Official Journal of the European Union

C 75/144

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘An integrated European Union policy for the Arctic’

(JOIN(2016) 21 final)

(2017/C 075/24)




European Commission, 27.4.2016

Legal basis

Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

Section responsible

External Relations

Adopted in section


Adopted at plenary


Plenary session No


Outcome of vote



1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The EESC is keenly aware of the importance of the Arctic region for the European Union, and in particular for the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland and Sweden, which are members of the Arctic Council.


But it is equally aware of the fact that the European Union only acts as an observer in the Arctic Council, even if it has de facto been able to go beyond the strict role of an observer. The Committee has previously expressed its desire for the EU to play a bigger role in Arctic region (see opinion REX/371 by Filip Hamro-Drotz) (1).


The EESC stresses that the EU sits on or participates in other international bodies that also deal with Arctic issues and that it is therefore able to expand its influence. This is particularly true with regard to climate change, maritime agreements and the law of the sea, fishing, and even certain aspects of space policy.


On the one hand, the communication is based on three pillars — climate change, sustainable development and international cooperation — while on the other hand, effectiveness is dependent on the results of this international cooperation, and sustainable development is the priority for representatives of the people living in the region. Given this, the EESC suggests reversing the order in which the EU’s objectives are presented so as to make them clearer and more effective, especially as the objectives and projects mentioned by the Commission are commendable and their intention can scarcely be criticised.


One of the consequences of climate change has been to open up new waterways in the north: the famous North West Passage vainly sought for by Chateaubriand in the late 18th century. This development opens up specific opportunities for shipping, fishing, and even mining, which in turn mean an increased risk of ‘perils of the sea’ and drilling incidents requiring rescue infrastructure which is not present in those locations. The Committee therefore recommends treating the issues of safety and security — not only in terms of transport but also in terms of drilling — as being of the utmost importance, and underlines the fact that the environmental consequences of these new waterways, opened up by the melting ice, are not yet known.


In this regard, the EESC emphasises that the deployment of Galileo has the potential to contribute to monitoring and preventing pollution and maritime disasters and that it will be of particular use with regard to the Arctic. The EESC also underlines how important it is for other European policies — in addition to climate and environmental policies, of course — to take account of Arctic issues. This applies in particular to the EU’s structural policy, common agricultural policy, fisheries policy and maritime policy.


The EESC believes that the principles of responsible fishing should apply in the Arctic region and that the potential development of tourism and other economic activities should follow a philosophy of responsibility towards and protection of this environment — an environment that is as sensitive as it is fragile, and one that has already been severely affected by the warming of the northern hemisphere.


It also stresses that, while they wish to preserve their cultures, people living there also want to be able to benefit from the opportunities offered by sustainable economic and social development, which are very often brought about by means of improved physical and non-physical means of communication.. The EESC calls for civil society to be able to play an active role in promoting the interests and concerns of people who live there. They must not be passive, but should be actively involved in policies relating to the Arctic. The EESC is in favour of better protecting Arctic resources which are the natural capital of future generations, and of viewing current environmental changes in the Arctic as a measure of European and global progress on climate protection. The preservation of Arctic regions and the fight against climate change must not be undertaken without consideration for inhabitants or in a way that is detrimental to them.


The objectives of the integrated European Union policy for the Arctic cannot be pursued without the agreement and support of countries that are not — and never will be — EU Member States. Some of them are global superpowers that do not necessarily have the same economic and strategic objectives as the EU. The success and tangible impact of this Arctic policy will therefore depend on the EU’s diplomatic skill, its ability to make these goals a crosscutting concern in its diplomacy in areas that, strictly speaking, go beyond the Arctic, and its ability to bring other countries round to positions that align with its own. International cooperation is, and will continue to be, crucial to any Arctic policy.

