To Svalbard and Beyond – The European Parliament is Back on its Arctic Track

To Svalbard and Beyond – The European Parliament is Back on its Arctic Track

Three years after the European Parliament’s (EP) last resolution on Arctic issues[1], the European Union’s (EU) parliamentary institution has adopted yet another non-binding resolution dealing with the EU’s northern neighbourhood in its plenary session on Wednesday, March 12th.
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Photo: EU Parliament
In the resolution, contentious issues like Svalbard’s Fisheries Protection Zone (FPZ) (see our previous article) are weeded out, and the main point seems to reiterate that the EP is – and should be – taken into account when discussing EU-Arctic matters and creating a respective policy. The Joint Communication by the European Commission (‘Commission’) and the European External Action Service (EEAS) from June 2012[2] was generally well received, and therefore one can wonder why the EP is issuing a third resolution on Arctic matters just before the upcoming elections?

The resolution on an “EU strategy for the Arctic”[3] followed a plenary debate held on April 17th, 2013. After rejecting a motion for a resolution[4] submitted by the Greens/European Free Alliance Group, the EP accepted, and slightly amended, a joint motion for a resolution[5] by the Group of the European People’s Party (EPP), the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialist & Democrats (S&D), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). In the rather complex EU policy-making process, the EP uses a non-binding resolution in order to promote the institution’s own view and perspective on, for example, a certain foreign policy agenda. An EP resolution is subject to a simple majority and is neither a proper legislative European act nor a simple EP policy paper.

No Rapid Movement
When scrutinizing the EU institution’s policy output, it is necessary to distinguish between the EU’s different voices and its actual legal impact. The EU’s long (official) Arctic journey started in October 2008 with an EP resolution on “Arctic governance”,[6]and the next step may be a Council conclusion issued by the Member States scheduled for May 2014. Although both the EP and the Commission have been considerably Arctic-active, Member States lack a certain interest to put the Arctic on the EU policy table.

Despite this disinterest, some progress has been made. The EP adopted its second resolution in 2011; rather unwieldy titled “A sustainable EU policy for the High North”, it was mainly concerned with stressing the EU’s interests and rights in the Arctic (and its governance structures) by highlighting the EP’s recognition of the Arctic Council (AC) as the legitimate forum for Arctic cooperation. It was the EP’s attempt to straighten up the mess caused by the first resolution in 2008. This relates specifically to a proposed Arctic Treaty, similar to the Antarctic Treaty System, and based on (the EP position of) a supposed vacuum in Arctic governance – the Arctic being “not governed by any specifically formulated multilateral norms and regulations”. It goes without saying that this approach was not very well perceived by some of the Arctic states.

Fluffy terminology
The title of the 2011 resolution can be described as bulky, as both “sustainable” and “High North” are terms extensively used in European Arctic debates, albeit without explicitly scrutinizing its meaning. Terms such as “geopolitics” or “geostrategic importance”, for example, are similarly vague. Almost every international matter of perceived importance has a geopolitical significance to it; yet the meaning and implications of these terms are rarely well defined. “Sustainable development” has become an obligatory imperative when publically and politically discussing the future of the Arctic region, regardless of the vagueness or even triviality of the concept. How does one actually measure the sustainable development of the Arctic?

The “High North”, on the other hand, is an explicitly framed and constructed term by the Norwegian government in order to create an at least Norwegian internal Northern/Arctic awareness, and consequently legitimize future economic development of the region.[7] Arguably, the EP’s usage of both terms in its 2011 resolution’s title indicates awareness of delicate Arctic-related matters and a certain affinity for especially relevant partners. Regardless of the title, the resolution definitely indicates a shift in the EP’s Arctic perception, mainly based on an increased gain of Arctic-related knowledge developed in the EU’s corridors in Brussels and influenced by many different incidents between 2008 and 2011.

Nuancing and differentiating
The 2014 March resolution now adopted in plenary seems to indicate no great alteration in the EP’s policy-approach to the Arctic. It lists numerous aspects that need to be included as the Commission develops the “strategy” further, while it also encourages the Commission to prioritise Arctic policy development to a greater extent than what has been the case in recent years. It seems, however, worth noting that the EP returns to “strategy”, a term perceived rather sceptically by Commission and EEAS officials. The United Kingdom, for instance, did not develop a UK Arctic strategy per se, but an Arctic policy framework, as it is argued that a strategy can only be developed for an area the actor can exercise some kind of control.[8] Regardless of this terminological word play, the EP insistently refers to the EU’s need to ensure legitimacy and local support for its very own Arctic engagement. Additionally the EP “regrets the effects which the EU regulation relating to the ban on seal products has produced (…) in particular for indigenous culture and livelihood”. It will be worth observing if such a statement, irrespective of the resolution’s legally non-binding character, has a positive influence on the Arctic relationship between the EU and one particular Arctic state.

