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The EUs Arctic future?


The European Union (EU) is home to more than 500 million people speaking 24 official languages in 28 countries with a GDP of over €17 trillion. Today, its borders to the south and east are blighted by conflict, terrorism and civil unrest. To the west – the vast Atlantic Ocean.  But when the EU looks north, it sees the peace, stability and cooperation that is facilitated by the Arctic Council…

The Council is a forum for the governments of the eight Arctic nations (three of which are also EU members), the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and 32 other interested parties (so called ‘Observers’) to get together to discuss and coordinate action on the most pressing issues for the decreasingly icy north.

WWF in the Arctic © Rod DownieWWF in the Arctic © Rod Downie

So it’s no wonder that the EU is seeking Observer membership to the Council, and developing an Arctic Policy for how it engages in this part of the world. It’s clear that they would benefit from a greater international role in Arctic affairs. But its journey so far has been turbulent. Repeated attempts to join this exclusive club have been unsuccessful.  Diana Wallis, former Vice President of the European Parliament, once spoke of Arctic Policy development as ‘not for the faint hearted’. She was right. And she was speaking with first-hand experience, having been involved in the controversial market ban on seal products.

Last month I participated on a panel discussion at the excellent Arctic Futures Symposium to debate the role of Observers, and the EU, at the Arctic Council. WWF has been the most active and influential of these Observers since the Council was established in 1996.  We see our role as going beyond merely just ‘observing’ – we are there as contributors to the Council’s work, conservation thought-leaders and champions of sustainable development and stewardship.

We believe that the EU also has a lot to offer in terms of policy expertise on critical issues such as fisheries management, international shipping, climate change and environmental regulation. Engagement also brings funding opportunities for sustainable development and globally relevant science, as well as strong market power (as the largest single market in the world), ‘soft-security’ benefits, and the capacity to push Arctic issues higher up the global agenda.

Rod Downie at the Arctic Futures Symposium, Brussels, debating the role of Observers to the Arctic Council © Mieke Sterken, International Polar FoundationRod Downie at the Arctic Futures Symposium, Brussels, debating the role of Observers to the Arctic Council © Mieke Sterken, International Polar Foundation

Six of the eight most senior Arctic officials also participated at the Symposium last month. And many of them sent a clear message to the EU – they strongly support the EUs membership of the Council, but its Arctic policy and future participation needs to have at its core the respect for Arctic peoples and their traditional lifestyles, as well as sustainable development and environmental stewardship.

I also support EU Observer status at the Arctic Council if it commits to understanding and accepting the perspectives of Arctic peoples and playing an active and constructive role. I’m confident that all the Arctic nations will welcome EU membership … eventually, when global politics work, and the stars align. And I suspect the EU has a lot of other priorities to keep it busy enough for a while.

But it is clear that the future of the Arctic, and the future of the EU, are already inextricably intertwined.

What are your thoughts? Leave us your comments.

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