2.   Introduction


Eight countries are Arctic states, including three EU Member States: the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland and Sweden. Two non-EU members of the European Economic Area, Iceland and Norway, as well as Canada, the United States and Russia are also Arctic countries. With the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, these eight countries founded the Arctic Council, which aims to promote sustainable social, economic and environmental development in the region.


As a result, and without encroaching on national competences, the EU was unable to ignore the Arctic as an important strategic area. However, the Commission places a strong emphasis on the climate issue, on the premise that this region of the world plays a central role in climate matters while also suffering the effects of climate change. Recent studies suggest that the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world. Moreover, the Arctic is both affected by and has an enormous impact on climate change. It should also be noted that indigenous people live in this region.


However, the European Union is not a member of the Arctic Council but has a standing invitation to attend as observer. China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom have observer status. The EU applied for permanent observer status in 2008; this request is pending a final decision. The large number of countries with observer status in the Arctic Council demonstrates just how important the Arctic is for the international community.


Meanwhile, the representative institutions and associations of indigenous people (Sami, Aleuts, indigenous peoples of Siberia and the Russian North and Far East, the Arctic Council of Alaska, etc.) are ‘permanent participants’, which demonstrates a real desire to take their lives and their wishes into account in terms of development. These population groups are small but very much present in the Arctic, and represent rich cultures.


The Arctic would seem to be a prime arena for EU policy that aims to combat climate change and limit rising temperatures, but the EU cannot act alone: it is reliant on powers whose priorities are geared more towards military, economic and maritime transport strategies. Moreover, the Arctic Council has hitherto mainly been concerned with the issue of the region’s — sustainable (of course) — development.


Climate change can have a major impact on the living conditions of the people who live in the region. It is clear that policies geared towards climate change must not be developed in opposition to these people, but with them and for them.


The Arctic is of not inconsiderable economic importance for the EU, which consumes many Arctic products — in particular fishery products and energy sources. Nor should the economic, social and environmental effects of new waterways opening up be neglected. Moreover, what is true for the European Union is also true for the countries that are present in this region. Thus the United States has granted authorisations to drill in the Arctic.


The Commission has structured its document around three themes that demonstrate its priorities. The question is to decide whether they are relevant:

tackling climate change and safeguarding the Arctic environment;

promoting sustainable development;

supporting international cooperation on Arctic issues.


It should be emphasised that this last point is crucial and ultimately has an impact on the first two, as the EU’s only direct involvement is in the form of three Member States and it has to accommodate the United States, Russia and Canada — three major powers that all have significant economic and strategic interests in the Arctic region. It should be noted that some Asian countries — especially China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore — are showing a great deal of interest in the region.


It is also worth questioning the role given to environmental and climate change-related issues, which are the primary concern for the Commission but not necessarily for our international partners, who view sustainable development as very important but not as a priority.

3.   General comments


The Commission’s priority is evidently to combat the effects of climate change on the Arctic. It is particularly concerned about the permafrost thawing (which could have a catastrophic effect in terms of methane and CO2 emissions) and the protection of local ecosystems. These are legitimate concerns, but the EU alone does not hold the keys to solving these problems.


In order to be better able to meet these challenges, the Commission stresses the importance of Arctic research and monitoring efforts and mentions the funding dedicated to this end. It highlights the need for enhanced international cooperation and calls for transnational access to research infrastructure and data.


This observation demonstrates — if such a demonstration were necessary — that the efficacy of EU policies depends on the efficacy of international cooperation.


The Commission sets out its ‘climate policy’ objectives, with reference to the particular case of the Arctic. In practice, the Commission is confronted with the following broad challenge: it is not able to act effectively if its goals are not shared at global level, in particular by the Arctic states, even if it takes specific action via the European Structural and Investment Funds. The ratification of the Paris agreements on climate change should make measures and policies in the Arctic region more effective.


