Geopolitics in the Arctic region

Geopolitics in the Arctic region

Estonian MEP Urmas Paet met with SEQ at the 2018 instalment of the Arctic Frontiers conference to discuss some of the geopolitical challenges facing the Arctic region.

Urmas Paet — an Estonian member of European Parliament — drafted the European Parliament report on EU policy for the Arctic region. Paet is vocal on both the importance of environmental protection of the Arctic region, but also security concerns as Russia militarises further parts of the Arctic. Paet notes that during the last ten years, billions of dollars have been invested into the military capability in the Russian Arctic. SciTech Europa Quarterly spoke to Urmas Paet at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, about difficulties in the Arctic region.

Russian interest in the Arctic

Global warming is creating new potential pathways of navigation through routes and ease of access to some natural resources. As a result, Russia is preparing for this. Paet’s colleagues have expressed that with such developments there is an increasing level of risk if countries don’t act, either because of the thickness of the ice, or cost.

However, this level of interest from outside countries is becoming increasingly evident in peak powers such as China and India. “Why are they so interested in the Arctic all of a sudden?”, Paet questioned. “Of course, the same also applies to Russia and to all countries around the Arctic, but the only country who, from a military point of view, is preparing is Russia.” Subsequently, Paet noted that there are multiple reasons for Russian involvement, but the important thing to note is that Russian investment in the Arctic is increasing.

Economic, social, and environmental: a multi-faceted approach

The EU is committed to implementing the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development, comprised of three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental. In practice, it could be argued that these elements are not being addressed in a balanced and equal way. “When we speak about the Arctic, I guess one of the problems at the moment is that the level of standards are different — be it on environmental standards or social standards,” Paet told SEQ.

As a result, starting points are also different. Paet countered this with a secondary problem: attitude. “European countries, plus Canada, are in a similar position in terms of what affects global warming and environmental impacts.” Yet, recent developments on climate discussions within the US, and in Russia, do not match those of Europe or Canada. Ultimately, Paet suggests that this is what makes implementation of good climate practice in the Arctic difficult.

“If you look purely at the environmental aspects, and then social or economic ones, then of course there is conflict, and that increasing conflict is what concerns oil and gas exploration of these resources especially,” the MEP said.

However, if Norway fails to explore natural resources in the region, such as gas and oil work, then there is a very real possibility that Russia, or other countries, will take its place. Consequently, Norway stands to lose its ability to cement an environmentally-sound approach here, as well as becoming more dependent on Russian and Arabian resources.

Indigenous people

“There are also many other conflict within other areas which need to be taken into account,” Paet said, referring to the development of large scale wind parks in the Arctic which local indigenous communities have opposed. While much of the opposition stems from the fact that such developments stand to have a significant impact on traditional Saami activities, such as reindeer herding, Paet also emphasised that many other conflicts arise because of the sheer amount of outside interest that the region is now seeing.

As local interests often take second place to outside interests within the Arctic region, external pressures are indeed having an increasing impact. And, of course, issues such as global warming, the effects of which are magnified in the Arctic countries, are primarily caused from activities outside of the region — from Asia, America, and Europe (whether this is polluted waters, warming seas, or air pollution – and yet these issues must be addressed  at ground level within the Arctic too. Paet said: “It is one of the most tragic situations for local people at the moment — the indigenous people on the ground are those who feel the immediate direct impact of climate change and the things taking place well beyond their borders and their control.

What are the main challenges that the Arctic has to overcome?

SciTech Europa Quarterly asked the MEP this question, and he replied: “The biggest challenge is global warming, which physically changes the Arctic and which opens new pathways and provides easier access to natural resource. In turn, this is increasing external interests and, as a result, the potential for conflict is increasing.”

In addition, Paet also made it clear that the many geopolitical problems in the High North are all interlinked, and it is becoming increasingly evident that the atmosphere surrounding western and Russian relations are having an impact on the region.

How can EU leadership evolve in regulating shipping, fishing, oil and gas?

