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European Commission


Brussels, 3 July 2012

EU’s Arctic Policy: Questions and Answers

1. What is the Arctic region?

While various definitions are in use for the Arctic, here, the notion “Arctic region” covers the area around the North Pole, north of the Arctic Circle (latitude 66 degrees, 32 minutes North). It includes the Arctic Ocean and territories of the eight Arctic states: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and USA.

2. Why is the Arctic relevant to the EU?

While the EU has no direct coastline with the Arctic Ocean, it is inextricably linked to the Arctic, not only from historical, economic and geographical perspectives, but also as an importer of natural resources and through its wider concern and responsibility for the global environment.

Furthermore, three Arctic countries are EU Member States (Denmark, Sweden and Finland). The EU maintains close relations with Iceland and Norway through the European Economic Area. Iceland applied for EU membership in 2009. Canada, Russia and the United States are strategic partners of the EU.

The European Union is one of the world’s strongest proponents of greater international efforts to fight climate change, through the development of alternative energy sources, resource efficiency and climate change research. The European Union is also a major destination of resources and goods from the Arctic region. Many of its policies and regulations have implications for Arctic stakeholders. The European Union wants to be engaged at a higher level of cooperation with Arctic partners in order to increase its awareness of their concerns and to address common challenges in a collaborative manner.

3. What is the situation in the Arctic?

The Arctic is rapidly warming up. The period 2005-2010 stands out as the warmest period ever recorded in the region1 and this is projected to continue into the future. The Arctic's rapid change provides a strong rationale for the EU to step up its commitment to environmental protection and combating climate change in the area.

As warming continues, ice-free summers in the Arctic may be evident in the next 30 to 40 years. Already, thawing sea ice and rapid advances in offshore technology have increased human activity in the region, such as shipping, mining and hydrocarbon extraction.

For example, in 2010 six vessels sailed the Northern Sea Route, the shipping lane connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. In 2011, there were 34 vessels and this figure is set to double in 2012.

Off-shore drilling activities in the Arctic are also increasing, notably in the Barents Sea. In 2009, the US Geological Survey indicated that the Arctic may hold 13% of undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas reserves. This would be enough to continuously supply current global demand for three years of oil and 14 years of gas. About 84% of the estimated resources are expected to occur offshore.

In view of these developments, the Arctic will be increasingly important to the EU economy. However, more human activity may have a serious impact on the Arctic's fragile environment.

4. Who looks after the Arctic?

There is an extensive international legal framework that applies to the Arctic, including:

  • The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which asserts jurisdictional rights in the various maritime zones and provides the basis for the settlement of disputes, including delimitation, as well as containing rules related to the establishment of the outer shelves of the continental shelves of coastal states. The EU is member of UNCLOS.

  • The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised agency of the UN with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of maritime pollution by ships. All EU Member States are IMO Members. The European Commission has an observer status.

  • The Arctic Council is the main international forum that is directly concerned with the Arctic's sustainable development and environmental protection. Founded in 1996, it does not address boundary or resource disputes or any other issue related to security matters.

All eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and USA) are members of the Arctic Council, as are organisations representing six indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic. Aside from three EU Member State members of the Arctic Council, six observer countries are also EU Member States (France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK). Representing the EU, the European Commission has been an ad-hoc observer in the Arctic Council and applied for observer status in 2008. This application was reconfirmed in 2011, at the request of the Arctic Council.

5. Is the Arctic not managed under a treaty, like Antarctica?

No. As a matter of fact, the similarities between the two poles are scarce: while the Arctic is mainly an ocean, the Antarctic is a continent. The Arctic has been populated by humans for millennia, while Antarctica is the largest uninhabited area in the world.

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty was negotiated and signed against the background of the Cold War. The Arctic is now an area of successful international cooperation. For example, the recent conclusion of the Treaty between Norway and the Russian Federation concerning Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean is a example of positive cooperation.

