Estonia should apply for observer status on the Arctic Council
The Arctic region, populated by four million people, 10% of whom are indigenous, has been comparatively quiet until now but is becoming increasingly important in geopolitical terms. The impact of climate change, growing competition in gaining access to the Arctic and its natural resources, and increasing economic activity have created both new possibilities and new dangers for the region—including, unfortunately, potential security hazards. This is why the European Parliament recently adopted decisions about the EU’s policy on the Arctic region. I was the rapporteur of that report, together with my Finnish colleague Sirpa Pietikäinen.
The Arctic is facing unique social, environmental and economic problems. Due to the change in climate in the Arctic, new sea passages may appear and new fishing grounds as well as natural resources may become available, which, in turn, may facilitate human activity and exacerbate environmental issues in the region. All of this has already created a spike in interest towards the Arctic in countries located far from it. So there is a greater need for the European Union to protect the Arctic and worry about its future.
Long-term constructive international cooperation over the Arctic has worked well, and it has thus far been a cooperation-based region with little tension. It is vital to continue with this state of affairs in the future. The international legal framework applies to the Arctic, and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has a decisive role in the region.
The EU has been involved with the Arctic for a long time, due to history and geography. Three EU member states (Denmark, Finland and Sweden) are members of the Arctic Council—the main forum of Arctic cooperation—which consists of eight countries, and seven EU member states (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom) are observers.
The EU’s observer status on the Arctic Council has not yet been approved. Given the EU’s large funding of and contribution to Arctic research, it might be considered natural that the EU should have such status. However, the decision has been stalled for a long time, first by Canada and now by Russia.
Observer Status for Estonia on the Arctic Council
Estonia should also apply for observer status on the Arctic Council, as the closest country to the Arctic that is not part of the body. Current and future activities in the Arctic affect Estonia as well. I proposed this a few years ago and a working group was set up in the Estonian ministry of foreign affairs, but the topic has now, unfortunately, been dropped.
The EU has gradually shaped its Arctic policy and increased its efficiency. The European Commission’s joint communication is a positive step towards a more integrated EU policy on Arctic issues but the EU’s domestic and foreign policy need to be even more closely joined up on this matter. Security issues related to the Arctic must also be more clearly discussed. We must keep in mind that geopolitical developments in the Arctic region influence the security situation in northern Europe and the rest of the world.
We must prevent further militarisation of the Arctic, which Russia is unfortunately undertaking today at a rapid pace. In recent years, Russia has established four new military brigades, 16 deep harbours and 14 airfields north of the Arctic Circle, and purchased 40 icebreakers, with 11 still under construction. Russia has also established an Arctic military command. Given the spirit of cooperation prevalent in the Arctic thus far, one might ask why Russia feels the need to make such considerable military investments in the Russian part of the Arctic at all.
Chinese Interest is Growing, too
China, Singapore, India and other states far from the Arctic have also developed an increasing interest in it. For example, China is mainly interested in sea passages through the Arctic and access to energy resources. The European Commission must also monitor the impact on the Arctic of the newly concluded Free Trade Agreement between Iceland and China.
The EU needs a clear Arctic strategy and a specific action plan for the Union’s activity in the region that takes account of all necessary aspects. This is also needed because some EU member states have Arctic territories and others have their own national Arctic strategies. If we really want to achieve a common foreign and security policy within the EU, a joint Arctic strategy must be a part of it. Burying one’s head in the sand instead of facing up to uncomfortable truths like the increasing Russian military presence in the Arctic is no solution.
The EU has the capability to help resolve potential security issues and prevent conflicts in the Arctic, and it should also participate (in cooperation with its member states) in establishing civil protection mechanisms and developing crisis- and disaster-management capabilities as well as infrastructure for search-and-rescue operations in the Arctic. Improving access to the Arctic will facilitate sea traffic and tourism, which come with the risk of accidents.
The Law of the Sea is the Alpha and Omega
In light of the potential changes, it is especially important to ensure that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is followed in the Arctic during activities undertaken in the ocean as well as in the delimitation of the continental shelf and in questions of sovereignty concerning territorial waters adjacent to the Arctic region. There are only a few unresolved legal issues related to the Arctic but, considering potential natural changes, following international law to the letter will also be very important in the future, as it is the only way to avoid conflict.
