The Arctic: an EU Perspective

Arctic Frontiers 2013 Conference 
Tromsø, Norway, 21 January 2013

Commissioner Maria Damanaki delivered a keynote speech at the annual Arctic Frontiers Conference, taking place in Tromsø between 20 and 25 January. The conference - one of the most important Arctic conferences in the world - gathers a wide group of stakeholders, including business representatives, NGOs, policymakers, scientists and academics from all over the globe to discuss future scenarios for the Arctic.

  

Dear Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking you for this invitation: travelling to the Arctic is always an interesting experience, and I am always keen to learn more about this region. I am also keen to hear the views of those living here, of those investing here, and of those who are called upon to decide on this region's future.

But today we cannot limit ourselves to listening and exchanging views: I think it is time for us to take action. The Arctic is heating up, literally and figuratively. It is urgent that we agree on an appropriate course of action together.

Last summer the sea ice extent was at its lowest since satellite observations started. And according to the World Meteorological Organisation, the size of Arctic sea ice that melted in 2012 was three times the size of the EU!

Reports such as these can only strengthen the European Commission's resolve towards a global reduction of greenhouse gases by all major emitters.  We made this point very clear last month in Doha, where we managed to cross the bridge from the old climate regime to the new 2015 global deal. As we said then, what we need now is more ambition and more speed.

The changing Arctic environment is now the subject of a heated debate at global level: should we take this opportunity to enable the Arctic's economic development and exploit its riches, as the world's resources grow scarce; or should we preserve the Arctic as one of the last pristine and untouched areas of the world? Or can we do both?

One thing is clear, anyway: the Arctic is high on the political agenda – and on the business agenda. Human activity here is bound to pick up dramatically in the coming decades, taking the region into a new era. 

So what is the EU's perspective?

With my colleague Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, I have recently drafted a new policy document, which was adopted last June and which builds on the progress made since 2008, when the EU first came forward with an all-encompassing Arctic policy document.

Our progress is far from negligible, I would say. Let me give you a few figures of what the EU is already doing in the region.

Over the last decade, we have become the biggest sponsor of Arctic research, with contributions of 20 million euro per year. Under the Seventh Framework Programme alone, the EU has been funding well over 15 research projects, some of which are still ongoing. These look into the effects of global sea-level rises, or into the impact of climate change on key economic sectors in the Arctic, such as fisheries and resource extraction, and how these in turn may affect the Arctic environment or the Earth's climate. Let me remind you that these research projects are a tremendous aid to policymakers who are called upon to make strategic choices on climate change adaptation, for example - and not just in the EU.

Additionally, as part of its regional funding programmes, the European Union has put over one billion euros into the region's economic development – almost two billion if you count Member States' contributions – since 2007. Programmes stretch from Greenland to the Ural Mountains. The Northern Periphery programme has enabled many interesting projects to see the light: from establishing crisis management networks for cases like the 2010 volcano eruption in Iceland; to better equipping rescue services which are to operate in sparsely populated areas and under extreme conditions; to helping develop novel sustainable tourism spots in Greenland. 

And the next steps we plan will make the EU's contribution to Arctic cooperation even more meaningful. We have framed our policy approach under the headings of 'knowledge', 'responsibility' and 'engagement'.

The first thing we will do concerns "knowledge". Let's face it: in times of global recession, budgets everywhere get cut. So we want to bring researchers together, have them work together and have them share knowledge. The EU's new Horizon 2020 programme will establish closer links with researchers from third countries. And European space programmes can be useful for the purposes of communication, navigation and earth observation.  Finally, setting up joint research stations in the Arctic would be a good way to remove duplication and channel funding toward scientific excellence.

The second key component is "responsibility", which of course goes hand in hand with the sustainable management of Arctic resources. After all, the decision whether or not the Arctic should be exploited economically is not up to Brussels, London or Beijing. In my view, the countries directly surrounding the Arctic and to the people inhabiting the region should decide their own futures.  Nevertheless, if Arctic resources are in fact exploited, then EU-based companies will be active in the region. And we would be responsible for their actions.

For example, on mining the EU is already working closely with mining companies and researchers to come up with sound alternatives to otherwise harmful practices to the environment.  And we are keen to work with Arctic partners and with the private sector to develop environmentally-friendly, low-risk technologies that could be used by the extractive industries and the shipping industry.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would also like to make a point about Arctic fisheries. A third of the fish caught in the Arctic Circle ends up on European plates, but this figure could well increase as fish stocks move further North due to the seas warming up.

We think that, before exploiting any new fishing opportunities and for all those parts of the Arctic high seas not yet covered by international rules, a regulatory framework should be established to guarantee the conservation and appropriate management of fish stocks. In other words: the EU advocates a precautionary approach. We stand ready to discuss the best possible way of doing this. Do we go the route of using existing Regional Fisheries Management Organisations or do we need to create a new structure to deal with the challenges?

The third and final pillar of our Arctic policy is "engagement".

We want to reach out to and cooperate with our Arctic partners to address the challenges faced by the Arctic region together, such as environmental protection, greener technologies, research cooperation and economic development. The EU is stepping up its dialogue with all Arctic States.

We are also discussing Arctic research cooperation with Canada, the US and the Arctic Council working groups. The EU has established a regular dialogue on Arctic issues with Norway and is exchanging views with Iceland on possible policy synergies. The partnership between the EU and Greenland will open up important new opportunities to deepen cooperation. Moreover the EU is enhancing its outreach to Arctic non-governmental organisations, for instance on environmental issues. The European Commission will soon organize a meeting with Arctic indigenous groups to deepen our mutual understanding and to find ways to work together in a number of practical areas.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

An important decision is about to be made later this year by the eight Arctic States that form the Arctic Council - in my view, the key international forum on Arctic questions, to which we would like to continue making a contribution.

The EU is aware of the Arctic Council's challenges and of the difficult choices ahead. But I am confident that the Ministers will come to a fair decision.

I am also convinced that the EU is already influencing the Arctic and its environment to a great extent. And conversely, any changes in the Arctic will feedback into the EU's climate. The rising sea levels, the changing weather, there are complex variables that need to be taken into account by all of us together if we are to devise good adaptation strategies.

So my point is this: by listening to each other and helping each other we will help ourselves – and maybe the rest of the planet too. Let's get down to business.

Last update: 17/04/2013 |  Top