Risk of conflict in the Arctic is low but cannot be entirely excluded, which is why Europe and others need to continue dialogue and confidence-building measures, the EU’s Arctic ambassador told EURACTIV in an interview, stressing also the need to strike a balance between economic opportunities and environmental degradation.
Marie-Anne Coninsx is the EU’s Ambassador at Large for the Arctic since 2017.
She spoke to EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski.
Ms Coninsx, after the adoption of the EU’s Arctic Strategy in 2016, there was limited visibility to the matter in EU policy-making. Are you satisfied with the current policies towards the region?
We have and still are giving considerable visibility to our current integrated EU policy on the Arctic, which is very comprehensive. It has three main priorities – tackling climate change and protecting the environment, promoting sustainable development and advancing international cooperation – and this policy is combined with substantive cooperation programs, including EU’s major contribution to Arctic research.
In addition, EU strategies for example on climate – which includes EU’s engagement to implement the Paris Agreement on global action against climate change – also contribute in addressing the challenges of the region. The implementation of EU’s Arctic Policy shows clearly EU’s strong engagement on the file and the many achievements for the benefit of the Arctic and its people. It is part of my mandate to ensure visibility of the EU’s Arctic policy and also to its, to my mind, very positive record.
I personally think that we might see the adoption of a new or revised EU Arctic policy in a relatively near future. One of the main reasons is that there are so many developments taking place in the Arctic region – with geopolitical and geo-economic implications in particular, which need to be taken into account.
Russia is increasingly assertive, China now considers itself a ‘near-Arctic’ state. How much conflict potential do you see in the region?
It’s difficult to answer. We believe that the risk of any conflict in the Arctic is very low, but not excluded. Indeed, while the changes affecting the Arctic present opportunities, they have also the potential to increase tensions in the region, for example through competition for resources.
Another risk might be the potential spill-over of conflicts from outside the region. However, there is a strong will from all Arctic and non-Arctic states, to avoid such a situation. Everyone explicitly wants the Arctic to remain an area of peace, stability, low-tension and cooperation. The EU’s Global Strategy names this as a strategic interest.
It is also my impression that the geo-economic and geo-political interests at stake are so high, that having a conflict would be very harmful for all stakeholders. This is a strong incentive for all parties to maintain the Arctic stable, secure and peaceful and a zone of constructive international cooperation.
How to respond to the growing strategic importance of the region then?
The challenges affecting the Arctic and the solutions required to address them, demand for a joined-up response at regional and international level, especially on climate change. Wider geopolitical dynamics may add further complexity to the changes affecting the region. Constructive international cooperation, where complex issues are addressed through cooperation and not confrontation, is key, as well as compliance with international legal frameworks such as UNCLOS[UN Convention on Law of the Sea]. This is also a backbone of EU’s Arctic policy.
Cooperation in the European Arctic started more than 20 years ago. For more than two decades, we have a constructive cooperation within the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, where the EU is a full member, with very good cross-border cooperation programmes and people-to-people contacts, also with Russia.
I personally don’t believe in an escalation. But we have to be vigilant, observe what is happening on all sides and not be naïve, as we cannot take security for granted. To ensure that the Arctic remains stable, secure and peaceful, requires continuous hard work, constructive cooperation and dialogue. Confidence building measures are crucial.
EU member states like Germany and France aim to be Arctic players, they are observers in the Arctic Council – contrary to the EU which is a non-permanent observer. Should that change?
Germany and France already now are active Arctic stakeholders and are indeed observers in the Arctic Council, together with other states and organisations. In the Arctic Council, there are the eight Arctic member states, plus the permanent participants (representatives of Indigenous Peoples), and observers. The EU works closely together with all of them.
The EU is an ad-hoc observer in the Arctic Council, but in practice is treated exactly the same way as the other observers, which play an active role in the Working Groups. For the EU, the Arctic Council is the leading international forum on the Arctic and within the limits of being an “observer”, we have a strong voice.
