Topic Overview for the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET)

Polar Express: “Given the sudden accessibility of previously isolated natural resources and unattainable sea trade routes, how can the European Union alongside its Member States guarantee the protection of the fragile ecosystem as well as its economic and military interests?”

Sofia Gonzalez (ES)

1. Relevance of the Topic

An accelerated path of climate change has tremendously raised the Arctic’s profile over the last decade. Formerly remote and of little relevance, the region now attracts significant political and economic interest as melting ice opens possibilities for the exploitation of Arctic natural resources and access to new trade routes. Rapidly rising temperatures and sea levels also provoke global security concerns. Consequently, interested states increasingly link the Arctic more closely to their security and foreign policy strategies. 

The Arctic is currently heating up faster than any other region in the planet, which is also increasing the rate of the melting of the Arctic’s permafrost. This will have climatological consequences around the globe. Scientists expect the melting of the Arctic to cause a rise as much as seven meters in the oceans by 2100, causing great devastation.

Another reason why the European Union (EU) and its Member States (MS)must safeguard this environmentally fragile region is to protect the Arctic’s citizens. 4 million inhabitants live in the Arctic, 10% of whom are indigenous.

The Arctic is also experiencing an increase in toxic substances, such as high levels of mercury in fish and the appearance of nuclear and radioactive sources.

Lastly, it’s worth remembering that the EU uses the Arctic’s natural resources for several purposes, such as fishing, obtaining fresh water, mining, and it exploits its sources of oil and gas. The Arctic is estimated to contain 16%, 30% and 26% of the world’s undiscovered oil, gas and natural gas resources respectively.

2. Key Terms 

Arctic region: covers the area around the North Pole north of the Arctic Circle. It includes the Arctic Ocean and territories of the eight Arctic states: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and USA.

Permafrost: any ground that continuously remains below 0°C for two or more years, located on land or under the ocean. Permafrost does not have to be the first layer that is on the ground. It can be from an inch to several miles deep under the Earth’s surface. Arctic permafrost has been diminishing for many centuries. When permafrost continues to decrease, many climate change scenarios will be amplified.

Arctic council: a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic (see their website for ongoing projects and work).

The EU’s application to become a “permanent observer” in the Arctic Council was blocked in 2009 by Canada in response to the European Union’s ban on the importation of seal products.

Indigenour Arctic population: Indigenous people are considered to be those communities that live within, or are attached to, geographically distinct traditional habitats or ancestral territories. 10 percent of the total population living in arctic areas is estimated to be indigenous. There are over 40 different ethnic groups living in the Arctic. There is a great variation of cultural, historical and economical backgrounds among the groups. Check the Arctic Council Indigenous people secretariat for more information on all the different indigenous groups.

United Nation’s (UN) convention of the law of the sea (UNCLOS): asserts jurisdictional rights in the various maritime zones and provides the basis for the settlement of disputes, including delimitation, as well as containing rules related to the establishment of the outer shelves of the continental shelves of coastal states. The EU participates in this international treaty.

3. Stakeholders

The EU is part of the Arctic through three of its Member States: Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The EU also maintains close relations with Iceland and Norway through the European Economic Area. Other Arctic countries such as Canada, Russia and the United States are strategic partners of the EU. As an EU body, the European Commission is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions and upholding the EU treaties.

Another key stakeholder is the Arctic Council. This is the main international body directly concerned with the Arctic’s sustainable development and environmental protection. However, it does not address boundary or resource disputes or any other issue related to security matters. Represented in the Council, a rather unlistened party is the Arctic’s population and, especially, indigenous population, who account for 10% of it. It’s especially important to preserve their traditions, culture and language in order to protect the cultural richness of this fragile Earth region.

On the sustainability side, the European Environment Agency provides independent information on the environment for those involved in developing, adopting and evaluating environmental policy, and also the general public. 

Lastly, as an area surrounded by ocean with high security and resources potential, we find two main organisations: the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). The EMSA is charged with reducing the risk of maritime accidents, marine pollution from ships and the loss of human lives at sea. Similarly, the IMO veils for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of maritime pollution by ships. All EU MS are IMO Members. 

