Michael Gahler

The Arctic is undergoing a period of severe changes; rising temperatures and sea levels as a result of retreating snow and ice coverage are heavily impacting on both its delicate marine ecosystems and its human communities. By the same token, the region now attracts significant political and economic interest as melting ice also opens possibilities for the exploitation of natural resources and access to new trade routes. As a main result, an increasing number of states and non-state actors target the Arctic region in their foreign policy making.

At the same time and despite these current challenges and different interests, the Arctic has proven to be a region devoted to cooperation, coordination and peaceful interaction among different stakeholders, mostly thanks to the longstanding and crucial work of the Arctic Council.


By virtue of its geography and external effects of internal policies, the EU is a natural player in the Arctic, bearing responsibilities as one of the main contributors to pollution and green house emissions, having paticular interests in a sustainable development of the region, and having a longstanding tradition in cooperating with different Arctic stakeholders to archieve common goals. Given the changing strategic importance of the region and a necessity to protect and promote its own interests and values, the EU has declared a clear intention to be more engaged in Arctic affairs and to develop its own Arctic policy, which is currently undergoing a process of gradual formulation.

This process formally started in 2008 with the EP Resolution on Arctic Governance and the Commission Communication on "The European Union and the Arctic Region", and has been later welcomed by the Council in 2009. As a result of this first approach, the three EU institutions agreed to to develop a coherent and comprehensive action to Arctic issues to achieve the three main policy objectives defined as protecting the environment in accordance with its population, promoting a sustainable use of resources, and enhancing Arctic international cooperation.

In 2011 a pragmatic approach towards the Arctic was proposed by the EP, which adopted in plenary the report on a sustainable EU policy for the High North. This fresh and innovative contribution was facilitated by the establishment of the EU ARCTIC FORUM (EUAF) in 2010, with the aim to provide the EP and the political Brussels with a cross-party and cross-issue platform to introduce and discuss knowledge and experience of relevant Arctic players from Science, Politics, and not least also people and businesses with a focus on developing the basis for a common understanding of Arctic issues among political decision makers in Brussels.

For the first time, while keeping a focus on climate change mitigation and environmental protection, the EP was more ambitious on economic opportunities in the High North. The strategic importance of the Arctic for Europe's energy security and core industries with regard to certain raw materials was also a reason why a call for a deep-sea drilling moratorium was watered down twice in the plenary, despite the post-Deepwater Horizon syndrome.1 By striking a balance between various policy issues, the EP attempted to contribute to a holistic and strategic vision of EU Arctic policy. The recognition of the UNCLOS-based legal system alongside of political realities in the region brought the EP more in line with the Commission and member states' positions. Finally, the report requested that the Commission work on several tasks with regard to the European contribution to sustainable development, and in addition, outlined the prospects for a more determined EU Arctic approach calling for institutional mobilization within the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS).

On 26 June 2012 the European Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy issued a long-awaited Communication on the EU and the Arctic region, a "second layer" of an Arctic policy for the EU, given that the other EU institutions have already expressed their positions. The new document follows the tone of the European Parliament resolution and highlights more receptive ideas of knowledge, responsibility and engagement as underlying principles of EU's approach. In addition, the joint Communication presents an elaborated synthesis of EU's contribution to the Arctic since 2008 varying from funding research, fighting climate change, supporting economic and cultural development of indigenous peoples, shipping, and maritime safety. For instance, over the last decade 200 million €UR were generated from European funds (within the EU Framework Programmes) for Arctic scientific research, a significant amount of funding was provided through various initiatives to indigenous groups and local populations, and the EU has already incorporated a 20% greenhouse gas reduction commitment into law. In addition, about half of the fish caught in polar waters is consumed in the European Union (EU), and one quarter of the oil and gas extracted from the Arctic flows to the EU and contributes to its energy security. Being the largest trading block, which controls 40% of world's commercial shipping,2 the EU also has a natural interest in securing non-discriminatory access to the strategically important Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Northwest Passage (NWP).

With regard to international cooperation, the EU application for observer status to the Arctic Council was received positively at the last ministerial meeting held in Kiruna on May 2013, but has not yet been finally approved, so that the EU finds itself still in the "waiting room". However, one more European Member State, Italy, gained observer status to the Arctic Council, as a further proof of European interests toward the region. An observer status for the EU as a whole would have an added value for the Arctic Council, as many Arctic related policy competences (e.g. environment, research, fisheries) have been transferred to the EU level and cannot be fully exerted by member states.

Several Member states are involved in Arctic business through natural resources, oil and gas, mining, fisheries, the growing tourism sector, transport and navigation as well as technology suppliers and developers for those fields. For instance, last year British Petroleum tried to secure an access to the offshore oil field in the Russian Arctic through a share swap with the Russian oil giant Rosneft. The deal, however, was blocked in a London court and eventually collapsed. French Total is a shareholder of the Shtokman gas field, while Scottish Cairn Energy drills exploration wells off the Eastern coast of Greenland. On the other side of the globe, the Anglo-Dutch company Shell recently received permission for drilling in Alaska. It has already become a common practice that Finnish shipbuilding companies receive an order for an icebreaker construction from Russian authorities. Interestingly, Germany, apart from being an Arctic Council observer, is also a party to the Treaty of Spitzbergen of 1921 and maintains the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, together with other major polar and marine research institutes as one of the leading polar scientific institutions in the world.

Therefore, the EU intends to continue to play a positive role in the region in terms of cooperation and research funding and representing the common interest of the Union as a whole.

Hoping to soon be able soon to work more closely with the Arctic Council, while understanding that the EU needs to listen closely to its Arctic partners in order to gain a better understanding of the situation in the Arctic region, it is now time for the EU to practice a comprehensive and realistic approach to the Arctic, and pursue clear policies in the areas of climate change and the environment but also on resources and trade.

Since the EP is heading for another resolution on Arctic issues, I hereby invite the authors to this second Arctic Yearbook edition to participate and cooperate with their knowledge, and to make use of the EU ARCTIC FORUM to organize seminars and briefings, as an independent, non-profit platform & bridge builder for Arctic-focused actors in politics, science, civil society and business.

I am grateful to have been invited to be part of this publication as the EP Rapporteur on the Arctic, and would like to congratulate the authors for their excellent work done with the first edition of the Arctic Yearbook. I am certainly sure this second volume will be as interesting and equally capable to raise crucial issues in the geopolitics of the North. I welcome this second Arctic Yearbook, and look forward to reading with great interest all contributions.


  1. European Parliament. Parliament calls for EU to plug gaps in oil exploration rules. Press release 7 October 2010; European Parliament. Offshore drilling: compulsory emergency plans for all operations. Press release 13 September 2011, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/
  2. European Parliament. Report on a sustainable EU policy for the High North. Brussels, 16 December 2010.

Michael Gahler is a Member of the European Parliament and Rapporteur on the Arctic.

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