6. How is the EU contributing to the work in the Arctic?

EU interests in the Arctic touch upon many topics including environment, energy, transport, and fisheries. The European Union has long been active in Arctic cooperation, not least in the Northern Dimension policy shared with Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden and in the Barents Euro-Arctic Council. The Commission, as well as the European Environment Agency and the European Maritime Safety Agency, have also been an ad-hoc observer in the Arctic Council for many years and have contributed to the Council's work.

The EU is one of the largest contributors to Arctic research: € 200 million has been committed since 2002 from the EU budget, excluding the individual contributions from EU Member States. The commercial fleet controlled by the EU Member States is one of the largest in the world and the EU industry has significant experience in shipping, ship-building, satellite navigation, search and rescue as well as port infrastructure development.

Furthermore, the EU provides a significant amount of funding through various initiatives to indigenous peoples and local populations. Funding programmes during the 2007-2013 co-financing period amount to €1.14 billion, or €1.98 billion including EU Member States co-financing.

7. Why are the European Commission and the High Representative presenting this Communication?

In 2008, the Commission adopted its first Communication specifically on the Arctic (see IP/08/1750). Since then, the EU has made significant progress on the 47 proposals concerning the Arctic that were first tabled in 2008, including actions against climate change, protection of the Arctic environment, contribution to Arctic research and economic development in the region.

Following a request by the Council of the European Union, the document adopted today reviews the EU's contribution to the Arctic since 2008. It also sets out a path for future enhanced engagement with Arctic partners. In order to respond to the new challenges and building on the EU's contribution to date, it underlines the need for a coherent, targeted EU approach towards the Arctic, building on the EU’s strengths, promoting responsible development while engaging more extensively in dialogue and cooperation with all Arctic stakeholders. The aim is to protect the Arctic environment and support sustainable and peaceful development in this region – through investment in knowledge, promote a responsible approach to commercial opportunities and constructive engagement with Arctic States and indigenous peoples.

8. What actions are you proposing?

The strategy contains a number of actions to further develop the EU's policy towards the Arctic.

A. Support of research and channel knowledge in order to address the challenges of environmental and climate changes in the Arctic by, among others:

  • Supporting Arctic research under the Commission’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (see IP/11/1475);

  • Working with others (state and non-state actors) to combat global climate change, to safeguard the Arctic environment, and to improve scientific knowledge to meet these challenges. For instance, in April 2012 the European Commission joined the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants.2 This initiative should complement the necessary UN efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Stepping up international cooperation on the roll-out of global research stations in the Arctic;

  • Contribution to search and rescue in the Arctic through the launch of the next-generation observation satellites (see IP/11/1477).

B. The EU will respond responsibly to developments in the Arctic by promoting sustainable use of resources and environmental expertise by, among others:

  • Using the EU’s funding opportunities to maximise sustainable development in the

  • Arctic for the benefit of local and indigenous communities;

  • Promoting and supporting the development of environmentally friendly technologies that could be used by extractive and shipping industries in the Arctic;

  • Supporting the precautionary principle concerning Arctic fisheries: scientific advice and a regulatory arrangement are a precondition before new fishing opportunities are exploited in the Arctic high seas;

  • Exploring further potential for innovative economic activities, such as developing sustainable tourism and renewable energy sectors.

C. The EU is to intensify its constructive engagement and dialogue with Arctic States, indigenous communities and partners by, among others:

  • Enhancing the EU's bilateral dialogues on Arctic issues with Canada, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States;

  • Stepping up efforts to hold regular dialogue with representatives of indigenous peoples;

  • Pursuing the EU's involvement within relevant international frameworks on Arctic issues such as biodiversity, ecosystem-based management, persistent organic pollutants, marine protected areas, international navigation, environmental and maritime safety standards.

9. What are the next steps?

The Commission and the High Representative now await the views of the Council of the European Union (Member States) and of the European Parliament. At the same time, the Commission and the High Representative engage in a broad dialogue and consultation process with Arctic states, indigenous peoples and other relevant stakeholders in order to refine the EU's new policy stance and ensure that the EU's future contribution to the Arctic has the support of regional stakeholders and is supportive of the common actions of Arctic states.

More information:

1 :

Source: AMAP’s 2011 assessment of the impacts of climate change on Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA)

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