At Arctic Meeting, European Union Left Out in the Cold

Arctic Council states are reluctant to grant the supranational body observer status.

Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, attends a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna, Sweden, May 15
Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, attends a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna, Sweden, May 15 (State Department)

The news from Kiruna, Sweden last week was certainly a game changer for the future of the Arctic region.

As the chairmanship of the Arctic Council forum was passed to Canada, China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea were formally accepted into the “cold club” as observer members. A binding oil spill prevention agreement for the Arctic was also signed, highlighting the resources that are said to be found in the area. But the postponing of the accession of the European Union and the entry of China dominated proceedings following the ministerial meetings in the northern Swedish town.

The European Union’s bid to be an observer in the body was previously rejected in 2009 due to a dispute with Canada over its trade in seal products, illegal in Europe. The same issue likely prevented the European Union from entering the Arctic forum this year.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, promised that the bloc would “now work expeditiously” with the Canadians “to address the outstanding issue of their concern.” Given that they hold the chairmanship until 2015, however, it is unlikely that the Europeans will make another attempt at getting observer status before then.

It may also be the case that the Arctic states simply want to keep supranational bodies out altogether. Admitting the European Union could leave the door open to other groups, from NATO to the Gulf Cooperation Council, requesting membership which would change the nature of an organization that, at present, is dedicated exclusively to Arctic issues and peoples.

The United States have also voiced their opposition to European Union involvement, even if Denmark, Finland and Sweden are full members. Other European Union member states France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom are already observers. Why introduce the union as a whole into observership of the council?

The situation has gone beyond the European Union trying to get into the Arctic Council for economic purposes or to assist in introducing legislation concerning sustainable development and climate change prevention. It rather seems the European Union is attempting to increase its influence northward in a diplomatic flexing of its muscles. This would be an inappropriate way of intervening in Arctic issues per Canadian minister Leona Aglukkaq’s promise of “developing the North for the people of the North” during her country’s chairmanship.