The Commission rightly calls for a high level of biodiversity protection and the establishment of marine protected areas, as well as advocating that pollution from heavy metals and heavy pollutants be tackled. However, it should be stressed that marine protected areas on the high seas are very ineffective, except in terms of a ban on fishing. Indeed, they are by definition impossible to control and safeguard as they are in constant flux, both in terms of the water and the species that live within them and that are constantly fluctuating.


Similarly, the Commission stresses the need for international cooperation in the field of oil and gas operations, in particular so as to prevent major accidents. Once again, how effective this is depends on the strength of the international relations forged with the other countries involved in the Arctic. In this regard, it should be noted that difficult relations with Russia have not had a negative effect in terms of the Arctic, where cooperation is satisfactory.


While it possesses many sought-after resources — fish, minerals, oil and gas —, the vast and sparsely populated Arctic region does not enjoy easy transport links. The Commission calls for the development of a sustainable economy, which is all the more necessary given that the natural areas are fragile and are being ravaged by climate change. The Arctic’s natural resources should be protected as a reserve for future use, while also respecting the interests of the people who live there. The EESC is in favour of better protecting Arctic resources which are the natural capital of future generations, and of viewing current environmental changes in the Arctic as a measure of European and global progress on climate protection. The preservation of Arctic regions and the fight against climate change must not be undertaken without consideration for inhabitants or in a way that is detrimental to them.


The EU should support the introduction of innovative technologies, in particular to cope with the rigours of the Arctic winter. The InnovFin programme could be deployed for the Arctic. The Commission also calls for effective access to the single market. At present, this is still a distant prospect. But other European policies are also involved: the common agricultural policy, fisheries policy and maritime policy.


The Commission plans to set up a forum to strengthen cooperation and coordination between the various EU funding programmes. This forum would set investment and research priorities.


In parallel, and as part of Interreg, a network of management authorities and stakeholders would be set up which could give rise to an annual conference of Arctic stakeholders. This idea is appealing, provided that its implementation is flexible, responsive and adaptable.


In terms of investment, the Commission particularly emphasises transport networks, which are necessary to enable Arctic regions to break out of their isolation, and points out that the northern reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway are part of the trans-European transport network. This element is clearly crucial to opening up the region to the rest of the world.


The size of the Arctic and its low population density mean that the use of space technologies is particularly appropriate. The Copernicus and Galileo programmes will be invaluable to the region. We can only support the Commission’s approach in this regard.


The melting of ice has led to the North East Passage opening up; navigation safety along new routes should be ensured. The EESC can only support the Commission’s approach in this regard. The idea of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum should be retained.


It is the success of international cooperation that will determine whether the policies embarked upon succeed or fail.


The Commission lists the various legal instruments and relevant forums and stresses the need for the EU’s robust involvement, while also noting the need for bilateral cooperation, in particular with the major players: the United States, Russia and Canada, as well as Greenland and certain Asian countries that are taking a great deal of interest in the issue of the Arctic.


It emphasises the need for dialogue with indigenous people, who, it should be remembered, are the ones who are the first to be affected and should not have to suffer the aftereffects of policies that might be detrimental to them, especially in terms of the region’s sustainable economic and social development. Civil society therefore has an important role to play in ensuring that indigenous people’s concerns are properly taken into account, both in terms of the economy and in terms of society. In this regard, the EESC could be their voice within the European Union.


In terms of the economy, and in this spirit, the Commission welcomes the declaration on fishing activities signed by five Arctic Ocean coastal states but rightly emphasises that the issue does not concern solely these coastal states.


Finally, with regard to research, the Commission supports the idea of enhanced scientific cooperation, in particular under the Transatlantic (and Arctic) Ocean Research Alliance and would like to map the entire seabed by 2020, a goal that is of considerable scientific interest and that can only be welcomed, but one that has repercussions — in terms of security, transport and economic activity — that go beyond merely scientific knowledge.

Brussels, 14 December 2016.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Georges DASSIS

(1)  OJ C 198, 10.7.2013, p. 26.