Concerns mount as EU tries to find its voice
By David Kepes | Wednesday 01 September 2010
On 10 March this year, the Union’s High Representative, Catherine Ashton, addressed the European Parliament and outlined her top three priorities for a coherent EU Arctic policy. The first was to protect the region. This includes both the ecosystem and the indigenous populations. The second was recognition of the Arctic’s rich array of natural resources and the guarantee of fair access for European citizens and companies. The third objective was to enhance governance of the region so that existing and new challenges can be better handled.
The Arctic is set to be a very different landscape in 20 or 30 years’ time as the ice recedes and humans begin to turn their attention to one of the last unconquered places on the planet. The tensions are already emerging, with some rapidly becoming symbols of the challenges that have yet to arise. European countries and the EU itself are in the middle of conflicts over territory, safety regulations for companies seeking to develop their activities, indigenous peoples’ protection, and sustainability. The EU, however, has yet to develop a coherent policy. As Lady Ashton’s three goals were presented to the Parliament for debate, it is not even completely clear what will be prioritised. The Commission’s next follow up report is not even due until June 2011.
But while debate is under way, the EU has shown that it does have some priorities in mind, and that it is not afraid to take steps towards achieving those aims. The Union has a long history of working to protect and include its Inuit population as well as promoting Arctic education in general. Sustainable practices for transportation, seal hunting and oil drilling have also made their appearance on the global stage, with some decisions being more contentious than others.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is ill equipped to handle the problems that arise, and it has been suggested that the Arctic Council (which includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and USA), an organisation that blocked the EU’s bid to join, is losing credibility as Inuit groups claim that it is doing nothing to include them. In addition, the ‘coastal five’ nations (Russia, USA, Canada, Denmark and Norway) are hosting separate meetings, raising the concern of some Council members. The Arctic is set to become something of a real El Dorado as the winter opening of the Northwest Passage may shave off as much as five thousand kilometres from the current Northern trade routes and will open up access to rich reserves of natural resources.