The EU as an Actor in the Arctic

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Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, presenting the EU’s new Arctic policy (note: it’s not a strategy) on October 13, 2021 in Brussels. Photo: European Commission

The Arctic Institute Arctic Collaboration Series 2023

“The European Union (EU) is in the Arctic. As a geopolitical power, the EU has strategic and day-to-day interests, both in the European Arctic and the broader Arctic region.” With this strong statement, the European Commission introduced its new Arctic policy in 2021 under the heading A stronger EU engagement for a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous Arctic (EUAP).

The Arctic is rich in natural resources that will increase political and economic importance in the coming years. With its enormous market power and strong profile in climate politics, it is no wonder that the EU wants to boost its profile in the European Arctic region. In its most recent EUAP, the EU considers the Arctic as a region for peaceful cooperation, with the need to slow down the effects of climate change and support sustainable development to the benefit of the Arctic communities.

Following rising military conflict on the European continent, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU is forced to change its way of contributing to European and international security. In the 2022 Strategic Compass, the EU announced it intends to become “a more capable security provider for its citizens, but also a stronger global partner working for international peace and security.”

In light of growing global geopolitical turmoil, this article will discuss the rise of tensions in the Arctic and the EU’s Arctic interests. I ask: what kind of role does the EU seek to take in the Arctic? I argue that the EU is not a geopolitical actor in the traditional sense of security but rather acting within a comprehensive security framework while representing the norms and values of the EU.

The rise of tension: Why is the EU interested in the Arctic?

When in 2007, Russia planted a flag in the ice bed of the North Pole, the Arctic attracted global attention. The flag was read as a gesture of conquered land, or rather of oil and gas reserves that lie underneath the ice bed. This is problematic as it goes against the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to the UNCLOS, a continental shelf extends 200 nautical miles from the coastal state’s baseline. Within this zone, the state also has its Exclusive economic zones meaning it possesses the sole exploitation rights over all natural resources. The North Pole, however, is part of the maritime Global Commons and thus a resource domain to which all states should have legal access.

Eighty percent of global trade is seaborne, while 15 percent of the vessels travelling through the Arctic waters in 2019, flew under EU Member States’ (MS) flags. Maintaining a safe and secure ocean is at the heart of the EU’s new Maritime Security Strategy. Safe maritime trading routes are of enormous importance to the EU’s economy. Concerning the Arctic, the EU’s action plan reads that through enhanced satellite observation, the security of the new Arctic Sea routes will be ensured by 2025. The EU is thus adapting to the new security threats and challenges that have emerged since its adoption of the EU Maritime Security Strategy in 2014.

Geographically, the Arctic comprises eight states: the US, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Iceland and Russia. With Finland and Sweden joining the EU in 1995, the EU also had the potential to become an Arctic actor. Although the EU’s states are not directly connected to the Arctic Ocean, the EU still has interests in the Arctic region. With Iceland and Norway being in the EEA, the EU technically does have an open market policy with some Arctic regions. Andreas Raspotnik states that since 2007, the EU has shown interest in the Arctic climate, environmental and social issues and economic opportunities. Since 2008, the EU has published documents on its visions for the Arctic and formally applied for observer status in the Arctic Council, which has been rejected so far.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU-Russia cooperation could be seen as part of the Arctic exceptionalism narrative. Although they have major political disagreements, Russia was the EU’s biggest supplier of energy goods until the first quarter of 2022. A lot of Russian exports of hydrocarbons and raw materials to the EU originated from Russia’s Arctic regions. Accordingly, Russia’s undiscovered onshore and offshore energy resources have been discussed as essential for the future of EU energy security. This is a trade relationship that the EU was willing to risk according to their 2016 Arctic strategy. This has, however, changed, with the EU increasing the unprecedented economic sanctions on Russian exports in response to the war in Ukraine.

Another important component of the EU’s economic interest in the Arctic is the Northern Sea Route. Deandreis notes that the Northern Sea Route will become a shortcut for seaborne trade between Asia, Europe and North America. It could reduce shipping times to up to ⅓, drastically reducing shipping industry costs. Climate change will open up new Arctic routes, that the EU together with the Arctic states under the UNCLOS seeks to delegate.

