EU officials are maintaining the pressure for a coherent Arctic policy, with the negative effects of climate change and the region's abundant natural resources continuing to attract international attention. But Europe's drive for influence in the north has suffered a number of recent setbacks, with the bloc still searching for a way to make its voice heard.
Niels Berthelsen is the captain of a small touristic boat that takes visitors to the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk up the nearby Godthabs fiord, weaving between blue icebergs, seals and humpback whales, en route to see the fiord’s slowly retreating glacier.
Along the way, a small number of onshore containers mark the spot where iron from the yet-to-be-developed Isua Project will be loaded onto ships next summer when mining is expected to get underway.
- We couldn’t see the iron before because it was covered in ice, says Berthelsen, underlining why a growing list of international actors are paying increasing attention to Greenland and the Arctic region in general.
Scientists say climate change is having a much faster effect in the region than in other parts of the globe, with melting ice threatening a host of endemic wildlife such as the iconic polar bear, but also opening up new opportunities for the world’s increasingly resource-hungry human population.
The European Union is among the list of actors vying to secure influence in the region, but efforts to formulate a coherent strategy have not been smooth.
The Union’s bid to gain ‘observer status’ within the increasingly influential Arctic Council suffered a setback in May, with a new set of criteria meaning applicants may now have to wait a further two years before being accepted or rejected.
Adding to the bitter pill, a legally binding agreement on maritime search and rescue, plus the attendance of US foreign secretary Hillary Clinton at the council’s May meeting in Nuuk served to underline the forum’s growing decision-making role in the region.
At the same time, the publication of a key European Commission policy paper on the Arctic has been kicked back several months to this autumn, while the European external action service (EEAS) is still finding its feet among the other Brussels-based institutions.
The Arctic region is among the topics to be covered by the EU’s new diplomatic corps in the future, but privately officials concede the new body is still primarily focused on internal capacity building.
Conscious that climate change is rapidly taking its toll on the Arctic, MEPs adopted a report in December that underlined the need for a coherent policy towards the region, despite the EU’s lack of an Arctic coastline.
Drafted by German centre-right MEP Michael Gahler, the document noted: “Europe does not only bear a certain responsibility, being one of the main contributors to pollution and green house gas emissions, but also has a particular interest in the Arctic.”
- It will have to deal with the consequences of the changes taking place there, from environmental and climate change issues to the geopolitics of shipping routes and security of supply of resources.
The document continued that as a “frontrunner in research and in environmental and climate change policies”, the EU has an important role in fighting climate change, while it can ill afford to ignore the Arctic’s increasingly-accessible supply of oil and gas, minerals and fish stocks.
But progress could be better feel a number of Gahler’s colleagues, with the EU at times suffering from a negative image in Arctic states, not least because of the bloc’s recent ban on seal product imports.
- We were well on route to developing a coherent Arctic Policy but it is very disappointing that the commission has delayed its communication on the subject, says Liberal MEP Diana Wallis, parliament’s vice-president with responsibility for the Arctic.
- There are people waiting to work in an EU-Arctic information office, but the commission doesn’t seem capable of answering questions about how it will operate and be funded.
Proposed by Finland, the information office is one of the issues to be addressed in the commission’s forthcoming communication.
It is seen as one way to improve the flow of information between Brussels decision-makers and leading figures in the Arctic, although a number of other channels also exist.
Among them is the Nordic Council of Ministers, an intergovernmental body established in 1971, counting Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway amongst its members.
The autonomous territories of Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Aland also play an increasingly active role in the alliance.
- The Nordic Council of Ministers has been helpful at facilitating meetings in the past, its another way the EU can relate to the more European parts of the Arctic, says Wallis.
- At the same time, there is this incredible meeting of powers within the Arctic Council, including the US and Russia. It is a shame if the EU can not talk to these states.
Steffen Weber, secretary general of the EU-ARCTIC-Forum, a cross-party platform for Arctic discussion within the European Parliament, largely agrees.
- The Nordic Council has played a key role in the past. But it also includes states outside the EU which is a limiting factor, he says.
Meanwhile, development in the Arctic continues to push ahead, with Greenlandic politicians among those stressing their right to exploit the region’s natural resources that include rare earths.
Recently drawn to international attention following a series of Chinese export restrictions, rare earths are key components in many electrical products, with a recent EU raw materials communication stressing the need to secure security of supply.
For her part, Pauline, a retired school-teacher who now runs a B&B in Nuuk, rejects any notion that Greenlandic development should be restricted in a bid to prevent further environmental decline.
After a period of struggling to find a job, her daughter recently received a work cooking for the team preparing the Isua Project iron mine up the Godthabs fiord.
- We didn’t create climate change, it came from outside,” she says.
- Our island has a well-developed renewable energy sector, and good jobs are key if we are to prevent young Greenlanders from emigrating.”
The message has not gone unnoticed in Brussels, where policymakers are quick to stress their support for indigenous Arctic populations and their right to develop. But whether Arctic states are willing to afford EU institutions a greater say in the affairs of their region remains to be seen however.