Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, presenting the EU’s new Arctic policy (note: it’s not a strategy) on October 13, 2021 in Brussels.
Don’t worry, this will not be a suggestion to join the #FreeBritney movement, nor a recommendation to watch the latest Britney documentary (or maybe you should). This will simply be an analysis on the most recent Arctic policy update by the European Union, the Joint Communication on A stronger EU engagement for a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous Arctic , issued by the European Commission and the High Representative (HR) of the Union for Foreign and Security Policy on 13 October 2021.
In this analysis, to be downloaded below, we offer our thoughts on this recent development. The European Union presents itself as a more self-confident actor in the Arctic, taking stock of its economic and environment impacts in the region, while retaining the previous definition of the scope of its Arctic engagement. This includes climate and environment, developmental issues in the European Arctic, as well as international cooperation within and relevant for the region. At the same time, however, one of the key objectives of the new policy statement is to position the EU’s Arctic engagement within the landscape of the European Green Deal (EDG) and the newly found self-portrayal of the EU as a geopolitical actor (van der Leyen’s commission being framed as “geopolitical commission”, for instance). As the Arctic policy is primarily a compilation and manifestation of the EU’s larger policy agendas, it is them that largely determine the content of EU Arctic documents, including the 2021 communication. The influence of Arctic concerns on these larger frameworks is minor at best. Among the consequences of the EU’s new overall policy setting is a strong focus on Arctic resource developments, discouraging those that contradict global climate objectives (opening new hydrocarbons exploitation) and encouraging those that support the transition (critical and important minerals). Especially the new proposal for a moratorium on hydrocarbons exploration is a controversial one, already resulting in negative reactions among many Arctic states, actors and stakeholders. The Commission’s and EEAS’ proposal appears to single out the Arctic as a resource region, even if the message could primarily refer to preventing all – or as many as possible – new hydrocarbon projects. There is also no distinction made between oil and gas, while the latter is still discussed, including in the European Union decision circles, as a transitional fuel. The presence of the no-new-hydrocarbons idea is the primarily manifestation of the new level of confidence that the EU officials chose to project. While problematic in many respects, there is certainly an intrinsic value in making a clear statement that addressing global climate change requires determined policy, possibly adversely affecting some international relationships, and abandoning certain developmental pathways, especially before the first steps are taken.
We also consider whether the Arctic policy could be seen as a testing ground for the EU’s foreign policy in general. First, the Arctic could in principle offer possibilities for trying out more effective bridging between internal and external actions. Indeed, the authors believe that the EU’s Arctic engagement portfolio and tangible influence on Arctic affairs (including but not limited to the issues mentioned in the Arctic policy documents) comprises primarily the Arctic implications of the EU’s internal policies and actions. Secondly, the EU positions itself as a more outspoken and confident geopolitical player in the Arctic context. It is unclear how this would reframe the EU’s interactions with Arctic states and other stakeholders – thus far often buttressed by the EU assuming a role of supporting Arctic actors’ own objectives when they align with those of the Union. And if that would ultimately make the EU a more effective Arctic actor. Even if partially bearing fruit in the Arctic, such a confident interaction with international actors, based on the climate and strategic autonomy agendas, may not work in other areas and directions of the EU’s foreign policy.