HNN-Analysis: Is the EU eventually “integrating” the Arctic?

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EC, photographed at the press conference on the conclusions earlier today. (Press photo: European Commission)
Today, almost 4 years after their last policy update on Arctic matters, the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) have published their new Joint Communication. - What is the next step on the EU’s way up north, High North News asks in this analysis.

Almost 4 years after their last policy update on Arctic matters, the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) have published their new Joint Communication on Wednesday, 27 April 2016.

Entitled “An Integrated European Union policy for the Arctic”, this policy initiative represents the next, and already eighth step of the various EUropean institutions to eventually create an overarching EUropean policy for the Arctic – an Arctic approach that aims to basically merge the different voices coming from the Commission, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

Anything new to be found in the new Communication?

In the words for the Joint Communication, this update “sets outs the case for an EU policy that focuses on advancing international cooperation in responding to climate change on the Arctic’s fragile environment, and on promoting and contributing to sustainable development, particularly in the European part of the Arctic.”

Built on the previous Communications from the Commission/HR in 2008 and 2012, the new Joint Communication proposes three priority areas that needs to be tackled by the European Union:

  • Climate Change and Safeguarding the Arctic Environment
  • Sustainable Development in and around the Arctic
  • International Cooperation on Arctic Issues

At first glance, the policy initiative does not come with many surprises. The Arctic Eight hold the primary regional key (= “have primary responsibility”) to tackle the various climatic, environmental, social, human and economic challenges “within their territories”. However, with the Arctic region essentially being embedded in the global system, changes in the Arctic affect its outside and vice versa. Hence, and based on a multitude of various responsibilities (the so-called often framed EU Arctic footprints), the Commission/HR hold the opinion that “many of the issues affecting the Arctic (…) can be more effectively addressed through regional and multilateral cooperation”.

This particular perspective on multilateral Arctic cooperation is basically same of the Arctic old, although over the last eight years, the Commission’s/HR’s voice changed from “enhancing governance” to “foster international cooperation” with the European Union being part of that cooperative environment. Thus, the Joint Communication (again) places particular emphasis on the EU’s recognition of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), its active participation in the Arctic Council and the support of regional and sub-regional cooperation frameworks, such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council.

From climate change to Arctic research

References to the undeniable global effects of regional climate change (= “feedback loops are turning the Arctic into a contributor to climate change”) serve as linguistic umbrella for intensified and integrated EU Arctic engagement. Eventually, “the EU has a duty to protect the Arctic environment and strengthen ecosystem resilience”; an astonishing statement that reveals a lot about the Union’s self-perception of allegedly being a global key actor concerning climate change and environmental protection.

With climate change being the component of why the EU should be engaged in Arctic matters, research, science and innovation are considered the key component of how the EU aims to create regional credibility. Thus, science is not only considered as “catalyst to support a common understanding” that enables joint/international solutions for regional problems but basically also characterises the perceived connecting factors (= financial incentives) between the Arctic states and the EU. Accordingly, the Joint Communication puts considerable emphasis – similar to its two predecessors – on the Union’s (financial) contributions to Arctic research. Additionally, emphasis has also been drawn to support Arctic research via the EU’s space programmes (e.g. Copernicus) and the Union’s aim to promote and facilitate transnational access to research infrastructure and open data resources.

These references to climate change and research as the why and how do not come with a surprise. The striking parts in the Joint Communication eventually relate to a stronger (geographical) focus on the European Arctic.

Developing the European Arctic

An enhanced focus on questions related to the European Arctic (and actually referred to as “European parts of the Arctic”) is a key feature of the revamped EU Arctic policy. The European Arctic constitutes the part of the Arctic where the EU is a key actor rather than a secondary participant as it is often the case in circumpolar/Arctic Ocean affairs. The focus of the new Communication as regards the European Arctic is predominantly economic, although wrapped in the traditional “sustainable development” vocabulary. This essentially matches the “jobs, growth and investment” doctrine of the current Juncker Commission. Hence, three issues stand out: innovations, investments and the coordination of EU funding.

As the outlook for large scale resource, transport and industrial developments in the Arctic became less optimistic, the actors in the European North started to shift their attention to other economic sectors. The EU follows suit. The focus is now on innovation, renewable energy, bioeconomy, circular economy, communication technologies, cold climate technologies, entrepreneurship and the central role of small and medium enterprises. Nonetheless, Europe’s northernmost regions face challenges related to peripherality. Better North-South connections are to be a part of the response, but no clear promises are made. Instead, the EU asks regional actors to rely on the EU investment loans. This may not be unproblematic, as regional actors are concerned that the resources in the EU’s regional policy will move from current programmes to investment funding.

The second key output of the new Communication are mechanisms to bring together various programmes operating in the European North. A temporary ‘European Arctic Stakeholder Forum’ tasked with helping the EU to identify “key investment and research priorities” will be established, composed of representatives from EU institutions, member states, regional and local authorities. In addition, a network of managing authorities from regional development programmes and an annual Arctic stakeholder conference are envisaged, complementary to the Stakeholder Forum. Yet, it remains unclear on how the work of the new forum relates to the EU-Polarnet project, which is currently developing European science policy, also based on stakeholder consultations. 

And what remains of the new Joint Communication?

Four years after its last policy initiative, the Commission and the HR have now published their next update on a EUropean policy for the Arctic region. Maybe in nuances the Joint Communication provides a new insight on the EU’s approach towards its Northern frontier and beyond. However, in general the update continues to tell the same Arctic story, perhaps with the exception for enhanced focused on the European Arctic and its economic development. One should not deny the EU having an alleged interest in the region, yet it remains difficult to grasp for Brussels-outsiders. Hence, one keeps on asking: what is the next step on the EU’s way up north?

This analysis is written by HNN-journalist Andreas Raspotnik, who is also a Senior Analyst at The Arctic Institute, and Adam Stępień, Researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland.