Steffen Weber, Cécile Pelaudeix, and Iulian Romanyshyn

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, initially due in June 2011. The joint Communication represents a follow-up to the first Commission Communication published in 2008 and responds to the 2009 Council Conclusions on Arctic issues, and the 2011 European Parliament resolution on a Sustainable EU policy for the High North. The new Communication comes at an important point in time. Since 2008 all Arctic states adopted or upgraded their respective Arctic strategies. Simultaneously, the Arctic Council will face in May 2013 a decision on granting the EU and a number of other interested states an observer status.

 

Continuity or Change?

Using the terminology of the 2008 Communication, current joint Communication shall signify a "second layer" of an Arctic policy for the EU, given that the other EU institutions have already expressed their positions. 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. With regard to the ends of the policy, EU's objectives towards the region remain unchanged in relation to 2008 Communication. They include addressing the challenges of environmental and climate changes in the Arctic; economic development based on sound environmental impact assessment and sustainable use of resources; constructive engagement and dialogue with Arctic states and indigenous peoples. Noteworthy, the EU proposes to boost funding for the Arctic research, already an important contribution, within the proposed Horizon 2020 research and innovation platform (€80 billion).

As the European External Action Service strengthens its capacity, the EU pushes forward an idea of an effective raw materials diplomacy and enhanced bilateral dialogues with Canada, Norway, Russia, US and Iceland on Arctic matters. Another noticeable change is the prominent place given to Arctic monitoring through space technology, for which a specific document 'Space and the Arctic" is added to the Communication. Having a shared space competence through the Lisbon Treaty, the EU is putting forward the considerable contribution it can make to the monitoring of the region, inter alia maritime safety, through its innovative technology.

Indeed, a major change in the new Communication lies in the recurring reference to the concept of "cooperation" which appears as a key message. The Communication aims at convincing that the EU has a significant - and improvable - understanding of the region, and wants to cooperate in meeting the challenges faced in the region. The High Representative Catherine Ashton pointed out the necessity "to show the world that the EU is serious about its commitment towards the Arctic region", while Maria Damanaki, Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, insisted on the determination "to listen and to learn from those who live and work [in the Arctic]. We are committed to making the European Union's contribution in the Arctic constructive and meaningful".

What Vision for the Arctic?

Although the EU kept its main objectives in the Arctic region largely untouched, the form in which the new document communicates them to the outside world significantly differs. Overall the documents give a very balanced report of EU engagement and interests, but lack some more concrete actions and vision. Given the Arctic states criticism of the EU's assertive rhetoric in the past, 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. The reference to enhanced multilateral governance, which proved to be another source of friction, is replaced by a neutral heading of international cooperation. In a recent speech, Maria Damanaki explained that "We want to ensure that what we do in the Arctic aligns with what others are doing". A statement that questions the vision the EU might develop regarding the Arctic region. The joint Communication does too little to help answer the question. First, the specificity of EU objectives does not really emerge from the document. The European Union wants to engage more with Arctic partners to increase its awareness of their concerns and to address "common challenges in a collaborative manner". Second, if the first Arctic Communication comprised a mix between policy objectives and benchmarks with 49 "proposals for action", in the new Communication any indication of benchmarks disappears and it is not clear whether the EU will follow them in the future. No action plan is delivered or mentioned as planned for the next multi-annual financial framework. The document lacks indication on what is the "way forward" and with which actions to reach it. Regarding "Knowledge", the formulation of research priorities is vague, and so is the cooperation with Arctic states on establishing research infrastructure. In terms of "Responsibility", although it is crucial for the EU to ensure access to raw materials and maritime routes, no references are made in the document to the level playing field, reciprocal market access and anti-discriminatory practices as fundamental principles of EU's external relations. Regarding "Engagement", and the support to the region's stability, no reference is made either to any specific objectives, nor any means.

The joint Communication is actually structured as a combination of a progress report, underlining the huge contribution the EU has already made to the region, and of some elements of policy which do not provide a clear vision of the EU for the region. Clearly, the joint Communication stands as another message to the Arctic Council, of which some members still doubt EU's legitimate posturing in the Arctic. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the new Communication proves to be a smart tactical move to win more support for the status as an observer in the Arctic Council or rather highlights what is missing to present a coherent and ambitious EU Arctic strategy.

Steffen Weber is Secretary General of the EU Arctic Forum. Cécile Pelaudeix is is Research Associate at PACTE-IEP Grenoble and a Research Fellow EU Arctic Forum. Iulian Romanyshyn is a Research Fellow EU Arctic Forum.

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