The EU has for a long time taken slight interest in what has been happening on its northern Arctic periphery. That is set to change. The Commission has just released a communication to the parliament and the council on “The European Union and the Arctic Region”. This could be good news, it could be bad.
A communication like this is often the first step leading to a thorough policy from the Union. The first step is actually quite interesting and , I believe, sets the Union on a right path. Except that is, that this document as so many documents today is schizophrenic. On one hand it makes all the right noises about climate change and the environment. They write beautiful words, such as these:
The vast sea and land spaces of the Arctic region are vital and vulnerable components of the Earth’s environment and climate system. Arctic air temperatures have been increasing twice as much as the global average. Coverage of sea ice, snow cover and permafrost have been decreasing rapidly, triggering strong feed-back mechanisms that accelerate global warming. Accelerated loss from the Greenland ice sheet would raise sea levels rapidly and considerably. In spite of harsh conditions, melting of ice and new technologies will gradually increase access to Arctic living and non-living resources as well as to new navigation routes. Although the Arctic remains one of the most pristine areas on Earth, it will be increasingly at risk from the combined effects of climate change and increased human activity.
It seems that they understand the problem, I thought, for about half a minute. That was the time it took me to reach this paragraph:
Support for the exploitation of Arctic hydrocarbon resources should be provided in full respect of strict environmental standards taking into account the particular vulnerability of the Arctic.
So climate change is extremely important, but we still need to drill for more oil and gas. Somehow that double standard, seen often these days, keeps amazing me. Still I guess it is a step forward the climate change actually is put first in the document. And, truth be told, no other governments are less schizophrenic. I guess there are two good reasons for actually exploiting arctic hydrocarbons. It could possibly make the EU less dependent on Russian natural gas, and natural gas could replace coal fired electricity. I don’t believe either scenario.
However the document contains more than climate change and hydrocarbons. It sets a very interesting path for multilateral cooperation in the Arctic, within the framework of UNCLOS. Even more interesting it ponders the possibilities of setting up new legal frameworks in the Arctic. I think that it would be very good if the parts of the Arctic not under national sovereignty could be handled in the same way as the Antarctic is handled. With a treaty that protects the environment an demilitarizes the polar basin. I have been thinking about this more as a dream, but with the EU warming to the idea it could be a distinct possibility.
The full implementation of already existing obligations, rather than proposing new legal instruments should be advocated. This however should not preclude work on further developing some of the frameworks, adapting them to new conditions or Arctic specificities.
I tmight still be a dream, but it is a nice one.