The spell of the Arctic: The European Union and its Northern Neighbourhood

Snowy landscape, ice, wind and blizzard

Andreas Raspotnik explores the future of the European Union’s Arctic policy.

The Arctic is melting. And it is melting fast. In times of starving polar bears going viral, the Arctic has become the globe’s ‘climate change’ canary in a coal mine. After some rather silent years around the turn of the millennium, the region prominently re-hit global headlines a decade ago. It was a period of time when global climate change cut the public surface with former U.S. vice president Al Gore unveiling An Inconvenient Truth or the IPCC declaring the warming of the global climate system as unequivocal. It was in summer 2007 when the planting of a Russian titanium flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean caused international outcry, purportedly setting off a race for Arctic control. It was the time when the predominant zeitgeist of Arctic debate allegorized a new scramble for Arctic territory, triggered by the continuous melting of the North Polar ice cap.

Besides, it was also the time when the region appeared on the European Union’s ‘neighbourhood radar’. It appeared as a geographical space that, in a traditional EUropean sense, has not even been referred to as neighbourhood but rather represents an unconventional mix of internal/cross-border/external EU competences, strengths and influence. A distinct regional ‘concert of power’, dominated by the national interests of several strong states that essentially favour regional inclusiveness. An area that may provide for economic opportunities in the decades to come but instead holds severe global climate and environmental challenges for now.

And yet, the EU has felt an Arctic vocation with its various institutional bodies attempting to formulate a coherent policy approach for its ‘northern neighbourhood’. The ultimate aim was rather simple: to construct legitimacy and credibility in order to be recognised as distinct Arctic actor. However, the EU’s Arctic endeavour has not necessarily been crowned with resounding success as the Union’s mixed institutional signals have led to many sceptical depictions of the EU’s role in the Arctic. The various political statements – ten in number since October 2008 – rather illustrate a gradual formulation process that essentially characterizes the EU’s Arctic policy: a successive approximation of common positions with remaining heterogeneous institutional aspirations of what the Union’s Arctic role should be.

In fact, the crux of the matter may also be an essentially abstract one. Namely, what does the EU’s Arctic endeavour reveal about the Union’s broader role as an international actor with an evolving geopolitical identity? Moreover, what does the Arctic actually mean for the European Union?

Over the last decade(s), the EU has steadily developed a tacit geopolitical discourse, exhibiting certain geopolitical ambitions alongside its own conceptualisation of world order, core values, rule of law and good governance. Accordingly, it pursued to create neighbouring regions as analogous as possible to EUrope in terms of governance and routinized relations. Regions that are not per se EUropean but instead a necessary front yard of stability and prosperity, informed by common goals and values and ultimately aimed to guarantee EUropean security. The EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy and its focus on the southern and eastern neighbourhood serves as the most prominent and rather successful related example.

However, with regard to the Arctic – the EU’s northern neighbourhood – the picture is rather blurry.

Clearly, the EU is an ‘Arctic actor’. Not only are three of its Member States – Denmark, Finland and Sweden – Arctic states. The EU also holds a strong regional presence based on its regulatory and research footprint, its proven impact on the Arctic’s climate, its market relevance, and its participation in regional regimes to manage a growing number of challenges in the north.

But, the Union’s regional involvement is anything but straightforward. As a matter of fact, the EU’s efforts to become constructively involved in the Arctic have proved to be rather controversial among Arctic stakeholders. With some of the Union’s Arctic political statements having a slightly paternalistic, self-opinionated tone, the EU’s Arctic voices have not always been well received by Arctic states such as Canada, Norway, or Russia. The nowadays infamous ban on seal products may be the most prominent case. In comparison to its eastern and southern frontier, the North has been rather reluctant to accept EUropean elements of Arctic engagement or regional cooperation, especially in a global setting that increasingly sets eyes on the Arctic.

Additionally, the EU’s regional commitment has also fluctuated over the last decade as more pressing issues have arisen on the Union’s agenda – from the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU to migration and financial crises that all shake EUrope to its very foundations. Ultimately, the region is only of peripheral concern for EU policymakers. This leaves the Arctic as a niche policy domain of only limited importance. In its tenth year of constructing Arctic credibility, the EU and its Arctic policy is still in search for a clear goal and purpose – an unambiguous and convincing narrative that essentially encapsulates the Union’s visions and ideas for the region’s future.

In March 2017 Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asked Quo vadis Europe at 27? With regard to the Arctic one needs to keep asking: what comes next for the EU and its northern neighbourhood?

Andreas Raspotnik is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo and a Senior Fellow at The Arctic Institute in Washington, D.C. His book The European Union and the Geopolitics of the Arctic will be published in January 2018.

Raspotnik European

The European Union and the Geopolitics of the Arctic is now available.


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