Geographical closeness, increasing militarization, territorial claims and competition for resources are all arguments that the EU refers to in their new Arctic policy of 2021. The above-mentioned challenges, together with the global environmental security threat as a direct consequence of climate change are the EU’s main reference points to why the EU should be an Arctic actor. The European Arctic is a hugely debated topic; due to its conflicting relationship with Russia, it can be used as a case study for European and international security and foreign policy studies.

EU as an emerging geopolitical power

Since 2019 Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has promoted a narrative of “geopolitical Commission”. Matters of “low politics” such as economic, social and environmental issues would be delegated to the EU’s supranational institutions, while matters of “high politics” relating to national and international security are governed by the individual MS. This is why Aggestam argues that the domain of foreign policy is so delicate, it is where MS feel its closest link to sovereignty which makes it the EU domain with the smallest mandate from its MS. As the majority of EU MS are NATO members, this is where their hard power is delegated. With the EU Rapid Deployment Capacity, European Peace Facility and the expected NATO enlargement of Sweden and Finland, the EU has taken major steps to strengthen its security and defence position. The EU seeks to not only rely on NATO for matters of high politics but also handle more military capabilities itself. The EU thus successfully takes the changing geopolitical context into account and seems to act on it. Consequently, Von der Leyen’s Commission can be called a ‘geopolitical Commission’.

While the 2016 EU Arctic Policy was more concerned with raising awareness of the environmental decline in the Arctic and how the EU is trying to slow down the effects of climate change in the Arctic region, the EUAP takes on a more geopolitical narrative. Swedish and Finnish politicians have called for more EU action in the Arctic. In 2019, Antti Rinne, then-Finnish prime minister, called for the need of the EU to be in the Arctic, as the Arctic was also in the EU. This statement seems to have been fully incorporated into the EU’s most recent Arctic policy.

Wanting to keep the Arctic a “safe, stable, sustainable, peaceful and prosperous” illustrates the EU’s future vision for the region. When the EUAP was published in 2021, the geopolitical threat by Russia was not as urgent and direct as it is right now. This is why the whole policy is structured around positioning the EU Arctic engagement within the European Green Deal. The EUAP can be read as a plan of action for how the EU wants to reform internal policies and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The EU calls for oil, gas and coal to stay in the ground while exploring and supporting ways of producing sustainable energy in the High North. It is, however, yet to be seen how this will evolve during the energy crisis the EU is currently facing, caused to a large extent by the deteriorating relationship with Russia.

The main argument of the EUAP is not one of security in the traditional state-related military sense but rather the threats posed by climate change to the globe’s environmental security. It is, however, all interconnected, as the rising temperatures in the Arctic lead to the accessibility of new resources and the opening up of new transport routes, like the Northern Sea Route, that will transform the Arctic into an “arena of local and geopolitical competition” that could harm the EU’s interests in the region. In line with the comprehensive security theory, the EU focuses on the interaction between different security aspects, environmental security being the most pressing, followed by economic, military, societal and political security. The EU has its interests in the Arctic, but supposedly also sees its intervention, as a geopolitical power, in the region as a necessary step to ensuring global environmental security.

Changing geopolitical context, EU-Russia Arctic relations

As previously discussed, the Arctic is in a geopolitical transition from an area of ‘exceptionalism’ where geopolitical conflict was not present to a contested area that is on the agenda of major powers like Russia, the US, the EU and even China.

All the major crises on the European continent from 2007 until today have had a continuously transformative effect on the EU-Russian trade relationship. It was however the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia that seriously affected the EU-Russian relationship. The EU depends on Russian energy goods, like oil, gas and coal, to ensure EU-wide energy security. Russia uses this dependency to bring forth its foreign security goals and strengthen its economy. This shows that strategic autonomy would be all the more important for the EU’s economy.

