Designing an Effective European Arctic Strategy

By Edward Mortimer

The International Relations and Security Network

The promise of new shipping routes and access to natural resources continues to attract external players to the Arctic. While states such as Singapore have successfully acquired permanent observer status in the Arctic Council (AC), the European Union (EU) has historically been far less successful in contributing to or securing a voice in Arctic governance. This problem is eroding away, however. All Brussels has to do is play to its strengths and continue focusing on ‘small target’ goals that can be achieved through existing political structures.

Past Failures

In the past, the EU struggled to find the right policy mix for the Arctic region. The European Parliament, which first stoked Brussels’ interest in the area, saw the Arctic as both resource-rich but also unstable – i.e., it suffered from multiple border disputes and weak intergovernmental cooperation. With a view to enhancing Arctic cooperation and stability, the European Parliament thus took it upon itself to propose a new system of governance based on the Antarctic Treaty. Unsurprisingly, the proposal was not well-received by the Arctic states, who saw it as a direct challenge to their sovereignty.  (The idea of shared custodianship over Arctic waters was especially irksome to Russia, who feared losing control of what it saw as its previously established offshore resources.)

What the EU failed to grasp was that the Arctic did not need, nor does it need, a new and improved regional architecture. That’s because the Arctic Council already has a proven track record for reducing regional tensions and maintaining stability. Each member state is, for example, committed to resolving boundary disputes using international law. They also understand that the Arctic’s future ultimately depends on coordinated technical and regulatory practices and activities. Indeed, AC members are already attempting to resolve these challenges and have thus far forged agreements to cope with marine oil pollution and coordinate search-and-rescue operations.


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