EU Arctic policy: The new race for the North Pole

The EU must provide environmental leadership in the Arctic through trade, says David Martin.

David Martin | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By David Martin

04 May 2017

When news broke last year that the wreck of British explorer Sir John Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror, had been found o­ the coast of Canada, over 150 years after the ill-fated crew set sail, the article stubbornly remained perched at the top of many newspapers’ most-read article lists. It is clear that the public appetite for North Pole adventures has not abated with time.

As the formerly treacherous ice becomes more accessible due to environmental change, the Arctic presents us policymakers with pressing challenges. It is estimated that vast reserves of fossil fuels lie underneath the ice.

Clearly, there is a strong economic incentive for countries to exploit this, although the environmental impact could be disastrous if these resources are not managed sustainably.


Likewise, new shipping routes and cross-border business partnerships provide opportunities as well as risks.

A forward-looking and sustainable trade policy in the Arctic can both serve Europe’s economic and strategic interests, while protecting and promoting our high environmental standards.

CETA lays down binding commitments on fisheries and forestry products while promoting e­ffective cooperation on environmental issues and encouraging the development and use of business corporate and social responsibility standards.

Although TTIP is on ice for the moment, we have made it clear that the substantive provisions within CETA’s ambitious sustainable development chapter are only a baseline for future negotiations.

In addition, all future EU trade deals with non-EU Arctic partners will have to take the peculiarities of the Arctic into account. With other partners, the situation is more complicated. The EU’s political problems with Russia are well known and without a trade deal, or any prospect of one, our leverage is limited.

Nevertheless, a dialogue on Arctic environmental issues must be kept open, based on the 1997 EU-Russia partnership and cooperation agreement.

Although China doesn’t itself have territory in the Arctic, like some other Asian countries it is interested in the possible new economic opportunities on o­ffer. We must monitor the e­ffects of the 2013 trade deal between Iceland and China closely because of the access it could give Chinese goods to the single market.

More generally, through our trade policy we must focus on bringing economic opportunities to local and indigenous peoples in Arctic areas.

Nevertheless, the unique Arctic ecosystem and the wildlife that depends on it must be protected. On the issue of wildlife preservation, the WTO upheld the EU import ban on seal products, challenged by our Arctic partners - Canada and Norway.

This is a welcome decision and reinforces the tough line that the European Parliament has taken on this issue, as well as providing an important precedent for future wildlife protection legislation.

A new race to explore the Arctic has begun, but in this case, failure won’t just lead to the death of an adventurous crew. Failure in the Arctic now will have global consequences. As the world looks to tap the economic potential of this continually changing region, the EU must continue to provide environmental leadership through trade. Our world depends on it. 

Read the most recent articles written by David Martin - The EU is standing up for global trade