EU Artic Policy: Northern exposure

We need more Arctic in the EU, and more EU in the Arctic, explains Anna Fotyga.
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The Arctic is a special place where Europe, North America and Asia meet. Climate change has amplified the region’s geopolitical importance, as well as raising questions about the Arctic’s connectivity and supply of hydrocarbon and mineral resources. However, for Europe - and I hope also for other Arctic stakeholders - the region is much more complex as it also involves four million inhabitants, 500,000 of whom hold EU citizenship.

Incredible developments in new technology, including extended fibre optic cable systems and infrastructure are helping these communities improve their digital connectivity. Improvements in healthcare support, social services - such as telehealth - online education and generally easier access to the global economy are transforming these Arctic communities.

Equally transformative are the new and future maritime routes that are opening up as a consequence of the ice caps melting, such as the Northwest Passage, the Transpolar Sea Route and the Northern Sea Route. As ships begin passing through the Arctic’s territorial waters, it is essential that the EU upholds the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law to ensure the region is protected and free from conflict.

“I welcome the updating of the EU’s Arctic policy, which should reflect the region’s new security realities and players, such as China”

Bearing this in mind, I regret Russia’s attempts to close its Arctic straits to international navigation. Designating them as internal waters under sovereign Russian control creates regulatory and administrative barriers to foreign navigation along the route. It also imposes the requirement to obtain Russia’s permission to enter and transit its exclusive economic zone and territorial sea.

The current Arctic governance framework provides a significant contribution to the stability of the region and I would like to congratulate the Arctic Council on its 25th anniversary as the primary forum for Arctic cooperation and its proven ability to maintain a constructive and positive spirit of cooperation. However, we should be aware that the military and security dimension does not fall into the Arctic Council’s remit.

The Council was established in 1996, when the Kremlin had no plans for invading its peaceful neighbours or conducting aggressive operations globally. Today, we have a radically different relationship with Moscow. This has had a profoundly negative impact on the Arctic region, as Russia has expanded its military capacities and reopened abandoned Cold War military installations, significantly boosting the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capacity in the strategic Northern Sea Route.

Crucially, President Putin also sees an enhanced Russian presence in the Arctic as a central element to the legacy he is building. For that reason, Moscow is taking a long view of the Arctic by seeking to establish a series of de facto legal, economic and military ‘faits accomplis’ that will, in time, come to be accepted as ‘de jure’. Furthermore, the region plays a crucial role for the security of Europe and transatlantic connectivity.

Therefore, in my opinion, Nato should be used as a forum for security-related Arctic issues, especially since five Arctic states are Nato members, and two others are ‘Enhanced Opportunities’ partners. I also welcome such formats as the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable.

It’s also essential to address new players in the High North, such as China. Beijing has engaged in a long-term effort to enhance its position in the Arctic, declaring itself a ‘near-Arctic state’, with the ambition of becoming a ‘polar power’.

This has profound implications for the Arctic’s economic development, with the aspiration to integrate the Arctic’s northern sea route into its ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative - as a ‘Polar Silk Road’. Beijing is aware that the Arctic is rich in mineral resources, including vast reserves of rare-earth elements – central to the ongoing global digital and low-carbon economic transition as well as new generations of weapons systems.

China currently accounts for around 90 percent of global rare-earth element production and claims its reserves could run out in the next 20 years. This is one of the factors driving Beijing’s strategy to gain control of the Arctic’s reserves.

“President Putin sees an enhanced Russian presence in the Arctic as a central element to the legacy he is building. For that reason, Moscow is taking a long view of the Arctic by seeking to establish a series of de facto legal, economic and military ‘faits accomplis’ that will, in time, come to be accepted as ‘de jure’”

China’s ambition to dominate the supply chain of rare-earth elements has driven it to become the most powerful player in the emerging technologies market. Rare-earth minerals are key to the further development of green technology and the fight against climate change, and Europe must cut its dependence on China for these minerals.

That is why the Arctic should play a central role in the European Raw Materials Alliance. The Alliance, announced in September 2020 as part of the EU’s Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials, aims to secure access to critical and strategic raw materials for EU.

I welcome the updating of the EU’s Arctic policy, which should reflect the region’s new security realities and players, such as China. We need greater European visibility in the region and more coordination at EU level, as well as consultations with the EEA countries, the US and Canada as well as the UK, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India and other partners committed to securing peaceful cooperation and freedom of navigation.

We have to make the most of possible synergies’ these will serve as the best reply to growing Sino-Russian cooperation. That is the only way to secure the Arctic as a low-tension area of peaceful cooperation. 

Read the most recent articles written by Anna Elzbieta Fotyga - 'Technological independence' is key to EU space policy

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