Why does Greenland receive approximately 25 million euros per year from the European Union, despite the fact that it is not even one of its members? At the same time, the government of Greenland continuously threatens to prioritize China over Europe, regardless of the generous money it receives from Brussels under the Partnership Agreement between the EU, Denmark and Greenland. And why was the European Union's application for observer status at the Arctic Council deferred this spring?
At first glance, the European Union almost seems to be losing its grip on the Arctic agenda. Although a key supporter of the region, the EU's effort to play any key role in the Arctic has fallen short of expectations.
As stated in the EU Arctic Strategy, the Arctic is an area of growing strategic importance and also an example of successful international cooperation contributing to peace and security in the region. Russia and Norway, for instance, were able to conclude a maritime treaty on cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean after some forty years of negotiations in stalemate. The European Union is also the world's strongest proponent of international efforts to fight climate change.
As global warming opens up sea routes and prospects for mining in the Arctic, there has been a global rush to secure a share of the looming profits. In connection with the last parliamentary elections in spring, Greenland has signalled that it is open for foreign investments, particularly in the mineral and oil sectors. Several of the mineral deposits in the Arctic are perceived as crucial for European industries. Greenland has been extremely eager to see investments begin to pour in. Consequently, the leadership of Greenland has continuously urged the EU to follow up a recent memorandum of understanding concerning Greenland's raw materials and to start investing. Last spring, Greenland's former Prime Minister reiterated that he was tired of waiting, saying that he has come back empty handed from all too many trips to Brussels. In light of the new circumstances, it is significant that the new Prime Minister of Greenland and her party have been involved in an internal debate in Denmark on the definition of "strategic raw materials" and about who should define what the term means.
From an EU point of view, the memorandum has been seen as a way to ensure that Greenland will not commit itself to mining contracts with, for example, solely China. The European Union is, in plain language, paying Greenland off in order to secure a non-monopoly in a bid to guarantee that other countries, among them hopefully also European players, also have a say. China is strongly interested in mining investments in the Arctic in order to obtain valuable minerals, including iron, zinc and rare earth minerals crucial for high-technology production. To the dismay of European politicians, Greenland has been leaning towards Asia in its efforts to secure rapid investment deals.
Moreover, the European Union has no significant role to play in the Arctic Council, the body that has become the de facto institutional battleground for Arctic players and competitors. What used to be mainly a research body has rapidly become an important gateway to the Arctic. The EU application for observer status was deferred last spring, whereas India, South Korea and Singapore were taken on board. The formal reason stated for the rejection was that the EU Commission, as a supranational organisation, does not meet the criteria for membership in the Arctic Council and is considered to erode the importance of state sovereignty in the Arctic.
One of the unofficial obstacles to observer status is the EU's ban on seal fur import, a ban that has been challenged especially by Canada based on the claim that the rights of the indigenous people in the Arctic must be preserved. In this regard, it is a shame that co-operation in the Arctic area is complicated as a result of the EU's animal protection policy. The issue will not be easy to settle as the ban is part of EU legislation. However, EU legislation and policy have growing relevance not only for the EU member states but also for third countries.
It is also worth considering that the EU provides a significant amount of funding to initiatives supporting indigenous groups and local populations. As stated in the EU Arctic Strategy, funding programmes during the last seven co-financing years have amounted to 1.14 billion euros (1.98 billion euros, if we include member state co-financing).
An overall solution to these dilemmas could be a moratorium, an agreement to stop using the Arctic resources until we can find sustainable ways of utilization. Environmental groups and the European Parliament have supported this policy, but the official EU stance has been to find a balance between economy, environment and a potential moratorium.
A situation must be avoided where disputes in fact accelerate the use of Arctic resources. The European Union has built its Arctic policy around three main objectives: protecting and preserving the Arctic in unison with its population, promoting the sustainable use of resources and international cooperation. It is essential that environmental and social sustainability are prioritized in the EU's Arctic policy and that, for instance, mining projects are carried out in a responsible manner.
From a security point of view, the Arctic is already complex; involving actors from the region and from beyond. Peaceful development of the Arctic requires security arrangements capable of managing the transformation of the region in a stable manner. The best option would no doubt be to demilitarize the area, as is the case in the Antarctic, in order to pave the way for better framework conditions for Arctic co-operation and sustainable Arctic governance. Developing joint environmental governance and maritime search and rescue are also important policy options.
Managing competition, promoting cooperation and developing security arrangements could be a task to be taken on by the European Union in close cooperation with all actors in the Arctic. There are Arctic insiders and outsiders and their interests should be integrated. Needless to say, the measures to be taken require EU financing. But how far should the European Union – as a non-member of the Arctic Council – go in offering financial means to a region without having a say in actual decision-making?
Tarja Cronberg is a Finnish Member of the European Parliament (MEP), and a member of the Greens/EFA group.