Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Alyson BailesAdjunct professor at the University of Iceland

The most basic reason for the EU to focus on the Arctic is that any development there will increasingly preoccupy—and, on balance, is very likely to profit—the states of Northern Europe while doing nothing to help the union’s Southern tier.

For instance, Arctic exploration will give the Nordic states relatively reliable new energy sources on their doorstep, while the South’s greater dependence on Arab suppliers will stand out more strongly. Most Nordics are also keen to shield their cooperative relations with Russia in the North from the impact of the Ukraine crisis—a position for which Central Europeans may have less understanding.

Europe cannot afford a further division along the politico-economic fault lines already revealed by the financial crash of 2007–2008. A common EU strategy toward the Arctic should consider how the whole EU can extend its peaceful, constructive influence to the region. Notably, that means a skillful (more than at present!) fisheries policy, shipping regulation, sustainable investment, environmental engagement, and research.

In return, Europeans should discuss how any benign Arctic developments might benefit them all. Here, interconnectivity in the energy market could yield additional benefits. In the longer run, as climate change really bites, migration from South to North could become the core issue.


Heather ConleySenior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

The answer, of course, is yes—as dramatic environmental change affects approximately 700,000 citizens within the EU who live in the Arctic region north of the 60th parallel north. The EU is rightly concerned about the impact of a rapidly melting polar ice cap and has concentrated on policy issues ranging from fisheries and maritime regulatory issues to environmental adaptation.

With the EU accession of Denmark in 1973 and of Sweden and Finland in 1995, the EU became an organization with an Arctic identity. Furthermore, in 1996, when these three Nordic countries, joined by five other Arctic nations, formed the Arctic Council—the premier intergovernmental forum to discuss environmental and sustainability issues—the EU became a de facto member of the Arctic Council as well.

Unfortunately, the EU has been more focused on seeking its institutional right to be seated at the “Arctic table” rather than influencing and shaping future Arctic policy. In 2008, European Parliament officials made a clumsy and uninformed effort to push for an Arctic treaty along the lines of the 1991 Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, which banned mineral resource development in the Antarctic. EU diplomatic approaches vis-à-vis the Arctic have never fully recovered since. Failure by the European Commission to become an observer to the Arctic Council in 2013 was the result of a bilateral trade disagreement with Canada rather than a rejection of the EU’s role in the Arctic.

Rather than focus on organizational representation, the EU should strengthen its pragmatic engagement in the Arctic through the constructive, day-to-day work of its three Arctic member states to improve the lives of those who live in the Arctic and who see their way of life rapidly changing.


Peter Viggo JakobsenAssociate professor at the Institute for Strategy of the Royal Danish Defense College

The EU has more than enough to worry about as it is. It should not worry about the Arctic for two reasons.

The first is that the five states bordering the Arctic (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States) will not permit the EU to play a formal role in the region. Canada and Russia directly oppose the idea. Denmark, the only EU member of the five, officially welcomes EU involvement in areas such as fisheries, energy, and climate change that are of interest to Denmark and its self-governing territories, Greenland and the Faroe Islands; but at the same time, Copenhagen prefers to keep the EU at arm’s length in the Arctic.

The second reason for the EU not to worry about the Arctic is that the risk of military conflict in the region approximates to zero. The confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine will not spill over into the Arctic for the simple reason that the costs would be prohibitive for Moscow. Russia has accepted the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as the means to distribute the disputed territories in the Arctic because it gives Russia the largest slice of the pie while keeping China out.


Andreas RaspotnikAnalyst at the Arctic Institute

No, because the Arctic is not under threat. Nor does the EU have any authority over the region. Canada is free to hunt its seal population without the EU. The Russian Federation can exploit its Arctic resources without the EU. Greenland can become independent from Denmark without the EU, while the United States does not even bother about the Arctic. The EU should leave it to China or South Korea to invest in regional research activities and worry about the Arctic’s future.

Yes, because the effects of climate change in the Arctic—which, paradoxically, are both severe and positive—do not remain local. Climate change in the region has both a European and a global impact, including on pending questions of energy security. The EU has the capacity to influence certain processes and developments to its north. The European Arctic, stretching from the eastern Barents Sea to western Greenland, is as much the EU’s neighborhood as its more often discussed Southern and Eastern flanks. The Northern neighborhood is a peaceful and potentially rich one. The EU needs to be a willing Arctic team player that can develop a systems approach to the Arctic based on a comprehensive understanding of Arctic space—just like the Spanish tiki-taka understood the geometry of space on a soccer field.


Richard YoungsSenior associate in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program

In 2012, the EU published a new strategy for the Arctic, promising additional resources, enhanced diplomatic engagement, and a €1 million ($1.4 million) impact assessment of climate change on the region.

So it is clear that the EU already acknowledges that in the future, the Arctic will warrant upgraded engagement and be an area of complex geopolitical change. The most pertinent question is one that applies to other aspects of EU security policy: Will the EU’s talk of holistic, development-oriented, rules-based cooperation have sufficient resonance if the region’s geopolitics become appreciably more competitive?

Members of the Arctic Council have already pushed back somewhat against the presumption that EU rules might provide a template for managing the region’s deepening rivalries. But climate change will place great stress on existing Arctic cooperation. Arctic states have all begun to reconfigure their militaries to safeguard their interests in the region. As new shipping routes open up, countries in the Arctic are already competing for control over policing responsibilities.

The EU may play a useful secondary role in the region. But if Russia and other powers veer toward more assertive geopolitical approaches in the Arctic, the union will face the same dilemma as in other unstable zones: To what extent is it willing and able to engage in the high politics of strategic competition?