4. Conflicts 

Due to the nature of the Arctic region, conflicts between countries, even if unrelated to Arctic issues, have to be taken into account when policymaking. For example, there has been a cooling of relations between Russia and the US since the annexation of the Crimea area in 2014. While the Arctic Council is seen as a success story in maintaining stability in the region, the last round of admissions for new observer states created some consternation. The EU was denied the observer status because of the ban on hunting seals. On the other hand, Russia is especially vocal about questioning Asian non-Arctic observer states. These types of tensions complicate productive discussions regarding Arctic matters.

There have been some disagreements about maritime boundaries which added to speculation that the region was going to be subject to contests over economic and political sovereignty. The incident in 2007, when a Russian flag was placed under the ice by a Russian submarine, was the catalyst for this ongoing speculation. 

A potentially more complicated disagreement involves the North Pole itself, and more specifically the competing claims to the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, which extends well into the Central Arctic including the North Pole. The ridge’s area is claimed by Canada, Denmark and Russia, which have all asserted the region is part of their continental shelves.On the military side, previously abandoned Cold War-era military installations have been reopened. In addition, incursions by Russian aircraft and submarines into other countries’ Arctic spaces have become more frequent.

5. Measures in place & status quo

The EU is geographically located in the Arctic, because three of its MS belong to it, namely Finland, Sweden and Denmark (with Greenland and Faroe Islands). Therefore, the legislation of the EU has a direct effect in the European Arctic. In addition, the EU is an active fighter against climate change, which is a matter of great importance in the Arctic due to the thawing of the permafrost and the rise in temperatures. 

As such a major stakeholder, the EU has had a policy document on the Arctic since 2008. It has been updated twice, in 2012 and 2016. The latter called the Joint Communication to the European Council and the Arctic highlights three pillars for the EU involvement in the Arctic: environmental protection, sustainable development and international cooperation. Norway, which is part of the European Economic Area (EEA), expressed its agreement and approved of this document.

The EU is currently working towards updating its Arctic policy. It needs to respond to two major changes that affect the region and pose challenges to the role of the EU in the Arctic; accelerated climate change and increased geoeconomic and geopolitical competition. Circumpolar geopolitics are currently defined by the growing assertiveness of the United States, China and Russia and their complex – and at times deteriorating – relationships. While some of these geopolitical realities are closely related to competition for resources, they are equally connected to larger strategic thinking about global roles.

Separately, a number of MS have their own Arctic policies. Apart from the Arctic Council members Denmark, Sweden and Finland, observer nations in the Arctic Council have also issued policies or policy guidelines. These include France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. The increased global interest in the Arctic has resulted in a number of countries all over the world developing their own Arctic policies, such as Korea, Japan, India or Switzerland, with different interests in mind.

6. Food for Thought & Brain Munchies

  • The large number and variety of stakeholders in the Arctic raise the question: who should have a bigger say in the Arctic and its future policies? How can we ensure fair representation of ideas and the Arctic’s inhabitants?
  • How can the EU ensure productive communication and dialogue in a topic where so many different unrelated interests come into the game?
  • How can we ensure the sustainable use and extraction of resources found in the Arctic?
  • How can the EU enforce its measures on the Arctic while maintaining a confidence-building dialogue with Russia?

7. References and further research

🎵 Soundtrack for when reading the TO: link

📽️ The European Union’s new Arctic policy: Short topic introductory video to get in the mood of the topic!

📽️ Interview: Future of the EU in the Arctic → The whole interview is worth watching but if you don’t have time, some interesting questions to skip to are: 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14.

📽️ Melting arctic ice fuels climate change and extreme weather events → How natural changes in the Arctic affect the rest of the world’s climate

Short papers and documents worth having a look at:

  • 📃 EU Arctic Policy Q&A by the European Commission: link → Addresses FAQ regarding the EU and the Arctic.
  • 📃 The changing shape of Arctic security, NATO Review: link

More thorough research papers and reviews. You shouldn’t need to read the entire paper, just read the index and find the sections that might interest you:

  • 📃 Committee of AFET, A Balanced Arctic Policy for the EU: link
  • →This is what I would consider to be the Bible for this topic. It gathers all the relevant information and policies up to date. Published in 2020
  • 📃 Weber, Romanyshyn, Breaking the ice: the European Union and the Arctic: link
  • 📃 European Environmental Agency, Arctic environment: European perspectives, Why should Europe care?: link