6 min read — Analysis | Geopolitics
The EU is Standing Idle in the Arctic
With the Arctic becoming a region of revitalised tension, the EU is now facing a new wake-up call which will put its geopolitical aspirations to the test.
By Francesco Bernabeu Fornara
June 6, 2022 | 8:35 am
24 February 2022 marked a turning point in European history and security. Nonetheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should not only be viewed as a singular traumatic event, but as a reminder that the era of ‘Pax Americana’ may be slowly fading. Indeed, a multipolar world, typified by a Chinese emergence as an economic superpower and an increasingly imperialistic Russia, seems evermore likely as American hegemony in trade and geopolitical overreach gradually diminishes. Consequently, the Arctic, a region where all of these actors converge economically and militarily, may soon become a hotbed of tension as global warming turns the seascape more accessible. This leaves the European Union (EU), equally an actor in the Arctic, in a balancing act and at a crossroads in its foreign and defence policy.
Nowhere are the political and economic effects of climate change more visible than in the Arctic. As the melting of Arctic ice accelerates, Northern sea routes which cut travel distances between Asia and Europe by 40% are expected to remain navigable for longer, abundant natural resources such as 22% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons will become accessible, and commercial fishing opportunities will grow. Additionally, as sea ice recedes, coastlines of Arctic countries will become more exposed, something the Kremlin perceives as a vulnerability. Thus, in an attempt to bolster its security and guarantee economic opportunity in the Arctic, Russia has started building new military infrastructure, is revitalising its Northern Fleet, and has heightened its nuclear capabilities in the region. Simultaneously, despite remaining more cautious than Russia, NATO has doubled its Arctic military activities between 2015 and 2020 and executed its largest military drill in the Arctic yet, ‘Cold Response 2022’. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, and as Sweden and Finland — the last non-NATO countries in the Arctic circle aside from Russia — join NATO, it is expected that the alliance will only strengthen its presence in the region. China, on the other hand, has declared itself a ‘near-Arctic state’, has reinforced its military projection in the region to extend its nuclear deterrence capability, and announced plans to develop a ‘Polar Silk Road’, a joint initiative with Russia to establish a network of Arctic trade routes.
Meanwhile, the EU, equally an actor in the Arctic geographically, has yet to take a similar unequivocal geopolitical stance in the region.
The EU has repeatedly stated its willingness to develop a ‘European strategic autonomy’, a policy of reducing dependency on foreign states and enhancing the Union’s ability to independently pursue its global economic and political interests. So far, however, the EU has done little to materialise these ambitions into action, particularly in the Arctic.
Though many reasons come into play, this is largely due to the Union simply not possessing the means to back up its objectives with force if needed, with EU member states instead relying on NATO for power projection in the Arctic. The reality that the EU is unable to play a role when it comes to hard power politics is not unique to the Arctic however, and was exemplified when the EU was recently denied a seat on the January 2022 West-Russia security talks. The fact that the EU’s member states have also had an incohesive stance on Russian deterrence, and require unanimity in the European Council to pass foreign policy measures, further inhibits the EU from playing a solid role in Arctic geopolitics. However, global power dynamics are shifting and recent developments in Europe are redefining the European security framework, something which will undoubtedly have knock-on effects on the Arctic scene.
The long-standing approach, championed by Germany’s foreign policy, that Russian deterrence can be accomplished through liberal economic codependency has failed. The new reality is clear: Russia has unilaterally tore the Helsinki Accords and put into motion the creation of a new security architecture for Europe, the consequences of which are already being witnessed. Germany is rearming itself, breaking a 50-year-long policy of relative pacifism and rapprochement under Ostpolitik, Poland may soon possess one of the most powerful militaries in Europe, Finland and Sweden are joining NATO, and even Austria and Ireland are reconsidering their long-established commitment to neutrality. It is now, if ever, the time for the EU to re-evaluate its institutional foreign and defence policy capabilities and truly materialise a ‘strategic autonomy’ in the name of safeguarding its values, its interests, and peace in Europe.
Therefore, if the EU truly wishes to be the geopolitical actor on behalf of Europe, the emerging Arctic geopolitical scene will put that aspiration to the test.
Thus far, measures have been taken by the EU, albeit insufficient in regard to the Arctic. The recently approved Strategic Compass, for example, outlines an ‘action plan for strengthening the EU’s defence and security policy’. However, aside from merely acknowledging the ‘geopolitical rivalries and increased commercial activities’ in the region, the initiative pays little attention to the Far North. Similarly, the 2021 Joint Communication, the closest EU document resembling an Arctic policy, though a considerable improvement to its 2016 precursor, remains largely a policy of socio-environmental commitment rather than strategic. Put plainly, the EU lacks a clear articulation of its geopolitical ambitions in the Arctic largely due to its complex status as a quasi supranational and intergovernmental actor.
As two Senior Research Fellows at the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen Institute put it, ‘the EU has become irrelevant for one of the things that matters the most for the Nordic countries: how to manage their security relations with Russia [both in the Arctic and elsewhere]’.
The continued relevance of the EU in security affairs will thus partly depend on whether the Union is able to take a definitive geopolitical stance in the High North. So far, both Finland and Sweden have shown genuine interest in advancing the EU’s role in the Arctic within their independent Arctic policy documents, arguing for increased ‘relevance of the EU in Arctic affairs’ and ‘the development of an enhanced EU Arctic policy’. However, lack of broader support in promoting Arctic issues within EU institutions has so far remained a major barrier to increased presence in the geopolitical Arctic.
Without a doubt, the EU is facing one of its most significant crossroads in its foreign and defence policy not only in light of Russia’s war against Ukraine but also because of larger global power dynamic shifts. So far, the Union has shown its ambition through its ‘European strategic autonomy’ goal. However, whether this aspiration will truly materialise in the emerging Arctic scene — a soon-to-be central region in geopolitics — is yet to be determined. One thing is clear however, if the EU truly wishes to become a geopolitical actor and remain relevant to its member states’ security agendas, the Arctic will put those aspirations to the test.
Though the Arctic has often been hailed as one of the world’s most stable and peaceful regions for decades, the melting of ice and recent geopolitical events have placed the region at centre stage for future economic and military tension, and no amount of tiptoeing or rapprochement will keep the EU from facing, sooner or later, the harsh reality of Arctic geopolitics.