The Arctic is a vast area covering more than a sixth of Earth’s inland, covering all 24 time zones and over 30 million square kilometres. Most of the Arctic is a vast 14 million square kilometre ocean surrounded by treeless permafrost. The Arctic is a truly unique, yet vulnerable region.
There are now approximately 4 million people living permanently in the Arctic, including over 30 indigenous nations. The Arctic region includes the northern territories of the eight Arctic states- the United States (Alaska), Iceland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland (a territory of Denmark) and the Russian Federation. Five of the Arctic states are members of the European Economic Area (EEA), three of which are also Member States of the EU.
All eight states are members of an institution known as the Arctic Council (AC), founded in 1996. It is a high-level intergovernmental forum, and while not a law-making or resource-distributing body, the AC has produced important analyses and recommendations on environment protection, resource management and guidelines for shipping among others.
The Arctic region is still not regulated by multilateral agreements, because it was never considered that it would become a navigable waterway or that the region would be exploited for business purposes. However, today it can be said that the Arctic region’s geopolitical and strategic importance is growing. This is symbolised by the planting of a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole in August 2007.
Although scientists are still arguing over exactly how fast the Arctic’s ice will melt, one thing is clear- the effects of climate change are impacting the region more than anywhere else in the world. Arctic average temperature has risen by twice the global average rise in the past 50 years. The old, thick, permanent ice cap is retreating. In 2007, for the first time in modern history, the deeper-water, northern, more direct route opened for navigation by non-icebreaking vessels.
Such impacts threaten to destroy the already rapidly changing and fragile ecosystem network. The situation with a retreating icecap is perhaps the most worrying, as it affects directly the natural habitat of the region, e.g. posing problems for polar bears’ feeding habits.
Arctic is economically attractive for the AC member states in four main aspects:
- the exploitation of newly accessible oil and gas deposits (and maybe other minerals)
- Transit shipping
In November 2008, the European Commission adopted a document (“The European Union and the Arctic Region”). In addition to setting out EU interests and policy objectives in the region, the text also proposes measures and suggestions for EU Member States and EU institutions to respond to the challenges. It is the first step towards an EU-Arctic policy. EU’s main policy objectives are as follows:
- Protecting and preserving the Arctic in unison with its population;
- Promoting sustainable use of resources;
- Contributing to enhanced Arctic multilateral governance.
The Iceland’s EU accession negotiations are currently on. As EU’s presence in the AC would increase with Iceland becoming a Member State of the EU, it is a strategically great chance to play a more active and constructive role in the Arctic region, also contributing to the multilateral governance. It could also help to solve collective environmental problems and increase EU’s interest for the Arctic and for its protection on both regional and international levels.
For more information, please read:
EU Maritime Affairs: “The EU and the Arctic region – Overview”
“European Parliament resolution of 9 October 2008 on Arctic governance” (PDF)
Europa: “The Arctic merits the European Union’s attention – first step towards an EU Arctic Policy”
Arctic Council homepage