17 Dec 2020

A quantum of possibilities

The strategic spectrum of the EU’s Arctic policy


“Geography is changing – even though we cannot change geography”, were the words of Norway’s then Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, almost 10 years ago when he succinctly captured the essence of Arctic change – from the impact of global climate change to increased awareness of all matters pertaining to the region. A decade later, Støre’s analysis is more pertinent than ever. The Arctic is still in a complex state of flux. Be this because of the extraordinary rate of change, evidenced by extreme warm air temperatures in the Eurasian Arctic, Russia’s militarisation efforts, China’s increasing regional interests or the tweets of a particularly polarising (former) US President.

In steps the European Union. A complicated creature that has also had to contend with multiple crises and their resulting challenges and calls for change. A Union that is currently in the process of defining what kind of security and defence actor it wants to be. A Union that is also reflecting on its Arctic presence, interests and influence. Over the last 10 years, security has received little attention in the EU’s Arctic considerations, and neither did the Arctic play a role in broader European reflections on security and defence. But is this about to change?

Strategy and security are forever

Lately, the EU has felt the need to adapt its posture on the increasingly conflicted world stage, either due to emerging great power rivalry, the changing transatlantic relationship, a more assertive China or the Union’s continuous clashes with Russia. To align the different strategic cultures of its member states and to work towards a mutual understanding of threats and capabilities, the EU is currently developing a Strategic Compass, which should be adopted in early 2022. The Global Strategy of 2016 already changed perceptions of the EU; it was now becoming more of a power broker, keen to defend its own interests and protect the Union and its citizens. Yet the Global Strategy also impressed with its vagueness about how to actually respond to all crises and conflicts globally, not to speak of those in Europe’s periphery. The Strategic Compass should thus bring some light into this strategic darkness. Although it is unlikely to remedy all the ills confronting EU security and defence, the Compass could be a useful tool to narrow the member states’ differences in threat perception and strategic outlook, and foster agreements on a few priority areas for crisis management, capability and partnership development.

In a first step, a comprehensive yet classified threat analysis – the very first of its kind – just identified near future threats that affect the Union’s security the most. Among others, these challenges concern a slowdown of globalisation, great power (economic) rivalry, climate change, regional instabilities and a broad range of hybrid risks emanating from state and non-state actors. All have direct Arctic relevance. But does the region even fit into the mould of European strategic considerations, threat perceptions and security and defence implications?

The Union that ignored me

Over the past decade, the Arctic region has barely figured in any discussions concerning a strategic outlook, lack of capabilities or means for crisis management. On the one hand – and for good reasons and the lack of an official ‘competence’ – the European Union itself has rather timidly covered Arctic security matters in its regional policy documents and only discussed security in a general, implicit way. In this discussion, the strengthening of low-level regional and multilateral cooperation, the allegiance to an international legal order and the vision of a cooperative Arctic that is not affected by any spill-over effects. The Global Strategy of 2016 took the same line, highlighting the Arctic as one potential venue of selectively engaging with Russia. On the other hand, the peaceful and stable Arctic of the 21st century might have provided too few incentives (or security problems related to Russia) to include the region in thorough analyses of matters of security and defence.

Yet this might change as the Union is increasingly aware of the Arctic’s changing geopolitical dynamics and the need to address them in light of shifting regional and global security considerations. Both Germany’s updated Arctic policy (August 2019) and France’s Defence Policy for the Arctic (October 2019) specifically responded to the changing security aspects of the Arctic. Recently, Sweden – in its new Arctic Strategy (October 2020) – urged the EU to identify its strategic interest in the Arctic given a changing security policy environment. Similarly, Poland will highlight the rise of political tensions in the Arctic as having consequences for international cooperation and dialogue in their upcoming Polar Policy. Could some of these member states’ individual Arctic security concerns also have found their way into the threat analysis of the Strategic Compass? If so, what role could the contemporary Arctic security environment play for the Union’s strategic security outlook post-2022?

A quantum of possibilities

Some of the Strategic Compass’ objectives might not be EU-Arctic-compatible, or they are at least overambitious if one takes into account the region’s eclectic peripheral status. In Brussels, the Arctic resides within the realm of ‘soft policy’ – not written into the Treaties, with no distinct budget line and no set rule book on how to protect the Arctic. Yet an updated EU Arctic policy, which should be published in autumn 2021, could serve as an important regional prologue to the Strategic Compass. The Arctic policy update might not even need to specifically and openly address security concerns related, for example, to Chinese investments in the region or Russian attempts to increase control over navigation in its exclusive economic zone. However, the institutional work leading to the update could result in a concrete and comprehensive understanding of the security concerns shared by both the EU and the member states, the definition of strategic goals and potentially a classified assessment of how the Union could address future Arctic security challenges. An Arctic security threat analysis might also reveal the potential for the EU to be at the forefront of developing or refuelling new regional means of cooperation that go beyond the Arctic Council. This could provide impetus to properly manage the growing international interest in Arctic matters and counteract the emerging global geopolitical competition that also affects the Arctic. While the European Union might not have the power or geographical reach to tackle all Arctic-related security problems, it certainly has the ambition and the potential to offer guidelines on how to best manage Arctic development.

This being the case, the European Union already has a broad toolbox of regional competences, expertise and initiatives at its disposal. This ‘EU Arctic spectrum of capabilities’ could serve as a framework for the updated policy and – if properly implemented – act as a trigger to a more confident and trustworthy relationship with Russia. A framework that starts with concepts on small but nevertheless important confidence-building measures, such as search and rescue efforts and cross-border environmental cooperation; possibly extending to tougher cooperation nuts to crack, such as the salvage of nuclear submarines. This ‘spectrum structure’ would offer the possibility for the EU to be the region’s honest broker and to act in the Arctic without artificially fuelling conflict narratives or being perceived as an Arctic security actor.

The European Union has often been criticised for being reactive rather than proactive, for responding to global events rather than shaping them. The simultaneous development of the Strategic Compass and the policy update for this key – yet often ignored – region on its own doorstep might offer the critics a new perspective. An updated EU Arctic policy needs to reflect on the changing geopolitical realities of and within the Arctic, be they perceived or real. Yet EU actors need to strike a careful balance between expanding their own language on (Arctic) security, without talking up any moves towards an increased securitisation of the region.

Andreas Raspotnik, Senior Researcher, High North Center for Business and Governance, Nord University, Bodø (Norway), andreas.raspotnik@nord.no