Looking at the different motions from the party groups, some other interesting points stand out. The Greens are, as always, suggesting a moratorium and expresses concern over the so-called “militarisation” of the region. Wisely enough, at least from a general EP point of view, the other party groups have not taken these opinions into the final resolution. The EPP group seems to be particularly harsh with regards to the EEAS and their role as the coordinating authority for the EU’s Arctic policy development.[9] ALDE, on the other hand, calls for increased focus on the European Arctic – a proposal worth considering. As previously argued by The Arctic Institute, an EU Arctic policy should first and foremost be focused on its own Arctic areas, equivalent to what other Arctic states do in their policies, before it tries to meddle in larger circumpolar affairs.

Nevertheless, neither argument was (explicitly) part of the joint motion or the final resolution. However, the EP seems to now finally recognize that “the regions of the Arctic differ substantially” from each other, which is especially relevant to the ongoing international debate over whether Arctic resources, depending on their actual location, should be exploited or not. In that regard, the EP’s new resolution focuses specifically on the various economic opportunities the Arctic holds and related chances for European businesses. Consequently, Michael Gahler, the EP’s rapporteur for the 2011 resolution, emphasizes the EU’s need to “stake its claims”, especially in order to distinguish itself from the increasingly announced Arctic-related interests by Asian states.[10]

Greenpeace also received the resolution positively, indicating an apparent call by the EP to establish a sanctuary in the High Seas area around the North Pole.[11] However, it has to be doubted that the stated backing of the EP to support “the development of a network of Arctic conservation areas and (…) the protection of the international sea area around the North Pole” equals the perception advocated by Greenpeace. In a similar way, a commentary published in the Arctic Journal even falsely referred to an EP push regarding a moratorium on industrial exploitation for the Arctic Ocean.[12] There may be different ways to interpret legislative acts, policy papers or regarding opinions. However, the current EP resolution focuses on economic and industrial activity, in tandem with a “sustainable approach”, which contradicts the highlighted focus by Greenpeace on preservation and protection only.

The main point of the resolution seems to just reiterate the importance of the EP in the EU-Arctic policy-making process. As the Council’s conclusions are scheduled for May, individuals in the EP undoubtedly want to make sure that the EP’s consultative role is not forgotten on this particular issue. Additionally, as with the Svalbard discussion taking place in the previous plenary, many of the MEPs engaged in the issue have constituencies to answer to in the upcoming European election and can use their Arctic engagement to brand everything from environmental consciousness (the Greens) to local and regional development (Swedish/Finnish MEPs). Whether or not the Arctic is an issue that will help improve a relatively low EP-elections turnout, however, is debatable. At least the resolution keeps the Arctic in focus in Brussels – albeit without a clear end-goal in sight.

[1] European Parliament resolution of 20 January 2011 on a sustainable EU policy for the High North (2009/2214(INI))
[2] Joint Communication on “Developing a European Union Policy towards the Arctic Region: progress since 2008 and next steps”, JOIN(2012) 19 final. The communication was analyzed by The Arctic Institute on July 5, 2012.
[3] European Parliament resolution of 12 March 2014 on the EU strategy for the Arctic (2013/2595(RSP))
[6] European Parliament resolution of 9 October 2008 on Arctic governance
[7] For an interesting read seeLeif Christian Jensen (2012). Norway on a High in the North: a discourse analysis of policy framing, Doctoral Thesis, University of Tromsø
[8] As stated by Jane Rumble, Head of Polar Regions Department, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the Arctic Frontiers conference 2014 in Tromsø (Norway). However, the actual difference of strategyand policy framework can be brought into question.
[10] EEP Group in the European Parliament Press Release, 13 March 2014:
[11] Neil Hamilton (Greenpeace): The European Parliament backs our vision for an Arctic sanctuary, published March 12, 2014 on
[12] Kevin McGwin: EU pushes Arctic sanctuary, in Arctic Journal, published March 13, 2014