Europe and the Arctic: Science, Security, and Governance

by Danielle Miller and Greyson Young

On November 15, 2019, in collaboration with The Arctic Institute, the Norwegian Consulate General of San Francisco, Norway’s High North Center for Business and Governance, and Eurasian Studies (ISEEES), IES welcomed Dr. Kristian Åtland of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment and Dr. Andreas Raspotnik of the High North Center to discuss EU policy toward the Arctic. Their talk, titled “Europe and the Arctic: Ground Zero for Climate Change?”, assessed the interdisciplinary nature of Arctic affairs. From the threat of climate change, to ambiguity in Arctic governance, to tensions between Arctic states as a result of shipping and natural resource interests, the Arctic has become a contentious arena in geopolitics.

Åtland began by discussing the interplay between regional and international governing institutions in the Arctic. The Arctic Council, composed of 8 member states and participant organizations, plays a prominent role in facilitating sustainable development and environmental practices within the Arctic Circle. Åtland noted that, because many of the Council’s member countries have high economic development and are politically stable, they are better equipped to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change than indigenous communities who are most vulnerable to rising seas, warming temperatures, and potential food shortages. However, despite intergovernmental collaboration, Åtland noted that Arctic states also pursue independent interests in the region, at times creating hard (military) and soft (economic and environmental) security challenges and interstate disputes. In particular, the lack of transparency surrounding Russia’s air offenses and missile testing in the Arctic proves concerning to Russia’s Nordic neighbors. Meanwhile, Russia remains suspicious of Arctic states who are members of NATO and aligned with the West, though the region remains stable.

Raspotnik then focused the lecture on the European Union’s role in Arctic governance. EU participation in the Arctic is a relatively new phenomenon enhanced by the rise of climate change awareness over the last decade. While the EU lacks coastline along the Arctic Ocean, three of its member states are in the Arctic Council, giving the EU legitimacy in its Arctic policy initiatives. The EU works in several arenas related to Arctic affairs, from funding scientific research, to regulatory and trade policy, to creating climate blueprints. Yet, this fragmented approach—along with the EU’s own complex institutional dynamics and tensions between the Commission, European Council, and Parliament—as well as member states’ own national policies, has prevented the EU from developing a cohesive Arctic strategy beyond fine-tuned, niche European projects. However, Raspotnik sees potential for elevating Arctic issues by tying them to the EU’s more ambitious climate change and sustainability goals as the Union moves into a new decade with a fresh Commission and Greener European Parliament.

During a robust Q&A, Åtland and Raspotnik responded to questions about the Russian approach to the Arctic compared to the European one. While Russia sees the opportunity for new oil and gas projects that could arise from melting sea ice, the EU and its member states underline policy decisions with caution. Further, the speakers discussed China’s growing interests in the Arctic due to their growing energy needs and desire for shipping routes.

This event was sponsored by a European Commission “Getting to Know Europe” grant (2017-19).