Polar Notes

May 2016

EU publishes new policy paper on the Arctic

Last month, the European Commission and the European External Action Service jointly published a new policy paper on the Arctic, entitled ‘Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: An integrated European Union policy for the Arctic’. The document (which has not yet been endorsed formally by the European Council) suggests ways the EU can effectively contribute to Arctic affairs in three priority areas: advancing international cooperation, responding to climate change, and promoting sustainable development.  

This is the third communication on Arctic affairs (the first preceded by a consultation process) published by the European Commission since 2008. Over recent years, the EU has been primarily interested in the interrelated issues of climate change and energy security. This has led the EU to invest significantly in Arctic science, and promote closer energy relations with Norway and Russia. The EU has also been attentive to regional development issues (for example, in Northern Fennoscandia and Greenland).  

Broadly, the third communication is more focussed than previous iterations. It identifies a number of specific activities that the EU has engaged in (such as committing over £30 million to Arctic research for 2016-17). Geographically, the document is clear that the EU is more interested in what it can achieve in the ‘European Arctic’ rather than the Arctic as whole (something which has been a source of contention in the past, particularly with Canada and Russia). This includes improving communication and transport links, as well as market access, in the hope of making Europe’s northernmost regions more economically viable.  

The document is also responsive to the recent fall in the prices of oil and other raw materials, as well as the geopolitical turmoil involving Russia. For example, the paper goes beyond oil and gas to highlight the commercial opportunities involving non-extractive sectors and new technologies, including the so-called ‘blue economy’ (aquaculture, renewable offshore energy, marine tourism and marine biotechnology). Meanwhile, previous references to building an Arctic energy partnership with Russia have been dropped, although the paper does highlight the importance of continuing cooperation on science and the environment (part of a broader EU foreign policy of ‘selective engagement’ with Russia).  

Overall, however, the third communication reads more like a catalogue of activities to date, rather than a setting out of future plans. This reflects, perhaps, the ongoing struggle the EU is having both internally and externally, to define its role in Arctic affairs.  

Issue to watch

The EU has a role in Arctic affairs, especially with regard to key competences under the common fisheries policy, the common commercial policy and competition rules. Shared competences relating, for example to the economic, social and territorial cohesion, and trans-European networks are also relevant. Nevertheless, three EU member states (Sweden, Finland and Denmark) are already members of the Arctic Council, while seven others, including the UK, are observers. Most of these countries already have their own Arctic policies/strategies and there appears to have been little attempt to integrate these with those of the EU. As the EU seeks closer integration on Arctic policy, countries such as the UK, will need to be attentive to how this might support or conflict with their own Arctic interests.

EU Arctic Policy

All documents available from: http://www.eeas.europa.eu/arctic_region/

EU Arctic Council Member States


EU Arctic Council Accredited Observer States

The Netherlands
United Kingdom

EU participation in the Arctic

Arctic Council (non-accredited observer)
Barents-Euro Arctic Council
EU Northern Dimension
EU-Greenland Partnership

EU participation in International Agreements relevant to the Arctic

UNFCCC ‘Paris Agreement’  
UN Sustainable Development Goals
UN Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) Convention on International Trade in Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
Convention on Migratory Species and Wild Animals
African-Eurasian Waterbirds Agreement
Bern Convention
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) Minimata Convention on Mercury

EU (co-)financed Arctic Science and Research Programmes

Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System
GEO Cold Region Initiative
Transatlantic Ocean (and Arctic) Research Alliance
European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet)