A new Arctic Agenda for the EU

Up until now the Arctic has been at best peripheral to EU policies. When Denmark entered the European Community in 1973, Arctic areas were included in the Union for a while through the presence of Greenland. But as the Greenland Home Rule Government decided to withdraw from the EU in 1985 the Arctic policy was limited to OCT (Overseas Countries and Territories) agreements similar to the arrangements made with a number of former British, French and Dutch colonies. In the case of Greenland, EU fishing rights in Greenlandic waters were traded for monetary compensation and full market access for Greenlandic products to the European market.

The representatives from the EU and the Nordic Council of Ministers visit UNESCO World Heritage Centre of Ilulissat in West Greenland.  Photo: Rasmus Ole Rasmussen

The representatives from the EU and the Nordic Council of Ministers visit UNESCO World Heritage Centre of Ilulissat in West Greenland. Photo: Rasmus Ole Rasmussen

The enlargement of the EU to include Finland and Sweden in 1995 re-introduced the Arctic to the EU. Policy approaches initially complied with existing regional policies directed towards rural and mountainous areas. With the 1997 initiative regarding a Northern Dimension policy, aiming at providing a common framework for the promotion of dialogue, cooperation and sustainable development in northern Europe, and with the endorsement of the concept in 1999, the first steps towards a new policy paradigm were however, albeit tentatively, taken. The specific mode of relations to the Arctic was emphasized through the "Arctic Window of Opportunities" initiative presented by the Greenland's Prime Minister Jonathan Motzfeldt.

These initiatives, however, had little effect in relation to the real concerns of the Arctic. The Northern Dimension policies became quite successful, albeit focussing predominantly (given that Finland was the driving force) on North West Russia and the new neighbours in the North, and on other parts of the former Soviet Union, now separate countries bordering the EU, and with clear northern perspectives, but with limited relations, however, to the Arctic. So even while the Nordic members of the EU continued to maintain a focus on the Arctic Window the whole concept of the Arctic remained rather peripheral to policy makers in Brussels.

A recent combination of events, however, seems to have re-opened the Arctic issue as an active focus of European policies. In addition to the fact that Neighbourhood-policies, including the Northern Dimension, are up for renewable, the recognition of the possible geo-political consequences of the ongoing changes in climate, and the effects this may have in relation to accessibility to the Arctic region, seems to have become a driving force in respect of this changed approach to the Arctic.

Ilulissat 2008 - A turning point?

On September 9-10, 2008, a meeting was arranged by the Nordic Council of Ministers in Ilulissat, Greenland. Under the title, "Common concern for the Arctic", representatives from the EU were invited to discuss future initiatives in relation to the Arctic. The desire was to identify possible new directions for a new 'Arctic focus' within a newly re-launched Northern Dimension policy.

A new approach would be founded in a new Northern Dimension policy with emphasis on dialogue and cooperation, according to Commissioner Joe Borg, DG Fisheries. Moreover, it should be a policy open to development into a new dimension, both legally and practically. Questions in relation to the environment will still remain at the core of regional policy here with emphasis on protection measures which may contribute to safeguarding the delicate and sensitive Arctic environment.

In this connection it is recognized that the protection of ice-covered regions from the adverse effects of transport and large scale resource exploitation should be met by the establishment of a proper system of governance and be led by legislative measures, where the EU, together with the Nordic Countries, will be lead partners.

In line with this Laurent Stefanini, French ambassador for the Environment, emphasized that taking action – not only talking – would be important, and that action should be based on scientific measures and monitoring, for instance through such measures as the Interna-tional Polar Year initiative of SAON – Sustainable Arctic Observation Network – trying to establish common standards and open accessibility to data from the Arctic. As he emphasized, the activities should aim at addressing current problems, but should also include the political will to serve the Arctic in the future.

Even more interesting, seen from an Arctic perspective, was the direction emphasized by Dianna Wallis, vice president of the European Parliament. She pointed out that future action should be based on listening to the voices of the population living in the Arctic. Measures in the Arctic are not only environmental, technical and scientific, but recognizing the fact that the Arctic is inhabited. She suggested future activities should be based on partnership with the population in the circumpolar North.

The inhabited Arctic

One of the most important changes to previous attempts to formulate an Arctic policy is this recognition of the Arctic as being inhabited, and that proper measures should be taken to ensure a sustainable future for the Arctic people. The question, however, is how to turn the recognition of an obvious fact and good intentions into practical political measures?

When rights to resources and territories are up for grabs – and that might very well be the situation if and when the ice disappears in the Arctic Ocean, giving access to mineral and energy resources, new fishing opportunities, and new transportation routes – differences in perspectives, as seen from nation states and from the local communities in the North, emerge. Even if it has been emphasized time and time again by the stakeholders representing governments in the North that the international juridical framework created by "The Law of the Sea" already exists as a suitable vehicle for solving future disputes in the Arctic, others have emphasized that "The Law of the Sea" only recognizes states and not peoples as stakeholders, thus basically eliminating indigenous inhabitants of the north from becoming participants in the formulation of future policy for the region.

To ensure that the people of the North become stakeholders, the concept of subsidiarity – a well known concept in an EU setting, as it was introduced in the EU debate during the process of moving decision of power to the EU parliament during the 1980s and 1990s – has been brought forward as a starting point for future activities. The concept, em-phasizing the need to bring decisions closer to those affected by them, was raised in an Arctic setting in a keynote speech in connection with the Arctic Social Science Association's tri-annual congress in Nuuk in August 2008.

