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Who governs the Arctic?

As the North changes, non-Arctic states and bodies such as the EU are increasingly interested in its governance

By: /
18 September, 2015
A fishing boat is anchored in the natural harbor of Kopangen in Lyngen-Fiord, north of the Arctic Circle, October 1, 2014. Picture taken October 1, 2014. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
By: Miriam Czarski

Miriam Czarski is a law student at the University of Ottawa where she recently obtained her diploma in Civil Law and is now embarking on an intensive one-year National Program to obtain her Juris Doctor in April 2016. Miriam has a keen interest in international law, with particular interests in environmental law and human rights law. 

Turmoil over the future of the Arctic has been growing in recent years. What was once a quasi-unexplored and somewhat overlooked region is today a dynamic area garnering much global political, economic, social and environmental interest.

As glaciers melt, desirable natural non-renewable resources, especially oil and gas, are becoming more readily accessible in the Arctic. The Northwest and Northeast Passages — Arctic maritime routes until recently too dangerous to navigate — are being used more frequently for shipping, and the fishing industries in the region will soon be in full operation. But these benefits have not come without political and environmental costs that impact far beyond Arctic borders.

Actions by Arctic states in the far North are having increasing effects on the rest of the world, and the time to include non-Arctic players in the discussion is now.

To date, Arctic debates have involved mainly Arctic states, as the geography of the region has facilitated a sovereigntist approach to governance rather than an internationally cooperative one, as in Antarctica. While Antarctica is a mass of land surrounded by oceans, the Arctic is, at its most basic, an ocean surrounded by continents. The majority of the Arctic-related issues pertain most immediately to the eight Arctic states — Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, the United States of America, Sweden and Finland — and consequently the Arctic region is governed in great part by the domestic laws of these eight states.

This geographical scenario makes international cooperation in Arctic governance quite complex and challenging, and explains the difficulty in developing an Arctic treaty similar to that of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The outcome is that the Arctic is governed at the international level essentially by soft law overseen by the political forum that is the Arctic Council, the result of the cooperative efforts amongst the Arctic States to create an international body governing the Arctic.

There is no doubt that Arctic issues should be addressed by the Arctic states first and foremost, as set forth by the principle of sovereignty. However, there remains much discussion as to whether the Arctic region is not in fact a global heritage. Although many Arctic states would be reticent to accept this, others would argue that the Arctic’s lands, ecosystems, species and natural resources should not be managed merely by a handful of countries.

Climate change in the Arctic is a growing concern as it brings about the melting of the glaciers, which consequently increases the release of highly noxious methane gas into the atmosphere and raises ocean levels.

Non-Arctic actors have an important part to play in combating these and many other challenges. Many also have the means to contribute to the protection of some of nature’s most rare and vulnerable species and ecosystems, and to the preservation of some of the most spectacular and intact landscapes in the world.

Let’s take the case of the European Union (EU).

Presently, three Arctic Council states — Finland, Denmark and Sweden — are members of the EU. As such, they must comply with EU law which deals with a number of issues of direct relevance to Arctic developments. For example, under Article 4 of the Treaty of Lisbon (the EU’s foundational agreement), the EU shares responsibilities with member countries for fisheries, the environment, transport and energy. Also very important, the Treaty gives the EU exclusive authority over other areas of key interest for the Arctic, notably the conservation of marine biological resources (Article 3 of the Treaty — Common Fisheries Policy).

Including the EU in Arctic debates could facilitate the conclusion of agreements in the Arctic. Not only will it ensure that these agreements are compatible with EU law, but the EU would be well placed to translate these agreements into appropriate EU regulations and ensure their implementation by member states.

The EU has a great deal of interest in the Arctic, enacting its own Arctic Policy in 2008 focusing on protecting and preserving the Arctic, promoting the sustainable use of its resources, and international cooperation. The EU is also a powerful economic entity, with significant economic resources which it could use to help address challenges in the Arctic. The EU is already an important contributor to the Arctic’s growth, committing large amounts to support Polar research (200 million Euros between 2002 and 2012) and to economic, social and environmental development of the Arctic regions of the EU and neighbouring areas (over 1.14 billion Euros between 2007 and 2013). The EU has also contributed funds for educational programs in Greenland (no less than 25 million Euros each year) and has established assistance programs for numerous indigenous communities.

Further, the EU makes significant use of the Arctic’s natural riches, benefitting from Arctic development but, in turn, also bearing responsibility for how this development occurs. With the melting of the ice, Arctic fisheries are becoming very accessible, and Arctic fishing is very important for the EU, with around 50 percent of fish caught in the Arctic Ocean being consumed in the EU. As the Northwest and Northeast Passages open up, combined with the fact that EU member countries together hold the world’s largest commercial fleet, European vessels will play a significant role in Arctic maritime transport in the near future. The EU also draws many of its energy resources from the Arctic, with one quarter of Arctic oil and gas flowing to the EU.

As a supranational body, the EU also has a crucial part to play in addressing current politico-economic discrepancies between northern and southern Europe which were exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis and which may deepen as a result of resource extraction in the Arctic. Newly accessible energy resources in the Arctic are becoming available to northern European countries, while the southern European countries have to resort to importing their oil from the Middle East. Having the EU further involved in Arctic developments will help alleviate this effect and so reduce these North-South tensions, balancing out within Europe the benefits generated by these newly available energy resources.

Beginning in 2009, the EU began to express to the Arctic Council its growing interest in participating with its members in discussions about future developments in the Arctic. It has approached the Council on several occasions without success to seek observer status privileges, similar to those which Korea and India have received.

Certainly, Arctic Council states may be wary that further EU adhesion could complicate issues by bringing more voices and the interests of more EU member countries to bear on Arctic discussions. Observer status may be an appropriate initial first step. However, to date, it is especially the national interests of certain Council-member states which have prevented EU involvement in the Arctic Council, including objections by Canada over the EU’s 2009 ban on seal fur imports and recent reticence on the part of Russia.

Like China and Japan — current observers at the Arctic Council — the EU is a major international player, with influence worldwide, and granting it a larger presence in Arctic Council discussions would strengthen the Council’s power, legitimacy, and authority. The more the Arctic Council encourages wider international involvement in its deliberations, the more its decisions and policies will be recognized. Furthermore, greater international cooperation in the Council would result in increased sharing of Arctic research and knowledge amongst countries, allowing for better governance in the Arctic and finally for a climate of peace.

The EU’s interest is growing, and interest from other non-Arctic states and bodies will likely only increase as the Arctic opens up. Addressing how the Arctic is governed, and by whom, is a crucial debate going forward.

The Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History hosts a full-day conference,  “Regional Governments in International Affairs: Lessons from the Arctic,” in Toronto on Sept. 18. The full program can be found here.

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