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Dr Joe Borg

Member of the European Commission

Responsible for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs

The Arctic: a matter of concern to us all

Conference: "Common Concern for the Arctic"
Ilulissat, Greenland, 9 September 2008

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Nordic Council of Ministers has consistently been a pioneer in the initiatives it has undertaken, and this event is no exception. I would, therefore, like, first of all, to express my thanks to the Nordic Council of Ministers for organising this timely conference on the Arctic and for providing me with this opportunity to outline Europe's vision for future cooperation and action in this extremely important region.

The Arctic finds itself in the throes of unprecedented change. The downward trend in ice cover, especially in the summer ice cover, is undeniable and recent measurements suggest that the ice may be retreating at an even faster rate than had previously been thought. We cannot remain impassive in the face of such alarming developments affecting the Arctic Climate, and, in consequence, the rest of our planet.

In a document on “Climate Change and International Security” adopted earlier this year, the European Commission, together with the High Representative Javier Solana, signalled the need to reflect on the increasing importance of the Arctic in EU policy. This document highlights the growing geopolitical importance of the Arctic region due to factors such as the rapid melting of the polar ice caps in the Arctic, which is opening up new waterways and international trade routes, and the increased accessibility to the enormous hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic region. This accessibility, in conjunction with territorial claims, is changing the geo-strategic dynamics of the region with potential consequences for international stability and for European security, trade and resource interests.

The European Union has therefore an important contribution to make to the future of this region. Indeed, the European Union is closely linked to the Arctic through history, geography, economy and science. Together with Iceland, Norway and Russia, we have developed the Northern Dimension policy and we are pleased to see the very good cooperation that has been established with the Nordic Council of Ministers within this framework.

The Northern Dimension – which is a key facet of the EU with its neighbours – seeks to translate a partnership between the EU and other northern non-member states into prosperity, sustainable development and well-being in Northern Europe.

We have come a long way since the 2002 Conference on "The Northern Dimension and the Arctic Window" that took place here in Ilulissat. Thus, the revised Northern Dimension adopted last year has higher aspirations: it aims at providing a common framework for dialogue and cooperation in Northern Europe. There has been too much division in this part of the world during the twentieth century. It is our hope that cooperation under the Northern Dimension will continue to promote sustainable development and will serve the benefits of all our citizens, in particular those living in the North.

The vast European Arctic and Sub-Arctic spaces are priority areas of the new Northern Dimension. This Northern Dimension is also the regional expression in the North of the complex relationship between the EU and Russia. It therefore serves as a privileged platform for us to discuss Northern issues with Russia, Norway and Iceland. There is a lot to gain from this dialogue, including specific projects benefiting the Arctic, such as the ones implemented under the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership.

The Arctic region is also important for the European Union within the framework of the Integrated Maritime Policy, which declares, among its five goals, the aim of promoting Europe's leadership in international Maritime Affairs. This policy envisages a twin track approach – to adopt a comprehensive and cross-sectoral approach to all ocean-related issues and at the same time to focus on the individual needs of the different oceans and seas that surround the European continent. It goes without saying that meaningful cooperation will be vital to the success of the Integrated Maritime Policy in the Arctic. You have already shown great willingness to provide us with valuable input as we go about fleshing out this policy. Indeed, I am delighted to see that the Arctic Council has also been exploring an integrated approach to maritime issues. This is encouraging and demonstrates that we are thinking on the same lines.

Later this year, the European Commission will present a Communication on the Arctic region. This Communication will examine strategic issues ranging from climate change to questions relating to governance. Its aim is to assess how Europe can best contribute towards the sustainable development of the region while protecting the Arctic from environmental changes resulting from the increasing human activity that this development will entail.

