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European Commission - Fact Sheet

An Integrated EU policy for the Arctic – Frequently Asked Questions

Brussels, 27 April 2016

The High Representative and the European Commission set out an integrated response to the challenges of the Arctic.

1. What is the Arctic region?

While various definitions for the Arctic exist, in the Joint Communication 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, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States of America.

2. Why is the Arctic relevant to the EU?

Though the European Union has no direct coastline with the Arctic Ocean, it is inextricably linked to the Arctic. We share historical, economic, trade and geographical links, whilst a number of existing EU activities, funding, projects and decisions are already having an impact on the region's sustainable development.

A lot of work is needed to protect the Arctic high seas in view of climatic change and increasing human activity in the region. The sustainable management of the Arctic high seas, outside of national jurisdiction, are a global responsibility, hence also for the European Union. Furthermore, three Arctic States are also EU Member States: Denmark; Sweden; and Finland. The European Union furthermore maintains close relations with Iceland and Norway as members of the European Economic Area, while countries such as Canada and the United States are strategic partners of the EU.

3. What is the environmental situation of the Arctic?

The Arctic is rapidly warming up. According to the International Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, permafrost temperatures have increased in most regions since the early 1980s, and this is projected to continue into the future. This development provides a strong rationale for the EU to step up its commitment to combat climate change and safeguard the region's environment.

As warming continues, ice-free summers in the Arctic may occur even as soon as in the next 20 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.

4. What is the international legal framework that looks after the Arctic?

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

  • The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which asserts jurisdictional rights of nations in the various maritime zones. The EU is a signatory of UNCLOS;
  • The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations 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 an international, intergovernmental 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. The EU is an ad hoc observer to Arctic Council proceedings, 3 Member States are members of the Arctic Council (the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland and Sweden), while seven Member States are permanent observers (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom);
  •  The Barents Euro Arctic Council (BEAC) is the forum for intergovernmental and interregional cooperation in the Barents Region. The European Commission is a full member;
  •  The Northern Dimension is a joint policy between the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland. It was initiated in 1999 and aims at providing a framework to promote dialogue and concrete cooperation in issues such as economy, culture, environment and transport.
  •  The OSPAR Convention aims to protect the marine environment and ecosystems from emerging threats linked to pollution, maritime activities, together with climate change and increased human presence.

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

The EU's interests in the Arctic touch upon many areas including, but not limited to, 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 European Union has also been an ad-hoc observer in the Arctic Council for many years and has contributed to the Arctic 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. Recent and ongoing projects have tackled a range of issues in order to develop a full picture of a changing Arctic: one strand of research concerns the impact of climate change on the region's ecosystem and on key economic sectors. Other projects are studying the evolution of the Arctic sea ice cover, glaciers and ice sheets, including the impact that their loss is having on the sea-level. A project involving all Arctic countries produced a first-ever harmonised assessment of soil conditions in the region, the atlas of Northern Circumpolar Soils. Finally, several projects have been involved with boosting research infrastructure in the region, including by building on the Interact network of 70 terrestrial field bases scattered around the region.

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, which has significant potential to support growth and development, while ensuring the highest environmental standards are respected.

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 the co-financing of EU Member States. Over €1 billion from the European Structural and Investment Funds will be invested in the area over 2014-2020 in strategic fields such as research and innovation, support to small businesses and clean energy.

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

The European Parliament and the Council in 2014 asked the Commission and the High Representative to develop an integrated policy on Arctic matters, with a more coherent framework for EU action and funding programmes. It is clear from developments on the ground that an enhanced EU reaction is needed. Climate change in the region is progressing more rapidly and more comprehensively than forecasts predicted, and as the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the EU is a responsible partner in the work to contain those developments.

In the same vein, sustainable development is both necessary and possible in the Arctic region. The EU can certainly contribute to the Arctic's need for enhanced socio-economic resilience, as it can in terms of science, research and innovation. The EU has considerable resources, data and research capacity which it can dedicate to advancing on issues of regional and international importance. The Joint Communication adopted today captures all these points.

7. What actions are you proposing?

The integrated policy contains 39 actions to further develop the EU's policy towards the Arctic across three areas that are closely interlinked:

A.)In order to further tackle climate change and safeguard environmental protection,

  • The EU has already committed itself to reducing its greenhouse gases by 40% in 2030 and 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. The EU will strive for an international implementation of the climate agreement struck in Paris in December last year. Already 20% of the EU budget has been reserved for climate adaptation and mitigation measures.
  • The EU stands ready to work together with Arctic states, including their local population and indigenous communities, and relevant international fora to develop an ambitious climate adaptation agenda for the Arctic region.
  • The EU will also contribute to international measures to limit black carbon and methane emissions.
  • The EU is to maintain current funding levels for Arctic research under Horizon 2020 (on average 20 million per year). Around 40 million has already been earmarked for 2016 and 2017 for projects on observation, weather and climate change in the northern hemisphere and permafrost decrease.
  • Twenty-two of Europe’s leading Arctic research institutions will develop an integrated European polar research programme under the EU-PolarNet initiative.
  • The EU is to support the transnational access to research infrastructures in the Arctic (research stations, scientific vessels, satellite observations) and the open access to data resources. The EU’s Copernicus space programme is to support international research on climate change in the Arctic.
  • A number of international environmental agreements, such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, are highly relevant for the Arctic, but are still far from implemented by signatories, the EU is to encourage their implementation.
  • Pollutants and heavy metals that are currently polluting the Arctic’s food web should be phased out between now and 2020.
  • As part of the sustainable management of the Arctic Ocean, the EU supports the development of a network of marine protected areas in the Arctic. The EU is keen to develop an international agreement that is to prevent unregulated fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. In the long-term, marine biological resources need to be managed through either a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation or Agreement.

B.)For the benefit of sustainable development in the region:

  • The European part of the Arctic is suffering from underinvestment, while a number of EU funding instruments and services are ready to support innovation, infrastructure development, such as improving transport links, and businesses (e.g. through respectively the Investment Plan for Europe, Ten-T, Innovfin and the European Enterprise Network), the Commission will make efforts to enhance coordination between EU funding programmes relevant for the Arctic, identify key investment and research priorities as well as facilitate capacity building of stakeholders to maximise financial support for the region.  
  • EU Space programmes and targeted EU research projects are to contribute to maritime safety in the region through surveillance and monitoring of vessel traffic and ice movements (Copernicus) and providing navigation services (Galileo).

C.)As regards international cooperation:

  • The EU will continue to actively engage in international fora relevant for the Arctic, such as the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Northern Dimension.
  • The EU will cooperate with all of its Arctic partners, not only third countries who have territories in the Arctic, but also sub-regional countries with increasing Arctic interests such as China, India and Japan, for example on science and research.
  • As EU policies directly affect the region, the EU will continue to engage with Arctic indigenous peoples and local communities to ensure that their rights are respected and their views are reflected in the ongoing development of EU policies.

8. What are the next steps?

In order to ensure coherence, effectiveness and continuity in the EU’s Arctic policy, the Council of the European Union (Member States) and the European Parliament are now invited to give their views on this Joint Communication.


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