Nov 09, 2021

The EU’s New Strategic Arctic Policy

The EU’s policy on the Artic is evolving to become more action oriented, focusing on the region’s changing geopolitical dynamics, as well as the issue of climate change.

A view across Yoldiabukta Bay towards Spitsbergen island, part of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway, September 27, 2020. Picture taken September 27, 2020.
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“The European Union is in the Arctic.” This is not a geographic inaccuracy but the EU’s confident introduction to its most recent Arctic policy update, the joint communication on “A stronger EU engagement for a peaceful, sustainable, and prosperous Arctic.” The EU is no newcomer to the Arctic but rather has been actively communicating its Arctic ideas ever since 2008. Building on three preceding joint communications—in 2008, 2012, and 2016, in addition to multiple Arctic-focused documents issued by the European Council and the European Parliament—the EU’s 2021 policy statement retains the previous definition of the EU’s Arctic engagement. This includes climate and environment, developmental issues in the European Arctic, and international cooperation within and relevant for the region.

However, this year’s Arctic policy iteration was very much drafted within the context of the European Green Deal (EGD), as well as in light of the EU’s self-definition as a geopolitical actor, one that is also increasingly becoming more confident with regard to its place in the circumpolar North. As a result, the communication focuses in particular on the region’s changing geopolitical dynamics, as well as the access to minerals critical for low-carbon transition (e.g., rare earth elements, titanium, and nickel) and a halt to exploiting Arctic fossil fuels. In short, the EU has found a new Arctic language—a language that has moved away from rather passive regional involvement and toward the semantics of action-oriented future efforts of what the EU can and should do in the Arctic.

The Big Strategic Guns

While the 2021 joint communication tackles a broad spectrum of relevant regional aspects overall, broadly emphasizing the EU’s environmental and economic footprint in the Arctic, one feature stands out: The proposal to enhance the EU’s strategic foresight capabilities to better understand the security implications of the climatological changes in the Arctic region, and their impact on the global security environment. EU policymakers are about to bring out the big strategic guns, not only in the Arctic but as part of an overall ambition to integrate strategic foresight into EU policymaking. Here, strategic foresight describes the process of anticipating trends and risks, as well as their potential implications and opportunities, in order to draw insights for strategic planning, policymaking, and preparedness. Basically, it is about having an idea of the range of possibilities that may come next.

Yet, what does it mean in an Arctic context? How can the EU properly reflect upon and engage with the feasibility of anticipatory action for a region as complex and vague as “the Arctic”? So far, the strategic foresight efforts by the European Commission have presented various dimensions of resilience or discussed perspectives about the EU’s capacity and freedom to act. The Arctic was nowhere to be found; not even as a subordinate clause in light of global climate change discussions or with regard to the strategic importance of (European) Arctic resources for the European Union. But how can we understand the EU in the Arctic from a strategic perspective?

Resources and Climate Objectives

The EU influences the Arctic in many ways, with three aspects standing out: The EU’s demand for Arctic resources, its (decreasing) environmental footprint, and its supporting role in generating knowledge, solutions, and cooperative frameworks that are to address a variety of challenges troubling the circumpolar North. All three aspects are equally important for an EU-Arctic strategic foresight. The successful implementation of EGD policies could significantly affect the various pollutants reaching the Arctic from Europe. The EU’s support for research and Arctic-focused technological developments are likely areas where the EU will retain its position among key contributors. But what about Arctic resources and their relation to the EU’s overall climate objectives? There are different implications of the EU’s more active use of its market power. On the one hand, there is a clear emphasis on the need to keep all the as yet untapped Arctic fossil fuel resources in the ground. On the other hand, the EU will exert increased pressure when it comes to developing renewables in the European Arctic and extracting the minerals necessary for low carbon transition.

The new joint communication suggests that the EU intends to become bolder in using its market power to influence developments in the Arctic. Most EU policies and actions will exert this influence without any conscious intention to trigger change in the Arctic. While the European Green Deal does not discuss the Arctic at all, it has a distinct Arctic agenda with profound geopolitical but also Arctic consequences. Climate change is broadly considered the most important factor of Arctic change. With key elements of the EGD focusing on reducing Europe’s overall CO2 emissions, it is clear that part of the EU’s response to Arctic challenges is actually the EGD. The EU’s transitional agenda has, however, much broader implications for the EU-Arctic relationship, which will reflect the envisaged transformation of the EU’s economy. This relates in particular to the question of fossil fuels and critical minerals. Today, Russian gas and oil is essential for the EU’s energy mix with almost all the gas imported coming from Western Siberia.

The EU’s proposed aim not to import any Arctic fossil fuels coming from new exploitation could be the most visible sign of its conscious Arctic presence. While there are many other potential markets for Arctic hydrocarbons—especially China—the EU’s positioning will have some impact, for example, the European Investment Bank has already declared no financing for hydrocarbon projects. The EU’s approach may be the most consequential for the prospects of new natural gas exploitation, as until recently the natural gas was presented a transitional fuel.

The EU’s better access to critical minerals is an important element of its strategic autonomy and the Arctic regions hold many of the resources needed for low-carbon transition. Will Arctic communities experience increased pressure for mining developments, now justified rhetorically not only in terms of profit, jobs, and growth but essentially by the global climate emergency and Europe’s autonomous access to key resources? Similar challenges are linked to renewable energy projects in the European Arctic (which directly contribute to the EU energy mix), as wind energy in many places follows the history of Arctic hydropower. There are increasing concerns and tensions over environmental and social impacts, especially among the Sámi—a Nordic Indigenous People—with several recent cases of projects effectively halted due to their effects on Indigenous livelihoods and rights.

Conflicts and Tensions

The future of the Arctic, including the European Arctic, as presented in the new joint communication, would therefore appear to be a region that remains primarily a source of (in the future mainly renewable) energy and mineral resources—even if entrepreneurship, economic diversification, and innovation are stated as development objectives. This future is also one where tensions and conflicts over the use of the Arctic’s nature will continue to flare up

The EU influence in the region depends, however, on the EU’s position as a large market for Arctic resources. As the EU’s share of global trade, consumption, production, and GDP is gradually decreasing, its influence in the Arctic via its market power will also wane in the coming decades. Another issue to consider is the role of gas as a transitional fuel in the EU—will that still be a part of the EU’s energy framework in the coming decades, or will gas also become obsolete? It is also unclear whether European industries will be able to enhance or even retain their current position in low-carbon economy technologies. Maybe the EU will not consume as many critical minerals in the future as currently assumed?

The aspects and questions discussed will likely become part of any proper strategic insight studies focused on the EU-Arctic nexus, which is both complex and multidimensional. It will need to include questions related to environmental, socio-economic, and political changes in the Arctic, the evolution of relevant EU policies and EU impacts on the region, as well as the global economic and political environment, including the future of the EU as a supra-national polity.

Andreas Raspotnik is an Austrian Marshall Plan Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, and Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Lysaker, Norway.

Adam Stępień is a researcher at the Arctic Center of the  University of Lapland inRovaniemi, Finland.