As the first EU Ambassador at Large for the Arctic, raising awareness about the EU’s role in the region is a key priority for Marie-Anne Coninsx.
“My primary role is to bring visibility to the EU’s Arctic Policy. The true nature of the Arctic is not well-understood; for most people their first thought would be of a polar bear on the ice pack. In reality, there are many Arctics, all different”.
Coninsx has travelled extensively throughout the region. The vast ice-covered landscapes of northern Canada and Greenland are home to an estimated 200,000 people.
This contrasts dramatically with Europe’s Arctic region, which is far more accessible and interconnected. The whole Arctic is home to around four million people.
“Many things are different in the European Arctic - vibrant cities, industrial parks, universities and relatively good infrastructure, but all virtually unknown outside the region,” says Coninsx.
What’s also less well known is that the EU has had an active Arctic Policy since 2008 and is perceived as a key player, developing strong relations with the eight Arctic states through shared programmes and policies.
Coninsx’s role also includes awareness raising within the EU institutions on the growing importance of the Arctic.
She has developed, within the External Action Service, an informal taskforce bringing together different elements of the EU’s diplomatic service, in close cooperation with the European Commission.
She also stimulates discussions at Member State level, taking part in conferences on topics as diverse as science and research, maritime shipping and earth observation, spreading the word to both Arctic and non-Arctic players.
“Early in this role I realised that you also have highly-engaged non-Arctic states and organisations. Recently, I was invited to Milan by the Copernicus programme and the European Space Agency to speak about the Arctic at the Living Planet conference.”
“There were around 4500 participants and I was probably the only person that wasn’t an expert on satellites. Yet they wanted me there to stress the importance of space-programs for the Arctic and because they are planning to extend Copernicus, the eyes of Europe on the world, to cover both poles.”
The upcoming Finnish Council presidency arrives at an opportune moment.
“My primary role is to bring visibility to the EU’s Arctic Policy. The true nature of the Arctic is not well-understood; for most people their first thought would be of a polar bear on the ice pack. In reality, there are many Arctics, all different”
As one of the world’s eight Arctic States - alongside Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US - Finland understands balancing preservation and development north of latitude 66.33 degrees.
EU policymakers aiming to fi ne-tune the bloc’s Arctic strategy, in response to ongoing environmental and geopolitical changes, will find Finland’s knowledge and expertise invaluable in the coming six months, suggests Coninsx.
“The Finns take the EU Council Presidency on the back of a successful Arctic Council chairmanship. They have already indicated that they want to use their accumulated experience in their [six-month] Presidency.”
Coninsx, who has extensive personal Arctic knowledge and experience from her time as EU Ambassador to Canada, believes the new Finnish government will seek to raise the profile of the EU’s Arctic policy.
“I am confident that they will bring high visibility to Arctic issues in their EU presidency programme including organising a high-level conference on northern a‑ airs, including the Arctic.”
The growing geo-economic and geopolitical implications of Arctic warming are driving interest in the region from non- Arctic states such as Japan, South Korea and China.
Beijing in particular is eyeing the potential Northern Sea Route from Asia, along the Russian coast to Europe, as a new ‘Polar’ Silk Route providing access to European markets and to Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) on the Yamal peninsula.
“China also has an Arctic policy. Its main drivers are climate change, which is seriously affecting the country, and economic interests, such as extraction of the rich Arctic resources and shipping along the Northern Sea Route”.
China needs energy and Russia has plenty to sell, so Beijing is investing heavily in the Northern Sea Route.
“In my opinion, Russia has no economic interest in obstructing an increase in shipping along the northern sea route; it would be shooting itself in the foot”
Alongside Japan and South Korea, it has taken a keen interest in the potential offered by an all-year round polar shipping router.
“In South Korea, I visited a naval yard where they were building 15 ice breaking capacity LNG tankers for the Northern Sea Route. They are huge, as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.”
But what about Russia? Military exercises in the region are increasing and Moscow continues to block the EU’s application for formal observer status in the Arctic Council. Is Russia an obstacle to delivering the EU’s key priority of EU Arctic Policy, namely Close International Cooperation?
“In my opinion, Russia has no economic interest in obstructing shipping along the northern sea route; it would be shooting itself in the foot”, says Coninsx. Certainly, Russia needs foreign investment to further develop and access its Arctic resources.,
France’s Total, and China, through its National Petroleum Corporation, each have a 20 percent stake in the Yamal LNG project.
“There’s a unique attitude mentioned around the Arctic called ‘the Arctic Spirit’,” explains Coninsx. There is a general willingness to solve any issue between the Arctic States by cooperation rather than confrontation.
Despite some clouds in the relationship, we work well with Russia on the Arctic, within the framework of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Northern Dimension Policy.
I’ve held discussions with Russian authorities and believe me, it’s not easy, but that doesn’t mean we cannot engage in a constructive and positive way, which we do with Russia on the Arctic.”