“The European Union has the power to play a leading role in international law, and also to take the initiative if new circumstances emerge which require change. This could be the formulation of new laws or regulations, or perhaps a modification of existing ones, which regulate life in the Arctic,” Paet said.

He continued: “Someone has to play a leading role in modernising international law,” adding that while EU legislation has a dominant impact on EU countries singularly, thus including Finland, Sweden and Denmark, it is crucial for the aforementioned legislative developments to look to these countries for their expertise and input to ensure that new regulations are fit for purpose.

Moreover, according to Paet acknowledging and recognising European interests more widely within legislation is vital in efforts to ensure that the overall interaction between Europe and other competitors is unharmed. He said: “When I prepared the report on the developments geopolitics, international co-operation, security challenges and governance issue in the Arctic region and looked at the issue of the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the Artic, I experienced quite a lot of controversial opinions and assessments. If the EU wants to ban gas and oil activities here, then that clearly plays into the hands of other countries, including Russia.”

As a result, when establishing new directives or legislation it is increasingly important that the larger picture is always acknowledged so that the issue becomes not only about energy, but energy security and European strategic economic interest. “Everything should be there, not just one small piece of the agenda,” Paet said.

When it comes to the issue of energy security, renewable technologies are also coming to play more of a role. However, they are not yet at the scale whereby they have the ability to prevent the future exploitation of natural resources in the region. As such, while renewable energy should indeed be included in any such discussion, it should be taken into account that it will be some time before their true potential will be realised and so shorter-term solutions must also be brought to the table.

Co-operation rather than conflict

Of course, conflict is something to be avoided. Yet, establishing an environment in which co-operation can be fostered instead is a significant challenge. For Paet, this can begin to be achieved by maintaining communication channels: “It is always important to talk, even during difficult times,” he said. “It is always important to maintain a dialogue – especially with Russia at the moment – be it regionally in the Arctic, between Europe and Russia, and so on.”

Secondary to this approach, Paet suggested that the level of naivety needs to be decreased. In talking within difficult partners, the fruits of the labours can be much more valuable if both countries are ready to address all the issues at hand, especially those which may be poorly understood by either party, rather than avoiding them, which seems to be the case in many current instances. “That is the only way to work in today’s interlinked and interconnected world,” Paet said.

Safeguarding the Arctic

When it comes to the many issues facing the Arctic, the Arctic Council plays a crucial role and, for Paet, the remit of the council should therefore extend beyond issues relating to science and nature to some of those which may be seen as being more ‘difficult’.

He added: “Given that, under the current circumstances, there are many big global powers interested in Arctic developments, now would also perhaps be a good time for the Arctic Council admit some of these countries as observers, so that they can begin to participate in discussions.”

EU engagement

A recent EU report addressed the need for greater coherence within both EU internal and external policy. However, concerns have since been raised about how that can be achieved.  As Paet pointed out: “If you look at the development of EU common foreign security policy, it has always been difficult because there are 28 countries with differing historical experience, cultures, and backgrounds, and they need to find a common approach.”

However, Paet added, there appears to be no other way. “When we speak about the foreign security policy of the European Union, the first circle should be around Europe, or even in Europe, because there is no point in trying to be successful in another region if you are not influential in your own immediate neighbourhood.”

The Estonian politician also proposed the need for the EU to have its own Arctic strategy which describes security issues, whilst outlining that several EU non-Arctic countries already have such in place, despite not being part of the Arctic region itself.

“The EU should take the leading role in reviewing existing international law and how it applies new developments before changing what needs to be changed,” Paet concluded.

There are numerous challenges facing the Arctic region today. And perhaps one of the most pressing is the need for a continuation, and indeed evolution of, international law and its application across the entire spectrum of relevant areas, from the rights of indigenous people to the exploitation of natural resources.

It is here that Europe could, and perhaps must, lead the way.


Urmas Paet

Member of European Parliament

This article will appear in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 26, which will be published in March, 2018

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