Major powers see the region’s economic potential and seek to become Arctic actors to compete in the race for natural resources hiding underneath the Arctic ground. China and Russia are aware of the Arctic’s economic potential, specifically the new emerging trading routes and the natural resources. While the EU is also interested in these, the EU calls for a value-based approach following their rule of law and sets on cooperation with the Arctic Council and NATO.

Following the outbreak of war, EU-Russian trade relations have become more complex. The EU has applied unprecedented sanctions on Russian exports and imports to weaken their economy. Disrupting EU-Russian trade relations has driven Russia to further collaborate with like-minded partners, like China. In 2018, China declared itself a ‘near-Arctic state’ and plans to create a global transport corridor within Russia’s Northern Sea Route. China is planning to become a polar great power by 2030, which they could achieve by further cooperating with Russia. This will not only impact the EU’s external and internal market, but it could also possibly lead to a paradigm shift in all currently established global trade relations.

While the 2021 Arctic policy was written in accordance with the 2016 Global Strategy, the 2022 Strategic Compass seems to be fitter to address the matters of geopolitics that are raised in the EUAP. Even though the Arctic Council tries to keep geopolitical matters out of the ‘exceptional’ Arctic, the Arctic 7 (all members, excluding Russia), decided to suspend their participation following Russia’s unjustified attack on Ukraine. Deteriorating economic and political relations between Russia and the West have shown that the Arctic is no longer an ‘exceptional’ region. Increasing militarization, territorial claims and competition for resources are among the many burdens of the Arctic region. This is the return of great power politics to the High North.

While the collaboration among the A8 is paused, the EU can still act according to its competencies. The EU may promote dialogue among the Arctic states and Arctic stakeholders. The EU acts as a mediator through its expertise in conflict resolution to foster a spirit of cooperation among all involved parties. Particular attention should be put on the Arctic Indigenous people. One such initiative was the EU Arctic Forum and Indigenous Peoples’ Dialogue in Nuuk, Greenland, on 8-9 February 2023. To add, Thomas Winkler and Louise Calais, Arctic ambassadors of Denmark and Sweden, have recently stated that “the war has overshadowed the climate crisis in the Arctic.” The EU should thus redirect to its initial focus on climate change through sustainable development and scientific research. Overall, the EU is continuously contributing towards strengthening Arctic governance. By promoting the ratification and implementation of international agreements, like the UNCLOS or the updated EU Maritime security strategy, the EU can play a constructive role in promoting the legal framework for managing the region’s marine resources.

The above has demonstrated that the EUAP does not lay the grounds for the EU to become a geopolitical actor in the traditional sense of security but rather acts within a comprehensive security framework. This goes along with Ian Manners’ argument that the EU’s international role in the context of world politics follows a representation of the EU as a normative power.

Following recent developments, it is to be seen how far the EU will follow its action plan as laid out in the Arctic strategy (2021) or if it will possibly have to adapt it to the current geopolitical threats that arose in 2022.


This paper has sought to answer the question: in light of growing global geopolitical tensions, what role does the EU seek to take in the Arctic? Explaining the rise of the EU as a geopolitical commission under Von der Leyen helps to understand a geopolitical reading of the EUAP. The EUAP was published in 2021 under more stable military-geopolitical conditions when climate change posed the biggest threat to global environmental security. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the security dynamics have, however, changed. Military, energy and economic security are now among the top priorities of EU foreign and security policy. The EU is a comprehensive security provider on a European, international and global scale, allowing it to contribute to all types of security questions we currently face.

Overall, the action plan of the EUAP, together with the new adjustments in the Strategic Compass, seems to be a fit plan for the EU to increase its status as an international security provider, be it in environmental, economic or military terms. It is, however, hard to tell how this will evolve, as uncertainties mark the geopolitical situation of Europe and the Arctic. For now, the EU seeks to become a constructive and responsible actor in the Arctic region as it considers the region of strategic importance. It does this by protecting the Arctic environment, promoting its economic interests, strengthening Arctic governance, increasing cooperation with regional stakeholders, and focusing on a strong engagement with Arctic communities.

Lena Debanck is a Master’s student at Gothenburg University pursuing a degree in European Studies.

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