Towards an Active Role for the EU in the Arctic?

This excerpt is part of the journal article “The European Union’s Gateways to the Arctic”, which was published in European Foreign Affairs Review 19, no. 1 (2014), pages 101–120. The full article, which is available only via subscription, can be downloaded here.

By Kathrin Keil and Andreas Raspotnik The European Union (EU) is increasingly depicted as an actor with a growing interest towards the Arctic region. In order to shed light on the various possibilities for the EU’s involvement in Arctic affairs, the article aims to have a close look at potential EU ‘gateways’ to the Arctic, subdivided into geographical-institutional and policy links, and their logical interaction. The former aspect looks at the historical, institutional, and legal links between the EU and the three Arctic actors Norway, Iceland, and Greenland. The latter examines concrete steps of cooperation between the EU and these countries in selected, Arctic-relevant policy areas. These include the challenges of environmental protection in general and climate change and sustainable development in particular, and the possibilities of benefitting from newly available Arctic resources such as oil and gas, shipping routes and fishing grounds.

The article highlights different ways of explaining EU interest in the Arctic. One resorts to geo-strategic reasoning, pointing to the EU’s aim to increase or extend its influence and (normative) power to new, emerging regions like the Arctic, which may be of strategic importance in the future, and its grip on important commodities like energy and fish resources. Another, more geo-economicand institutional view, is that the EU reacts to processes of interdependence and globalization, which is especially prevalent in the area of climate change and resources, and aims to pursue its interest though involvement in relevant institutions. Finally, one could argue that the EU has a different understanding or conceptual narrative about the Arctic region. Instead of viewing the Arctic as not more than the sum of national, territorially fragmented nation-states, the EU sees a complex region with effects on the entire planet and demands common and cooperative responses due to shared responsibilities, which could be described as a geo-ecological viewpoint. The combination of the EU’s undoubtedly strong institutional capacities, the weight of its policy competences, its economic power and environmental effect on the region, and its political ties with Arctic states, point to a mix of geo-economic and geo-ecological footholds as the most promising approach to pursue its aim to become a relevant actor in the Arctic.

The article concludes that while the broad reasoning for EU involvement in the Arctic appears conclusive, the concrete approach the EU has taken so far to substantiate its Arctic role is rather elusive. Most importantly, it remains open why an overarching EU-Arctic Policy is necessary in order to substantiate the EU’s policy aims in the Arctic, especially against the background of the strong bilateral and regional ties that the Union already has with various Arctic states. It would seem more appropriate to speak of single EU-Arctic policies. But also here the question remains why a new and overarching EU-Arctic approach is at all necessary and why the existent bilateral and multilateral cooperation agreements with their foci on energy, sustainable development, climate change, environmental protection, transport or infrastructure should not rather be further developed to include an Arctic dimension where appropriate and where this has not happened yet.