Let me be more specific: as a result of the climatic changes and the recent technological developments, we are faced with a rapidly changing situation in this region. As the ice recedes, we are presented with a first-time opportunity to use transport routes such as the Northern Sea Route. This would translate into shorter transportation routes and greater trading possibilities, and will provide a better opportunity to draw upon the wealth of untapped natural resources in the Arctic. The indigenous communities of the region, which – as the European Parliament has pointed out – possess unrivalled knowledge of their region, would be well placed to benefit economically from such activity and from potential new forms of tourism. Working together with this region's coastal communities in key-areas such as maritime spatial planning and scientific research could prove highly advantageous for all concerned.

Yet every promising opportunity hides a formidable challenge. The changes I have mentioned may also present a threat to the Arctic ecosystem and the traditional lifestyle of Arctic indigenous peoples. Increased activity in a more accessible Arctic region could create problems in terms of long-term pollution as well as other threats to this pristine environment and its inhabitants. Damage to ecosystems and the environmental wonders, such as the Ilulissat Icefjord, resulting from climate change and human activity would harm not only tourism but the economy of the region as a whole and would result in an irrecoverable loss.

Hence, in the current context of growing economic interests, the European Union will continue to emphasise the paramount need to protect and preserve the Arctic's environment, climate and biodiversity.

The European Commission's Communication on the Arctic will be proposing action on three broad fronts.

Firstly, we must aim at safeguarding the Arctic. Scientific research and monitoring have a pivotal role to play in this respect. The EU has a strong track record here. Our Research Framework Programmes have contributed strongly to the International Polar Year and the current understanding of the Arctic ecosystem. We believe that boosting cooperation among partners will serve as a catalyst for enhancing research infrastructure and creating much-needed synergies in this field.

Protecting the environment is of course crucial. The vulnerability of ice-covered areas to marine pollution from shipping activities is so apparent that it had even merited a specific Article in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is clear that a global response is needed if we are to create high standards of environmental protection. Within this context, the European Union will remain at the forefront of such initiatives concerning the fight against climate change and sustainable development.

Secondly, we must promote the sustainable use of resources. The Arctic harbours large reserves of hydrocarbons and other natural resources. We believe that any exploitation of the Arctic's resources should be conducted in a sustainable manner. Moreover, we should seek to apply the principles of a level playing field and reciprocal market access in the Arctic. Furthermore, receding ice and warmer waters may create new fishing opportunities, which could potentially lead to threats to breeding and spawning grounds. As yet there is no international fisheries conservation and management regime in place that covers all of the Arctic's high seas. Here again the European Union is willing to ensure that any future fishing activities are properly regulated, so as to provide for the fair and sustainable exploitation of such a precious resource.

This brings me to the third, broader question of governance.

We are entering uncharted territory, both literally and metaphorically speaking. Hence the pressing need for proper management. This is exactly the reason why we intend to highlight the issue of Arctic cooperation and governance in our Communication.

The main building blocks are in place. They include the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and also the work done by organisations such as the Arctic Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers, NEAFC and, of course, the Northern Dimension policy. Nevertheless, we should be open to develop this system further, adapting it to the new challenges and circumstances, relating to both the legal dispositions and the practical dimension. Likewise, we should revisit the international environmental treaties applicable to the Arctic. We need to determine how well they are being enforced and whether additional measures are needed.

As regards transport, the full application of sound and internationally accepted navigation rules and shipping standards should secure freedom of navigation in new Arctic routes, ensuring a level playing field and minimising any detrimental effects from shipping.

Environmental governance could be bolstered by means of enhanced regional cooperation that will build inter alia on the Northern Dimension and will take up the issues now facing us. These include sustainable development, equitable access to resources and the societal needs of indigenous communities. With the genuine commitment of all sides, I believe that we will affect real and positive change.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Swedish presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2008 has established climate change and multilateral coordination as two of its priorities. My message to you is similar - climate change is an issue with far-reaching effects that we cannot tackle in isolation.

Dialogue involving all, the Arctic coastal States and stakeholders to shape multilateral cooperation would be a healthy start. I believe that we are conscious of the fact that we must be bold and that we need to face up to our responsibilities together, for the good of this precious region and for our planet as a whole.

Thank you.

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