The keynote speach emphasized that the reality at the national level of reaching agreements which might violate the rights of peoples in the Arctic was inherent in the current situation. Classic notions of state sovereignty, therefore, cannot adequately address the issue of the sovereignty of peoples.

Instead, the principle of subsidiarity could provide a conceptual tool to mediate the polarity of pluralism and the common good in a globalized world by providing a tool to make sense of questions relating to the future management of the Arctic's resources. The keynote address stresses that there is an obvious need to ensure that the peoples of the Arctic, by means of regional arrangements, are granted a voice through the establishing of a comprehensive regime – as some have suggested, a constitutional contract – treating the Arctic as a distinct region in international society.

Exactly how this should be turned into practical political measures has not yet been fleshed out, and as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Though, ultimately, what is said in Ilulisaat and what is said in Brussels may differ this does not detract from the clear sense of honesty in the proposals presented in Ilulissat. Obviously current political intensions are much more to the point as compared to the previous measures taken. The EU now wants to be a serious player in the Arctic, and this is manifested in the development of an agenda that goes beyond "soft" issues such as scientific research and/or distant partnerships through the exchange of fish-resources for cash.
Clear intentions now seem to be emerging also in relation to "hot" issues such as geopolitics, environmental measures, security issues, and in-depth relations with the population in the Arctic. And in this endeavour they seem to be compliant with the intensions of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Arctic Council membership 'EBV'?

Using the Arctic Council for this purpose has been contemplated . The current status of the EU being acknowledged as an observer in the Arctic Council to a certain degree serves this purpose. Within the EU a discussion has already taken place in respect of the possibility of becoming a regular member of the council. But such an attempt would require a re-writing of the legal framework of the Council, and might be considered unacceptable by some of its members.

The Danish minister of Education and Nordic Cooperation, Bertel Haarder, has however suggested a rather innovative model which might be more acceptable, namely "Membership EBV" - membership including "Everything but Veto". This would enable the EU to become more active in outlining policy measures for Arctic cooperation, while the final decision would still remain with the original 8 founder-member Arctic states. Moreover, as emphasized by the minister, it is important to make proper use of all positive means available. The Arctic Council is unique in the sense that the indigenous peoples of the Circumpolar North are represented through their role as permanent members.

To what extent that might be acceptable needs testing among the current members, and pessimists maintain that it may not be considered acceptable for some. It should not, however, be a hindrance to commitments by the EU to produce further initiatives on the Arctic. Within the context of its current position as observer closer cooperation with the Arctic Council remains possible, and might very well contribute to the desired processes.

The activities of the Arctic Council have never been characterized by overarching decisions on legal matters. What the council is good at is giving the people of the Arctic a voice, and providing a network for the conduct of practical projects of relevance for the Arctic's future. In that context it will continue to provide positive feedback on the issues discussed in Ilulissat. The new cooperation between the Nordic Council of Ministers and the EU will, moreover, be an important vehicle in this respect.

Rasmus Ole Rasmussen

Senior Research Fellow


For a detailed overview of EU policies in relation to the Arctic, see: Adele Airoldi, 2008, The European Union and the Arctic: Policies and Actions. Norden, Nordic Council of Ministers, ANP 2008:729.

UNCLOS – United Nation's United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, based on UNCLOS I (1958) outlining the four principal conventions, elaborated on in UNCLOS II (1960), and developed by UNCLOS III (1973-1982) , eventually adopted as four Conventions: The Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, the Convention on the Continental Shelf, the Convention on the High Seas, the Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas, and the 2001 enforced addendum on the UN Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks.

Rasmus Ole Rasmussen: Climate Change and Subsidiarity – is there a need for an Arctic Treaty? Keynote speech at the Arctic Social Science Association tri-annual congress, ICASS-VI, Nuuk August 2008. To be published in the Proceedings from the congress.

The Arctic Council, established 1996, it is comprised of representatives from all eight Arctic nations (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Canada, the USA and Russia) as well as representatives from the main indigenous organizations in the area as permanent participants.

The European Union has repeatedly expressed its desire to help regions with unusual geographic specificities, such as a mountainous terrain, an insular position or a sparse population.

The latter category is particularly relevant for the regions of North and East Finland, North and Mid-Sweden and North Norway. These regions have previously asked Nordregio to produce a report highlighting their specific economic and social development challenges as an input into the negotiations for the 2007-2013 programming period. This report subsequently contributed to the allocation of an additional €535 million in Structural Funds support to these northernmost regions.

The European Commission now emphasizes that it has a good understanding of the challenges encountered in North Norden. What it wants to hear more about is the development opportunities that could justify further European efforts in terms of funding and policy design.

In order to provide the best possible inputs on these issues, the Brussels representation offices of the concerned regions have asked Nordregio to organise foresight workshops involving a wide range of regional stakeholders.

The first of these workshops was organised in Stockholm on September 11th and 12th. Over 40 representatives from the regions gathered to discuss the current situation in the so-called "Northern Sparsely Populated Areas". This meeting will be followed up in October with further discussion in respect of opportunities, strategies and visions. The final product will encompass a policy road map for these regions' European development strategy.

By Erik Gloersen, previous Research Fellow