The EU pledges to actively follow-up on its Arctic commitments

Foreign Affairs Ministers of EU Member States met in Luxembourg yesterday to discuss the Arctic. (Photo Credit: The European Union, 3477th Foreign Affairs Council)
The Arctic remains high on the European Union’s foreign policy agenda after the Council of the European Union – the EU institution that represents the governments of the EU’s Member States – adopted its new Conclusions on the Arctic on Monday, 20 June 2016.

The Arctic remains high on the European Union’s foreign policy agenda after the Council of the European Union – the EU institution that represents the governments of the EU’s Member States – adopted its new Conclusions on the Arctic on Monday, 20 June 2016.

Almost two months after the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy published their Joint Communication on an integrated European Union policy for the Arctic (JOIN(2016) 21 final), the Council followed suit by expressing and re-stating its views on Arctic matters.

Such a quick reaction to a Communication is unprecedented in the history of the EU’s Arctic policy-making.

Third reflection on the Arctic

After related considerations in 2009 and 2014, the 2016 Conclusions are the third reflection of the Council on the Arctic region ever since the Union has become interested in the circumpolar North back in 2007/2008. In general, Council Conclusions express the unanimous political position of the EU’s Member States on a specific topic, country or event and often invite the Commission to make a proposal or take further action.

In 2014, the Council asked the Commission and the HR to develop an integrated policy on Arctic matters – a more coherent framework for EU action and funding programmes. A request that was met with the aforementioned Joint Communication, on which in turn the Council now expressed its view. It is believed that the European Parliament (EP) will publish a new Resolution and its position on the Joint Communication in November/December 2016.

What is the Council saying?

All in all, the Council discussed the future direction of the Union’s Arctic policy with a view to set out a coherent response to the environmental, economic and social challenges of the region. Eventually, the EU’s overall aim is to enhance both socio-economic as well as environmental resilience in the Arctic region.

An “ambitious cross-spectrum and well-coordinated Arctic policy” is considered key to the Union’s regional engagement and “important from a foreign and security policy point of view”. Based on the Joint Communication, the Council re-recognises the “primary responsibility of the Arctic states”. However, at the same time it is clearly emphasised that many issues affecting the region can only “effectively [be] addressed through regional or multilateral cooperation” with the EU being able to “make a significant contribution”.

Indigenous and local communities

This ‘substantial EU-Arctic impact’ relates to the Union’s continuous engagement with Arctic indigenous peoples and local communities, its commitment to contribute to global climate change mitigation and adaption or the EU’s central role in supporting regional sustainable development, innovation and infrastructure. Additionally, the Council reiterates the Joint Communication’s emphasis on sustainable economic development, including tourism, low-carbon and cold-climate technologies and telecommunication in the Arctic.

It is assumed that strengthened trade and business cooperation could essentially contribute to socio-economic development and resilience of local communities.

Furthermore, the Council specifically addresses questions related to the Central Arctic Ocean. First, it highlights the participation of the EU in the dialogue concerning the prevention of unregulated fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. The negotiations commenced in December 2015 with a meeting in Washington, D.C., with also China, the EU, Iceland, Japan and South Korea being invited.
Secondly, the Conclusions also refer to the Union’s engagement in the work towards establishing marine protected areas.

Similarly to the Joint Communication, the Conclusions avoid taking up problematic topics such as extraction of raw materials and hydrocarbons, sealing and whaling. Further, the Conclusions do not answer the Joint Communication’s proposal of establishing a Working Party on Arctic matters and Northern Cooperation within the Council’s institutional structure. As a matter of fact, many Member States expressed limited added value of such a new institutional arrangement.

Is there anything new?

One of the more interesting statements included in the Conclusions is the “firm support for freedom of research in the Arctic region”. It is the first time that the “freedom of research” is clearly expressed in the Council or Commission’s Arctic policy documents. Interestingly, the Council repeats a position presented both in Germany’s 2013 Arctic policy Guidelines, where the Federal Government declares to be “working to guarantee the freedom of Arctic research”, as well as a similar Polish-inspired sentence in the 2014 European Parliament’s Resolution.

However, there is no such thing as freedom of conducting research within Arctic states’ territories, nor is it part of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty that regulates access to the Svalbard Archipelago. The right to conduct marine scientific research is pronounced by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but coastal states’ may – under certain conditions – not give consent for research activities within the states’ exclusive economic zones or on their continental shelves. Therefore, unless it is understood as a call for “academic freedom”, the phrasing included in the 2016 Council Conclusions may meet limited enthusiasm among some non-EU Arctic states.

Most likely, the “freedom of research” statement alludes to the agreement on scientific cooperation, currently being negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council. Depending on the final outcome of the negotiations, this legally binding agreement may apply exclusively to researchers and institutions of the eight Arctic states, with unclear consequences for scientific activities conducted by other actors.

How to fund and where to go?

Similarly to the 2014 Conclusions, the Council also particularly calls for greater cooperation between the EU institutions and its Member States as regards to research efforts. Accordingly, it has been highlighted that the level of EU Arctic-relevant research funding is to be maintained, perhaps also after 2020.

What may strike the alert reader’s attention is the vague reference to “balanced regional funding”, which will be read in the EU’s northernmost regions in the context of current, increasingly vigorous discussion on the structure of the EU’s cohesion and cross-border funding within the EU multiannual budget starting from 2021.

In comparison to the two previous Conclusions, the Council does not directly ask the Commission and the HR for any further (Arctic policy) action. This goes in line with recent statements from the Commission, indicating that the 2016 Joint Communication will be the last one for years and should actually guide EU action for some time.
Consequently, also the Council ‘only’ invites both the Commission and the HR to “actively implement and follow-up on the [Union’s Arctic] commitments and (…) report to the Council regularly”.

In general, the Council’s Arctic update ‘captivates’ through its vague and brief nature; this, however, depicts a general characteristic of Council Conclusions, also from an Arctic context. Especially in the circumpolar arena, the Union’s institutions have learnt the hard way that any bold EU Arctic appearance or statement can easily result in Arctic frustration.