Polar Power Plays: Is the EU’s Arctic Policy Still Relevant?

Fiona De Cuyper
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Polar bears walking on snow.
Credit: Thurya Silva

In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev termed the Arctic as “the pole of peace.” This has held mostly true for the past thirty-five years, but recent events have shown that the Arctic is increasingly becoming a geopolitical chessboard. A growing number of countries have expressed interest in the region, most notably China, which considers itself a “near-Arctic state,” a term that China explains as constituting “one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle.” This interest stems from the Arctic’s strategic location and thinning ice – the circumpolar shipping routes are significantly shorter and faster than traditional routes – as well as its vast energy resources. 

The Arctic harbors 30% of global undiscovered gas reserves and 13% of undiscovered oil, amounting to 22% of the unexplored natural resources of our planet. In addition, the region is the fastest way to deliver missiles from the United States to Europe. All this goes to show that this area plays a strategically important role in geopolitics.

The EU published its updated Arctic strategy on October 13, 2021. Since then, we have witnessed the unfolding of the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, the increasingly visible effects of climate change, the growing presence of Russia and China in the Arctic, and the announcement of Finland and Sweden joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), rendering all but one of the Arctic Eight – the eight countries bordering the region – members of NATO. Nevertheless, the EU has not formally revised its circumpolar strategy accordingly. Building on this, this article provides a closer analysis of the EU’s regional policy in light of current challenges and poses some questions for future reflection.

The EU’s Arctic policy and its key challenges

Map of the Arctic region with the stars of the European flag around the region.
The EU in the Arctic. Source: The Arctic Institute

As mentioned by the EEAS, the EU’s Arctic policy:

“aims to help preserve the Arctic as a region of peaceful cooperation, to slow the effects of climate change, and to support the sustainable development of Arctic regions to the benefit of Arctic communities, not least Indigenous Peoples, and future generations.” 

This statement also highlights the main priorities for the EU in the Arctic: preserving peaceful cooperation, slowing down climate change, and supporting sustainable development. The European Green Deal constitutes the core of the EU’s Arctic aspirations, paired with the EU’s sustainable blue economy plans. The EU thus harbors predominantly soft power priorities centred around the climate and the environment and the Union does not mention anything about a possible strategic presence. The furthest the 2021 Joint Communication goes on this topic is to state that it will develop “strategic foresight on emerging security challenges.” These and all other mentions of the word ‘security’ are in the context of climate concerns and the monitoring thereof and remain rather general.

Climate change continues to be the most pressing challenge in the Arctic region as the repercussions of global warming are most visible in the circumpolar region. The strong climate focus of the EU’s Arctic policy is therefore highly timely. However, the war in Ukraine is increasingly posing more and more challenges to engagement in the Arctic region. The economic consequences of the war are, for example, impacting the progress and priority position of the Green Deal, as well as the EU’s imports of minerals and energy. The EU is mainly occupied with resolving its internal challenges for the time being as it needs to send a clear signal to its citizens that their well-being prevails over the Union’s geopolitical aspirations. If it fails to do so, it would only further fuel Euroscepticism and the rise of populist governments within member states.

In addition, Russia has been excluded from key collaborative infrastructure in the Arctic, such as the Arctic Council, bringing about a deadlock in circumpolar cooperation. This can, in turn, undermine the Union’s activities including maritime research, data collection and monitoring of the climate in the region, as data on a significant part of the Arctic would be omitted.

Another key pillar of the Union’s Arctic policy is international cooperation, meaning that the EU’s circumpolar engagement has also been key in the cultivation of its relations with Russia and increasingly also with China. It allowed for peaceful cooperation on various aspects, such as people-to-people interactions with Indigenous peoples and businesses as well as scientific cooperation. These joint EU-Russian efforts have now come to a standstill and there are no prospects of a revival in the near future.

The EU as a future-proof circumpolar player

Map of the Arctic region with different pawns in different colours, representing the different interested actors in the region.
The circumpolar region as a geopolitical chessboard. Source: European Policy Centre.

The EU is undoubtedly an Arctic player as several of its member states, and close allies, are part of the Arctic Eight and it has economic association agreements with others including Norway and Iceland. Hence, its approach should reflect this. In light of current challenges, it can be concluded that the EU’s Arctic policy is relatively underdeveloped and predominantly one-sided. In the EU’s Strategic Compass, published on March 21, 2022, almost one month after the invasion of Ukraine, there are only three references to the Arctic, centered around global warming, maritime security, and environmental challenges. It is striking that the EU did not include more outspoken aspirations for its Arctic engagement on a strategic level. In a similar vein, the EU has not yet formally amended its Arctic policy to reflect the current geopolitical climate in the region. Nevertheless, in September 2022, the EU appointed a Special Envoy for regional matters with the following purpose:

“to drive forward the EU’s Arctic policy, enhance cooperation with partner countries and other interested parties, improve coordination between the different EU institutions, mainstream Arctic issues in policy-making, and promote and publicise the EU’s Arctic engagement externally.” 

EEAS.

This is an important development as due to the standstill of Arctic cooperation between Russia and the West, the role of the EU in the region could become ever more important in the context of closer cooperation between the Western Arctic states.

The EU is predominantly a soft power in the region. Hence, it should not pursue hard military objectives in the Arctic as it simply does not possess these capabilities. This should be left to NATO. Rather, the EU could channel its existing instruments to bolster a stronger yet peaceful Arctic presence. For example, it could include a more outspoken Arctic dimension under the banner of its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). This could also entail a specific budget for regional engagement under the European Defence Fund, which supports “research and development of state-of-the-art and interoperable defense and technology equipment.” This would allow the EU to preserve its soft-power orientation without sparking too much debate among the Member States, and still getting more involved with the strategic side of the coin.

Overall, many of the Union’s Arctic policy objectives remain pertinent in light of current challenges. However, its strategy could be supplemented by adding another dimension to better reflect current realities as this would allow the EU to better prepare itself in case tensions in the region start to rise further. Nevertheless, it could also be possible that the EU is currently keeping a limited profile in the region to not further upset Russia. Seven of the eight Arctic countries are now part of NATO and if the EU – home to several circumpolar countries and close partner of the United States and Canada – would also start to play a bigger strategic role in the region, this could further deepen the divide between the two sides and increase tensions which would also affect Indigenous Peoples living across the Western and Russian parts of the Arctic.

By means of emphasizing climate action, the EU could provide fertile ground to restart some form of peaceful Arctic cooperation, and this prospect could be endangered if the EU were to take on a more strategic role. In addition, by emphasizing climate change and peaceful cooperation, the Union might try to counterbalance the narrative of the increasing militarization of the circumpolar region. Nevertheless, the EU should beware of not losing track of the region now that it is increasingly diverting resources towards Eastern Europe. It thus remains to be seen whether and how the EU will adapt its circumpolar presence in the near future.

  • Will the EU publish an amended or updated version of its Arctic policy and will it expand its engagement to go beyond green and climate engagement?
  • To what extent is the EU’s limited engagement in the region part of its wider strategy?
  • Could a potential conflict erupt in the circumpolar area in the near future?

Suggested Readings

Ciolan, I. “The EU’s geopolitical awakening in the Arctic.” European Policy Centre, 2022, April 11.

Mayet, L. “EU sets new course for the Arctic.” Fondation Robert Schumann, 2021, November 22.

Raspotnik, A. & Østhagen, A. “The End of an Exceptional History: Re-Thinking the EU-Russia Arctic Relationship.” E-International Relations, 2022, March 23.


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Polar Power Plays: Is the…

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