The EU made a U-turn in its vision of Arctic governance, which made Russian support for the EU’s bid for observer status in the Arctic Council more likely.
The melting of Arctic ice has created economic prospects and geopolitical competition. The EU’s most concrete objective – and the one for which it wants Russia’s support – is observer status in the Arctic Council, for which it first applied in 2008. (The EU’s three Arctic states – Denmark, Finland, and Sweden – are members of the Arctic Council and six other EU member states have observer status). Canada and Russia were traditionally against involving outsiders in the Arctic Council’s work. Denmark also had reservations but Copenhagen now officially supports the EU’s bid. A decision is due in 2013.
Russian support for the EU’s bid was made more likely by the U-turn on governance of the Arctic that the EU made in 2012. In its first joint communication on the subject in 2008, the EU had said the Arctic Ocean should be governed multilaterally as humankind’s common heritage. But, in a second joint communication published in July, it dropped all references to multilateralism and argued that management of the Arctic should be based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which defines borders of territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, and continental shelves. In other words, the EU now shares the Russian position that most of the Arctic should be divided up among the littoral states. But Russian pressure was not the main factor behind this policy change. Most Arctic states, including the EU’s three Arctic member states, had independently come round to that position.
The EU sees its engagement in the Arctic issues largely through the prism of “soft issues” such as research, help to indigenous peoples, and combating climate change; Russia sees it in terms of economic interests and geopolitics. For example, Russia claims that the underwater Lomonosov and Mendeleyev ridges, which reach the North Pole, are a continuation of its continental shelf. If this claim is recognised by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Russia’s economic zone would be extended by another 1.2 million square kilometres.