This article is part of the Wider Europe Forum.
Later this week, the Arctic Council will gather for its ninth ministerial meeting in the small town of Iqaluit, Nunavut in Northern Canada. The forum has become the focal point of circumpolar inter-state cooperation in the Arctic since it was established in 1996, and uniquely, it also includes representation for Arctic indigenous peoples’ organisations. April’s event will mark the end of the second Canadian chairmanship (2013-2015) of the council and signal the beginning of the second United States chairmanship (2015-2017). The ministerial meeting will provide a valuable opportunity for the Arctic states to discuss the progress of the various initiatives carried out under the auspices of the Arctic Council, as well as to set new programmes in motion. Over the last two years, substantive progress has been made on sustainable development, biodiversity protection, scientific cooperation, emergency preparedness and response, protection of the marine environment, and pollution assessment.
For the European Union, the last three ministerial meetings have proved frustrating. The body of the Arctic Council is made up of the eight Arctic member states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US)and six Permanent Participants groups (representing Arctic indigenous peoples organisations). Before 2011, there were also six “permanent” state observers (the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Germany) and a number of “ad hoc” observers, including China, Italy, South Korea, and the EU (later joined by Japan). The main difference between permanent and ad hoc observers was that the ad hoc observers had to apply to attend Arctic Council meetings. But in practice, their rights were much the same. At the 2009 Ministerial meeting in Tromsø, Norway, the ad hoc observers were thwarted in their bid to become permanent observers. This was a major blow to the Arctic policy adopted by the European Council in 2008. However, the decision was unsurprising, given Canada’s angry reaction to the EU’s 2008 decision to approve a ban on the trade in commercial seal products. Canada has argued that this ban damages the livelihoods of indigenous peoples in the Arctic. As a Canadian statement noted, “as long as [the] European Union doesn’t have the required sensitivity to the needs of northerners, I see no reason why they should be […] a permanent observer on the Arctic Council”.
The European Parliament caused further consternation in 2008 when it called for an international Arctic Treaty, modelled on the Antarctic Treaty System.
The European Parliament caused further consternation in 2008 when it called for an international Arctic Treaty, modelled on the Antarctic Treaty System. The Arctic states entirely rejected the proposal: they perceived it as a threat to their sovereignty and to the legal status quo in the region. The European Parliament’s move also fed broader fears – particularly from Canada and Russia – that the international community was encroaching too much on the primacy of the Arctic states in the management of Arctic affairs. Consequently, although no application was rejected at the Tromsø Ministerial in 2009, the Arctic Council deferred making any decision on applicants until deeper deliberations had been held on how to manage growing global interest in the Arctic.
Over the next few years, a period of institutional development followed within the Arctic Council. The role of observers was re-evaluated, as were the criteria for admission. As a result, the distinction between permanent and ad hoc observers was dropped. The council published criteria that existing observers and new applicants would need to observe in order to be accepted into the Arctic Council. With these new rules in place, the Arctic Council was able to rule on the waiting applications at the ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden in 2013. China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Italy were all accepted. The EU’s application was received “affirmatively”, but a final decision on implementing the EU’s new observer status was deferred until the seal ban issue was resolved.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
In October 2014, it was announced that the EU and Canada had reached a deal. The EU would exempt indigenous seal products (and related non-indigenous businesses that process indigenous products) from the European market ban. The European Commission claimed that, in return, Canada had agreed to “lift its reservations concerning the EU’s observer status in the Arctic Council”.
There is some justification for the view that the Arctic Council has spent too much time deliberating on the question in recent years, at the expense of making progress on core tasks.
Even so, the ministerial meeting in Iqaluit may yet result in the EU’s application for observer status being deferred again. The reasons are both practical and political. On the practical side, the costs and logistics involved in holding a ministerial meeting in Iqaluit has made for a tightly packed agenda. No decision has been made on whether observer applications will even be discussed in Iqaluit (the issue was not on the agenda at the last Senior Arctic Officials plenary meeting in Whitehorse, Canada). And, although Arctic Council states recognise that the observer issue needs to be resolved, there is some justification for the view that the Arctic Council has spent too much time deliberating on the question in recent years, at the expense of making progress on core tasks.
If the issue is raised, political considerations might work against the EU. The question of whether the EU should be granted observer status is likely to be overshadowed by the recent deterioration of Europe’s relations with Russia. The Kiruna Declaration of 2013 showed that the Arctic Council had reached a consensus and was prepared to accept the EU as an observer once outstanding issues with Canada had been resolved. But all of the Arctic states reserved the right to alter their position, effectively giving each one a veto over observer applications.
Russia’s resistance to granting the EU observer status is not entirely new. Like Canada, Russia has long been wary of outsider interest in the Arctic and of the perceived internationalisation of Arctic affairs. But with Canada proving a powerful block to the EU, Russia had been able, until recently, to take a more reserved stance. In 2013, the Kremlin acknowledged the need for greater international investment in Russian Arctic hydrocarbon development. This also signalled Russia’s appreciation of the importance of Western technology, finance, and expertise for the realisation of expensive oil and gas projects in the Russian Arctic, which may have softened Russia’s resistance to the EU’s bid in the Arctic Council.
Given Russia’s importance to the region, the Arctic states have more interest in maintaining relations with the Kremlin over Arctic issues than in supporting the EU’s bid.
However, Russia’s position on the EU’s application has likely hardened since Brussels targeted sanctions at oil projects in the Russian Arctic. The Kremlin is widely expected to respond by blocking the EU’s request to become an observer – a move that will further frustrate the EU’s ambition to be officially recognised as an important partner in Arctic affairs. Should this happen, it is difficult to see what the other Arctic states would be able to do in response, if they wish to preserve their commitment to circumpolar cooperation with Russia. Given Russia’s importance to the region, the Arctic states have more interest in maintaining relations with the Kremlin over Arctic issues than in supporting the EU’s bid.
As a result, and in light of the real practical issues involved in holding the discussion, the EU should not be surprised if the other Arctic states prefer to avoid discussing the issue of observer applications altogether, deferring a decision on the EU for at least two more years.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.