In or Out? The Symbolism of the EU's Arctic Council Bid

For the Norwegian version of this article, see the North Norway European Office.

By Andreas Østhagen Since launching its first Arctic communiqué in 2008, the European Union has strived to be accepted as a legitimate Arctic actor. Gaining observer status in the Arctic Council, an increasingly prominent international forum, seems to constitute the primary step towards such recognition. Yet the EU's symbolic quest to join the Arctic Council as an observer has proved disproportionately long and difficult.

The final result, as laid out during the Arctic Council's recent ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, reveals the true extent of the in-group/out-group symbolism characterising today's Arctic debate – a differentiation as important for Arctic states as it is for the EU. Exploring this differentiation, the following article will take a look at the rationale behind the EU’s engagement in the region and its developing Arctic policy, before assessing what its relationship with the Arctic Council actually symbolises.

Explaining an Arctic Interest
Underpinning the EU’s relatively sudden vocalisation on Arctic matters is its transforming role as a foreign policy actor [1]. For Sweden, Denmark and Finland, the Arctic represents an area of both domestic and foreign policy due to their status as Arctic states, and subsequently as full members of the Arctic Council. The EU itself tends to emphasise foreign policy more strongly in its Arctic discourse, whilst also using domestic policies to legitimise its Arctic engagement.

The EU enjoys strong geographic proximity to the region, but as Kathrin Keil highlights, there are also multiple policy areas in which the EU demonstrates a vested interest in Arctic development, including new trans-polar shipping routes, energy imports from the Arctic, EU-funded polar research and fisheries activity, in addition to regional policy tools and mechanisms [2]. As such, the developments taking place in the Arctic region are undoubtedly of relevance and importance to the EU, though this in itself may not be enough to prove the EU’s legitimacy as an Arctic actor.

The path towards an EU Policy for the Arctic
The first official step towards an EU Arctic policy arose in November 2008 when the European Commission published a communiqué titled, «The European Union and the Arctic Region». It emphasised three issues: (1) enhancing Arctic multilateral governance; (2) preserving the Arctic climate; and (3) promoting the sustainable use of natural resources [3]. Reactions to this first Arctic policy initiative were mixed. Although many Arctic actors expressed support for the EU’s engagement in the region, others perceived the EU as trying to address problems that were not particularly pressing, namely governance, resource management, and the environment [4].

Taking such interests into account, the Commission waited until June 2012 to release a new communiqué – a second and arguably more moderated step on the path towards an EU Arctic policy. The three overarching themes from 2008 were replaced by: (1) knowledge and competence; (2) funding and promoting sustainable use of resources; and (3) engaging in international cooperation[5].

The 2012-communiqué is striking not for what it contains, but for what it omits. Although the focus points in 2012 do not differ greatly from that of 2008, some of the more sensitive issues and top-down approach are excluded from the document. Removed are the references to governance gaps, proposed new frameworks for the Arctic and the portrayal of the EU as an Arctic crusader. While relatively more concrete, the measures themselves appear to be somewhat random; a laundry list of what the EU has done, and plans to do, with relation to the Arctic. The communiqué therefore lacks an overarching purpose, in a reversal upon the communiqué in 2008. The 2008 communiqué outlined a clear strategy, albeit controversial, while the 2012 communiqué indicates a new wariness of the interests over other Arctic actors.

Courtesy of Delegation of the EU to Russia
The EU and the Arctic Council
The clearest explanation for the EU’s altered approach towards the Arctic lies in its ambition to become an observer to the Arctic Council. Since 2008, the EU has stated that such a status is important for its future engagement in the region [6]. Its bid in 2009, however, was vetoed by Canada, which stated that “Canada doesn’t feel that the European Union, at this stage, has the required sensitivity to be able to acknowledge the Arctic Council... “[7]. This was attributed to the EU’s 2008 import ban on seal products, which was particularly contentious for Canada. At the ministerial meeting in 2011, the decision concerning observer status applicants was deferred again until 2013.

The EU (represented by the European Commission) has nonetheless been attending Arctic Council meetings as an ad-hoc observer by consecutively requesting participation. In reality, the coveted position as a ‘permanent’ observer does not entail much more than a regular invitation to attend Arctic Council meetings and the opportunity to contribute to its working groups, an option already available to ad-hoc observers [8]. The emphasis the EU has placed on achieving observer status is thus more symbolic than tangible in nature: being accepted as an "in-group" member confers more legitimacy as an Arctic actor than the practical outcome of the status in itself.