The Arctic is the most untouched and sensitive region in the world. Europe’s purpose is to maintain and strengthen the Arctic ecosystem, which is under pressure from several directions. Arctic policy must be environmentally, socially and culturally sustainable and strive towards controlling climate change and reducing the carbon footprint caused by human activity. The EU is committed to achieving its sustainable development goals by 2030. Sustainable development is also the only option for developing the Arctic, which is why the EU’s Arctic policy should better reflect the requirements related to meeting each individual sustainable development goal in the Arctic context, focusing especially on the protection of ecosystems.
The Ice is Melting
Human activity contributes to climate change and the environment is altering faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world. Due to the higher level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in the past 50 years the surface temperature of the Arctic has increased 2° more than anywhere else. The extent of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has decreased by 13.4% in each decade since 1981, and the snow cover is reducing with each passing year. The area under permafrost is shrinking, which creates the danger of huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane being released into the atmosphere. The sea level is rising globally due to melting glaciers. According to forecasts, the extent of summer sea ice will reduce by more than 40% in the next 35 years.
Higher temperatures and melting sea ice influence ecosystems all over the world—as the sea level rises, the composition of seawater changes and new, unpredictable weather patterns emerge. Without effective measures, climate changes may occur even more quickly in the future since the melting of permafrost in the Arctic region has a significant influence.
Applying measures to combat climate change is not up to Arctic countries alone, but all states in the temperate zone. The air pollution in the Arctic originates mainly from sources in Asia, North America and Europe, so EU emission-reduction measures have an important role.
The European Commission must also use its position in negotiations underway at the International Maritime Organization so as to prohibit, through the MARPOL convention [on the prevention of pollution from ships], the use or carriage of heavy fuel oil in vessels travelling in the Arctic, as has been done in relation to the sea surrounding the Antarctic.
We need to act quickly, because our inaction will cost us dearly as time goes on. To achieve the goal established by the Paris Agreement, we need to reduce emissions drastically now. In addition, we need to take into account that negative environmental impact on the Arctic is often cumulative and irreversible. The Arctic’s ecosystem, including the local flora and fauna, is very sensitive to disturbances and recovers slowly.
The combination of viable local communities and a healthy ecosystem guarantees the development of the Arctic. The EU can improve the region’s transport, communications and power networks and facilitate the development of innovative, nature-friendly technologies that are intended for low temperatures.
Another way to guarantee the more effective protection of the vulnerable environment and the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples is to organise an environmental impact assessment specifically for the Arctic—this should be carried out before any Arctic-related project is realised. Among other things, an international procedure should be applied to hold parties liable and pay compensation for polluting the land, sea and air due to offshore oil research and production.
Strengthening Energy Security
Oil and gas deposits in the Arctic are a controversial subject. On the one hand, they carry the risk of an environmental accident, but on the other, European energy security is enhanced by gas from Norway, for example, which accounts for slightly more than 20% of European gas consumption. More than half of the world’s unexploited reserves of gas may be located in the Arctic Circle. We do not wish to harm energy security—thus, the only option is to apply very tight restrictions on exploring and exploiting new deposits in the Arctic.
The international waters that surround the North Pole are not in the economic zones of the littoral states but need stronger protection. Industrial fishing is also a sensitive subject. All deep-sea fishing must be regulated by a regional fishing organisation with a strict control and monitoring programme. Unregulated fishing in the international waters of the Arctic must be prevented, and negotiations on this question are underway between the Arctic littoral states and international parties. The EU can also help to ensure the strong and effective protection of biological diversity in areas outside states’ jurisdiction in relation to the new UN oceans treaty, currently being negotiated. This would guarantee rapid progress in the delimitation and management of protected marine areas, including prohibited fishing areas, and the enforcement of protective measures.
Among other things, we need to speed up the establishment of a marine protected area in the Arctic deep basin under the mandate of the OSPAR Commission, which would be located in international waters surrounding the North Pole and covered by the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. All use of natural resources, including fishing, would be prohibited there. The EU should also support initiatives for the prohibition of bottom trawling in ecologically and biologically endangered areas and in the Arctic deep basin. The EU should lead the prevention of unregulated fishing in the Arctic.
The indigenous peoples of the Arctic also play an important part in the future development of the region. Arctic countries must consult and cooperate with the representative bodies of indigenous peoples. They must be more involved in the work of the Arctic Council and the EU should support the establishment of a representation of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples in Brussels.