However, it is not the only “exclusive” forum dealing with Arctic issues. There are other fora, which address Arctic-relevant matters in which the EU is strongly engaged. We are a leader in the fight against climate change; and therefore we play also a key role in the Arctic.
The Finnish chairmanship of the Arctic Council ends in May, Helsinki then takes over the EU Presidency on 1 July – an opportunity to bring more Arctic policies to the EU table?
Absolutely, just like other EU presidencies, you have to continue to pursue key priorities of the European Union as such – a more secure Europe, more mobility, economic growth, less unemployment. But every presidency has also the opportunity to draw attention and give more visibility to other important topics which might be less well-known. For Finland, it can be a unique occasion to do so with Arctic topics.
One of the decisive questions is how to resolve the ‘Arctic Paradox’ – the trade-off between pursuing economic opportunities and preventing environmental degradation. Are you worried by the increasing commercialisation of this fragile region?
It is indeed a key question for us how to keep the balance between precaution/preservation and the use/development. The EU promotes sustainable development and solutions in the Arctic, taking into account both the traditional livelihoods of the people living in the region and the impact of economic development on the Arctic’s fragile environment. That is why we support the deployment of innovative technologies in the Arctic.
Around the region, there are many examples of how innovative solutions enable sustainable economic development, in particular in the renewable energy sector. At the same time, we strongly support the safety and preservation of the environment, especially since economic activities in the Arctic are increasing. There is much concern about the use of heavy fuel oil in shipping in the Arctic region, because of the very negative impact of oil pollution, especially in the case of an oil spill.
But there is also the wish to have more business opportunities, not least because there are 4 million people living and working in the Arctic. The EU’s cohesion policy supports investments as well as capacity-building in the European Arctic, with an emphasis on research and innovation, competitiveness of SMEs and the shift towards a low-carbon economy.
If you look at the work of the Arctic Economic Council, which promotes business opportunities, there is a demand for more trans-regional cooperation, easier market access from the Arctic and to the Arctic. An Arctic Investment Protocol contains concrete guidelines for responsible investment in the Arctic. All these initiatives put the emphasis on sustainable and equitable economic growth in an environmentally sound manner.
More human involvement also calls for more regulation?
It calls for more regulation, but this is not necessarily bad. Regulations are needed exactly to ensure that the highest standards are being applied for example for the safety and the preservation of the environment in the region.
Here I am not worried about any investments or economic activities from the European countries, which include the EU member states plus Norway and Iceland, because they explicitly apply European legislation known for setting high-level standards in all areas of activities. In this context, applying and fully respecting international agreements and legislation in the Arctic, such as UNCLOS, is important.
Northern European countries are usually quite progressive on any kind of human rights, but do they still lag behind when it comes to their own indigenous people?
I do not share that view. Of course, the way indigenous peoples are treated is mainly a national responsibility. But I have the impression that there is a strong awareness about the rights of indigenous peoples in the European North and their views are being heard and respected.
The rights of indigenous peoples rank highly among the priorities of EU’s action to advance democracy and human rights, and this world-wide. For the EU it is very important that their rights are being respected.
We have different cooperation programmes to support local communities in the Arctic, and promote cultural and natural heritage. We engage with Arctic indigenous peoples, we want to listen to them, we want their voice to be heard. And, for example, when we have our Arctic science programmes, they also address issues like traditional knowledge. The EU has an annual Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ Dialogue to exchange views and I have also several times welcomed representatives of the Sami in Brussels.
Increasing tourism impacts those communities as well, how is it possible to preserve those cultures in small towns that soon could be overrun by visitors?
On the one hand, for the communities, it is seen as an opportunity for economic development. But at the same time the unique culture of indigenous peoples and local communities in Europe, in the whole Arctic, needs to be preserved. It might be a difficult balance to achieve.
In general, my impression is that more tourism is seen as rather positive, as it is also a way to communicate their culture to the world and raise attention for their cause. Also to note, that eco-tourism is on the rise, which should contribute to more environmental and cultural awareness of the people living in the north.