The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European Commission have adopted a policy proposal aiming to guide the actions of the European Union in the Arctic region. Although the EU has no direct coastline with the Arctic Ocean, it is inextricably linked to the region in terms of history, economy, trade and geography. Indeed, three EU Member States – Denmark, Sweden and Finland – are also Arctic States; moreover, the EU has close, strategic relations with various other Arctic States including Iceland, Norway, Canada and the United States. Climate change and high levels of human activity in the region mean that work to protect the Arctic high seas is becoming increasingly necessary; as the Arctic high seas fall outside of any national jurisdictions, they are considered a global responsibility.
The EU is one of the main contributors to Arctic research: since 2002, €200 million has been committed from the EU budget, not counting Member States’ individual contributions. The Council and the European Parliament asked the Commission and the High Representative in 2014 to develop a more coherent framework for EU action and funding programmes in the region – the new proposal is the result of this request. Developed in part on the basis of EU Member States’ individual Arctic policies and taking into account the extensive existing international legislative framework, the proposal includes 39 actions addressing climate change, environmental protection, sustainable development and international cooperation.
Building on the EU’s own climate goals and the climate agreement reached in Paris in 2015, the Commission has stated its eagerness to work with the Arctic States to develop a climate adaptation agenda for the region and has also indicated it will focus on international measures aiming to limit black carbon and methane emissions. Funding for research is another significant element of the new action plan: the Commission will thus maintain the current Horizon 2020 funding levels at around €20 million a year and will also support international climate change research through the Copernicus programme. In terms of the sustainable management of the Arctic Ocean, the EU already supports a network of protected marine areas; the action plan moreover supports the development of an international agreement to prevent unregulated fisheries and suggests the need to put in place a regional agreement or organisation to manage this.
Coming as it does in the wake of the unprecedented 2015 international climate agreement, this ambitious proposal may have been put forward at just the right time to benefit from the current wave of optimism. Indeed, a sense of international responsibility was apparent when Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, commented on the publication:
“We impact on the Arctic and the Arctic impacts on us. Global weather patterns, our oceans, ecosystems and local biodiversity – the Arctic influences them all. While increasing human development is inevitable, it is in our hands to do it in a sustainable way. We have to do this in full respect of the livelihoods of those who live in the region and by protecting its most valuable resource: the environment.”
The Council and the European Parliament have now been invited to give their opinion on the proposal. While proposals involving significant financial commitments such as this always attract a certain amount of criticism, it is difficult to imagine any real protest so soon after the EU’s ambitious international commitment to really work towards tackling climate change.