Europe Should Beware Surprises
The EU has gradually shaped its Arctic policy and increased its effectiveness, but this is not enough in current circumstances. This year the EU must adopt a comprehensive Arctic strategy that also addresses the security dimension, which has been in the background thus far, and it must be at least half a step ahead of developments in the Arctic so that Europe is not in for a nasty surprise yet again.
Estonia should work hard for observer status on the Arctic Council, because important developments are underway in our close vicinity.
Sauli Ninistö, President of Finland
The future of humanity does not depend on military security alone. Finland has just begun its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Although the Council has only eight full members, the Arctic is a global concern.
The Arctic is a region that brings us face to face with the great dilemma facing humanity: do we approach the Arctic primarily as a source of economic opportunity, or do we admit that preserving the region’s ecosystem is critical to our entire planet? In short: Do we put the environment or the economy first?
Recently we have seen mixed signals on this topic. On the one hand, the leaders of the two largest member states [of the Council], the United States and Russia, have expressed views that climate change is not due to human activity. On the other hand, the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Fairbanks earlier this week adopted a declaration that not only acknowledged climate change but also put attempts to fight it at the forefront.
It is clear that we need to utilise the economic potential of the Arctic but do so in a manner that is sustainable. At the same time, we must make tackling climate change a priority.
I would recommend approaching the issue from the perspective of black carbon, an accelerator of glacial melting. Old energy plants in the neighbourhood of the Arctic are causing heavy pollution due to incomplete burning. And then we have flaring—a process, almost impossible for a layman to understand, whereby excess gas is burnt off at the production site. Around the world, flaring wastes forty times more gas than Finland consumes in a year.
I believe that a “neutral zone” for cooperation can be found from combating these two sources of emissions. Doing so would not interfere with interests bent on economic exploitation. On the contrary, refitting power plants would create business opportunities.
Taken from the speech by the President of the Republic of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, at the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn on 13 May 2017.
Sven Mikser, Foreign Minister
Due to the proximity of the Arctic, the well-being of the region is important to Estonia and to the entire European Union since what is happening there affects us both directly and indirectly. Estonia’s main interests in the Arctic are concerned with environmental protection, the sustainable development of indigenous peoples and research. Estonia follows developments connected with the Arctic closely. As a member of the EU, Estonia supports the Union’s endeavour to achieve observer status on the Arctic Council. We also consider that the EU should be more active in its Arctic-related activities and policy. The previous Estonian government discussed applying for observer status for Estonia on the Arctic Council in May 2016, but it was decided not to proceed due to the limitations of the state budget and the need to prepare for the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
The Arctic Is an Opportunity for Estonia
Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee
For years, Arctic issues have gained serious international attention, including in Estonia. This is primarily owing to developments caused by the technological revolution and climate change. The Arctic has also become a very important region in strategic terms, where the interests of the West and Russia collide, especially due to Russia’s activity.
Applying for observer status on the Arctic Council was first discussed in Estonia a few years ago. For example, during a foreign policy debate in the Riigikogu on 21 February 2013 I emphasised that the foreign affairs committee intends to consider what Estonia should do to enhance our knowledge about issues in the Arctic and look into the possibilities of our participating in related discussions. The subject is gaining importance and has a primarily economic relevance for Estonia in connection to the sea passage that will become accessible as a result of climate change.
The analysis ordered by the foreign affairs committee and prepared by the International Centre for Defence and Security in 2014 recommended that the government apply for observer status on the Arctic Council. The committee supported this and proposed that the government consider making an application. But the plan has been dropped due to a lack of resources.
Observer status on the Arctic Council would allow Estonia to play a part in solving the problems of a region that is becoming more and more important on a global level, e.g. through research or environmental questions, while we could also engage in further cooperation with our good Nordic neighbours.
I recently visited the Arctic Circle at Kirkenes and heard from the local mayor that they consider the potential economic gain from the developing international cooperation in the Arctic very important. The Arctic Ocean, which is becoming more navigable, is the main reason for the international interest.
Among other things, Finland has looked into opportunities for constructing a more than 500-kilometre railway from Rovaniemi to Kirkenes to create a new north–south transport corridor. Realising this plan would be in Estonia’s interest since Rail Baltic would be connected to a future northern sea passage. This is only one example of what the Arctic has to offer for us.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.