental concerns, scientific research, and the regulation of fisheries. A premium is also put on regional and local cooperation with the Arctic states and indigenous peoples. For an aspiring global leader in climate action and a strong defender of multilateral regulatory frameworks, this emphasis is of course hardly surprising. A fit for purpose European Arctic strategy, however, needs to be more comprehensive in scope and take into account the growing global interest in the region, which is not purely scientific or environmental.
Security matters were actually omitted altogether from the EU’s latest Arctic policy update, released in 2016. This was the case despite an earlier 2008 document taking into account territorial disputes in the region regarding Russia, for example. To be fair, the EU’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy does include the Arctic as one of the strategic regions, but even then that specific section is only one paragraph in length. ‘The EU has a strategic interest in the Arctic remaining a low-tension area’, it says, before repeating the key tenets of the aforementioned 2016 policy emphasising the need to tackle climate change and support innovation in the region. The Council, however, highlighted on its June 2016 Conclusions that ‘reinforcing the EU’s engagement in the Arctic’ is an important factor of its foreign and security policy and called for an ‘ambitious cross-spectrum and well-coordinated’ strategy to engage with regional and global actors in the area.
To achieve the EU’s objective of maintaining low tensions, all efforts to avoid a “scramble for the Arctic” are absolutely integral. The melting region is expected to compose the largest unexplored area of oil and natural gas remaining in the world, which is certainly of interest to many global players. Estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 47,2 trillion cubic metres of natural gas resources remain buried under the seabed, according to the U.S. Geographical Survey. In addition to the resource question, control over shipping lanes will be another hot topic. For instance, the Northern Sea Route would cut the time it takes to ship goods from St Petersburg to Vladivostok by 14 days. Similarly, it would shorten the journey cargo ships carrying goods between China and Europe currently take through the Suez Canal by up to 40%. As such, overlapping territorial claims, military assertiveness, and infrastructure investment (with ulterior motives) from Arctic and non-Arctic states alike have increased accordingly and will continue to do so in the future.
Russian & China: The growing influence of assertive powers
The fears of escalating competition for the Arctic were greatly fuelled already back in August 2007, when Russian explorers (with the help of a nuclear-powered icebreaker and two submarines) placed a Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole. The stunt gained even more attention when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov connected it with his country’s ambition to claim nearly half of the Arctic Ocean. The only non-NATO state with a coastline on the Arctic Ocean had previously submitted this claim in 2001 under the procedures set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – only for the demands to be rejected due to lack of geological evidence. More recently, emboldened Russia has asserted itself in the region with constant military drills, reopened bases, and strengthened air defence as per the Kremlin’s 2008 arctic strategy and 2017 naval doctrine. Anticipating competition from China, Japan, and the Arctic NATO states, Russia seems set to militarising the Arctic. Russia’s dwindling economy is, however, going to have an impact on its grand ambitions.
The Arctic is also at the centre of China’s poetically named Polar Silk Road, which forms a part of the multi-billion-dollar Belt and Way Initiative. Lacking military capacity to effectively project power in the Arctic, China relies on carefully planned ‘science diplomacy’ and investments on strategic infrastructure to gain a foothold in the north. This has already resulted in China gaining observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013 and rapidly growing its mining rights in Greenland, for example. The former exemplifies China’s increasing willingness to assert its presence in global governance through a vast variety of multilateral fora, while the latter has tightened China’s grip of the global rare earth materials market, allowing the country to exert price control. Moreover, investment in ports on the Arctic Ocean provides China with the possibility to monitor naval activity, while Chinese-owned airports in the Arctic could allow the owners to observe air traffic. Thus, the EU must keep in mind the real possibility of China using its infrastructure, mining, and space observation investments for non-civilian purposes.
The EU must reassess its role in the northern neighbourhood
The West as a whole has been poorly prepared for the growing geopolitical importance of the Arctic. NATO, for instance, has consistently failed to include the region in its Strategic Concept and North Atlantic discussions in a meaningful way (even though both Denmark and Norway’s national Arctic policies do mention NATO’s presence as a security factor). The defence alliance did, however, conduct its largest Arctic drill in decades last October, so perhaps the focus is slowly shifting at last. Meanwhile, the EU’s climate action focus has also lost an ally in the West. Reversing President Obama’s 2016 Arctic offshore drilling ban, the Trump administration has foolishly hopped on board the environmentally catastrophic Arctic energy extraction rush by selling 19 Alaskan offshore sites between this year and 2024. This shift places even larger importance on the EU’s efforts on raising climate awareness and supporting Arctic communities.
The EU needs to reassess its own role in the Arctic. The EU does not have a coastline in the Arctic and will not be a leading force in the region, but it can still have an impact in the way security concerns are addressed and diplomacy is conducted regarding the area. Thus, the bloc must attempt to participate more actively in the meetings of the Barents Regional Council and the Arctic Council, as well as encourage dialogue through the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Northern Chiefs of Defence forum, in order to establish stronger ties with the main actors in the region. Europe must also better recognise the risks posed by overlapping territorial claims and support the UNCLOS procedures to impartially evaluate each competing demand. In addition, given the advantage of Chinese government-subsidised companies in acquiring strategic assets within the EU and the EEA, the Commission’s investment plans should be more visible and provide better support to infrastructure and research projects in Lapland, Iceland, and Greenland to ensure sustainable development.
So far, the EU’s efforts have been crucial in promoting sustainability and supporting science in the Arctic, but in order to raise Europe’s profile in the High North, the EU must take the growing global interest and strategic importance of the region more visibly into account in its strategy.