by Viktória NÉMETH, PhD student, University of Pécs
The Arctic region has become the focus of international politics in the past decades, due to the emerging economic opportunities and climate change. The European Union has been interested in the region from several aspects. Europe has geographical, historical and economic contacts with the Arctic, and wants to play a role in the reshaping regional order. The object of this paper is to investigate the EU’s interest in Arctic affairs. The main argument is that EU’s presence in the region is characterised by duality. The EU is regional player and outsider at the same time. Its role is determinative, but faces many challenges and limitations.
The EU is in a special status, as it is inside and outside the Arctic region at the same time. It is true both for the geographical and international relations. The Nordic Member States have no direct access to the Arctic Ocean, and the EU itself has not gained observer status in the Arctic Council (comprising eight countries, including the USA and Russia), which is the most important international organization in this region.
Europe traditionally has economic, trade and scientific interest in the region. Appearance of new, significant resources are not expected in Polar provinces of the EU member states, unlike to the coastal states of Arctic Ocean (USA, Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Norway and Russia.) The Arctic will not reduce the energy dependency of Europe. Even without direct exit to the sea, the maritime trade can provide the most significant economic perspective for the EU.
The Northern Sea Route (NSR) can be regularly used by the mid-21th century, and can reduce distance between Europe and East Asia at least by 30-40%. The commercial use of the NSR is expected to show Asian dominance. The trade can only be partly channelled to the NSR, due to some natural barriers (e.g. winter darkness, reef density), and the practical advantages of the Suez Canal.
According to Patrick Leypoldt, the usage of NSR will bring only minor changes to current EU-Asia trade. The dominance of the large EU Member States – especially Germany – is expected in export, and the import can be more balanced.
The EU’s Arctic Policy- as defined by the European Council in 2016- reflects its capabilities and opportunities. The main pillars of this policy are environmental security, sustainable development and international cooperation. It contains the improvement of local infrastructure and logistics sector with high tech and environmentally friendly technologies, (e.g. ships, navigation, port infrastructure)
The international relations of the EU show duality in the region. The EU has tried to receive constant observer status in the Arctic Council, but it was rejected. The EU has been temporary observer in many cases, and is still an unavoidable actor in Arctic affairs. The exclusion implies the general weakening of the EU’s political position. European states are partners in many respect of the US in defence policy. It can be a highly important factor in a region, where the interest of the USA and Russia are present.
The EU tries to fulfil a mediator role, and is active in multilateral negotiations, cross-border cooperation, and in issues, where political consensus can be achieved, (e.g. scientific research, sustainable development). This attitude is compatible with its standpoint on climate change, as a global problem, and with the promotion of sustainable development. The EU’s approach can converge with the Chinese position, supporting a comprehensive international supervision of the roles in the area.