Kiruna Ministerial Meeting 2013
The foreign ministers of the eight Arctic states met in Kiruna in mid-May this year to conclude the two-year Swedish chairmanship of the Arctic Council, returning the reins to the first chair of the Council, Canada. Much has been written about the increased influence of the Arctic Council, with particular attention paid to the new applicants for observer status. In a much-anticipated move, it was decided that China would be accepted as an observer, in addition to Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Italy and India. While the EU's bid was "affirmed", a final decision on the issue was deferred once more amidst the persistent dispute with Canada over the EU’s import ban on seal products [9]. EU officials greeted the decision with cautious optimism, with Erkki Toumijou, foreign minister of Finland, soon stating that a resolution might take no longer than a few months [10].

In or Out: The importance of symbolism
There are multiple processes underway in the Arctic Council’s deliberations. As already argued, the EU has been working vigorously to become accepted as an observer to the Arctic Council – not for practical rationales but as a means to enhance its credibility as an Arctic actor. Simultaneously, the Arctic states, and Canada in particular, have been using their veto powers to signal the difference between Arctic and non-Arctic states, highlighting their dominance in Arctic matters. Canada subsequently uses its veto power to emphasise its sovereignty in the Arctic.

Critical to this is the symbolism surrounding the export of seal products, which may not hold great economic weight in EU-Canada trade relations, but remains of grave importance to the local indigenous peoples living off such activities. The seal ban issue thus becomes pivotal to Canada’s self-portrayal as an Arctic nation, while symbolising the inherent conflict between Arctic and non-Arctic actors. Given the lack of practical benefits conferred by observer status in the Arctic Council, the main issue is simply symbolic: who is in or who is out, and who has the power to decide. Consequently, the EU is kept “out” of the Arctic Council by Canada, and will remain so until a solution that favours Canada has been found. At the same time, by affirming the EU’s bid, the Arctic Council has taken steps to ensure that the EU will remain engaged with the Council on its path to achieving observer status.

As international actors articulate an interest in the developments in the Arctic, legitimacy becomes the predominant issue. Such legitimacy confers access, power, influence and opportunities. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum which up until recently was largely peripheral, has been given the role as the official gatekeeper of the region. Contributing to this is the Council’s inclusion of indigenous peoples, its vow not to deal with hard security issues and the active participation of Russia.

In the run-up to the recent Kiruna ministerial meeting, the decisions on the multiple observer status applications were highly anticipated. Although the benefits of this status are limited, it remains of great symbolic value to those obtaining it, especially as the dichotomy between Arctic and non-Arctic actors intensifies. From the perspective of the Arctic Council, had countries like China or Japan not been granted access to this arena, it might risk becoming less relevant, and therefore less legitimate, as other international fora develop. The same reasoning applies for the EU, as the Arctic states struggles with the ambivalence of wanting the EU close, but not too close.

Despite starting out with lofty ideals about its Arctic engagement, the EU has been forced to re-adjust and modify its approach to the region as access to the Arctic Council has gained primacy. Its conflict with Canada, of life-altering consequences for indigenous peoples and of symbolic significance to Canada as an Arctic nation, will determine if and when the EU might develop from being an Arctic outsider to an Arctic insider. In the current situation, however, the EU is caught in between.

[1]. Duke, S. (January 2008). The Lisbon Treaty and External Relations. EIPASCOPE, p. 13-18.
[2]. Keil, Kathrin (October 2012). The EU as a Prospective Permanent Observer to the Arctic Council: Footholds, Virtues, Concerns and Obstacles (Part 1).
[3]. European Commission. (11. November 2008). The European Union and the Arctic Region. Retrieved 5. March 2010 from Communcation from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council:
[4]. EurActiv. (14. May 2009). EU-Russia summit to focus on 'hard security'. Retrieved 3. June 2010 from EurActiv news article:
[5]. European Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. (26. June 2012). Developing a European Union Policy towards the Arctic Region: progress since 2008. Brussels.
[6]. European Commission. (11. November 2008). The European Union and the Arctic Region. Retrieved 5. March 2010 from Communcation from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council:
[7]. CBC News. (29. April 2009). Canada against EU entry to Arctic Council because of seal trade ban.
[9]. Arctic Council. (15. May 2013). Kiruna Declaration.
[10]. European Commission. (15. May 2013). Joint Statement by HR/VP Catherine Ashton and EU Commissioner Maria Damanaki regarding Arctic Council decision on EU's observer status 
Pedersen, Torbjørn. (15. May 2013). Arktisk Råd åpner dørene for Kina.