Arctic ‘security vacuum’ increases risk of regional conflict, EU ambassador warns

EU is looking to update its policy on the icy region

GREENLAND - MARCH 30:  Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast on March 30, 2017 above Greenland. NASA's Operation IceBridge has been studying how polar ice has evolved over the past nine years and is currently flying a set of eight-hour research flights over ice sheets and the Arctic Ocean to monitor Arctic ice loss aboard a retrofitted 1966 Lockheed P-3 aircraft. According to NASA scientists and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), sea ice in the Arctic appears to have reached its lowest maximum wintertime extent ever recorded on March 7.Scientists have said the Arctic has been one of the regions hardest hit by climate change.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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The Arctic is becoming a key battleground because of a lack of international rules on security and the increasingly aggressive push to tap its mineral riches, the EU’s first ambassador to the region said.

The Arctic is warming two to three times faster than most of the rest of the world.

Most of that heating is not caused by the 4 million people living there, but from countries outside the region.

While climate change is an increasing concern, the EU ambassador to the Arctic, Marie-Anne Coninsx, told The National that it also opens up economic opportunities for the region with more shipping straits and access to natural resources such as oil.

Security concerns

But it is a delicate balance between the two, which is further complicated by competition in the region.

Ms Coninsx said there was “a security vacuum” in the Arctic that increased the likelihood of future confrontations over its frontiers.

“You will have more drilling, fishing and more shipping opportunities in the Arctic, so you have a very strong economic interests," she said.

"And because of these geo-economic implications, it has an effect on geopolitics and on security."

Russia is heavily invested in the region, which accounts for between 10 and 15 per cent of the country’s total GDP.

Ms Coninsx said Russia was becoming a dominant force in the Arctic, but China had also increased its investment there in recent years.

“The US is now waking up, probably because they see this activity of Russia and China. And then you have President Trump even wanting to buy Greenland,” she joked.

Ms Coninsx said that conflict in the region remained at a low level, but the EU’s diplomatic influence has been hindered by it not being a formal observer on the Arctic Council.

The council is made up of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US.

Security in the Arctic is an increasing concern. Jamie Lafferty

“We are blocked in our observership because of Russia, although in practice we are treated the same as the other observers," Ms Coninsx said.

"Security is an issue because there is no organisation and nobody that is dealing with security in the Arctic.

“Before you had the EU sanctions on Russia, we had organisations with responsibilities to discuss the Arctic with Russia and other countries.

"But since 2014 with the sanctions, there is a vacuum, and more and more leaders are saying that, too.”

“By not discussing the security issue, the problem won’t be solved. I don't know where it should be discussed but it should be discussed somewhere.

"The fact we have this increased military activity by Russia and nowhere you can discuss it, that's a risk in itself."

Dialogue with Beijing 

Ms Coninsx has an impressive record as a diplomat, having served as EU ambassador at large for the Arctic since 2017.

Before that, she was the bloc’s ambassador to Canada and to Mexico. She was behind the creation of the Arctic role, given her experience working in the sub-zero temperatures of Canada.

Ms Coninsx said it was essential to maintain steady dialogue with China about the Arctic, as it emerges as a major power in the region.

The EU had two rounds of talks with China about the Arctic last year.

“I think you have to be inclusive and you have to engage with China," Ms Coninsx said.

"If you want to tackle the challenge of climate change, and China's very badly affected by climate change coming from the Arctic, you have to work with them."

Arctic policy update

The EU is preparing to update its Arctic policy after receiving approval to do so after a Council meeting in December last year.

The three main tenets of the current policy, which was last updated in 2016, are climate change and protecting the environment; sustainable development in the European Arctic; and international co-operation on Arctic issues.

03 Sep 2010, Greenland --- Houses in southern Greenland, 03 September 2010. Climate change already got a grip on the giant island at the Arctic Circle. Photo: Wolfgang Heumer | Location: Narsaq, Greenland, Denmark. --- Image by © Wolfgang Heumer/dpa/Corbis

Ms Coninsx said that she wanted to reinforce the existing three pillars in the next update but develop them in accordance with recent geo-economic and geopolitical developments in the region.

“The three pillars will remain but we have done an internal exercise within the EU with Arctic stakeholders and we asked them on what future Arctic policies we should focus on most," she said.

"The one at came out at number one was promoting connectivity; connectivity within the Arctic and the Arctic with the outside world.”

Ms Coninsx also wants to focus on digitalisation and opportunities for young people and women working in the Arctic economy.

“The three current pillars, particularly the climate change one, will definitely remain a key part of any update in policy but it should also deal with the [recent] economic, geopolitical and security issues,” she said.

She hopes the new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, prioritises the Arctic during her tenure.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen takes the oath of office, on January 13, 2020, at the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. / AFP / JOHN THYS

“I don’t think they have a lot of choice because if the EU leadership wants to have a green deal, you can’t speak about the climate change without dealing with the Arctic,” Ms Coninsx said.

Ms Von der Leyen has said she wants to lead “a geopolitical commission”.

Ms Coninsx believes that to do so, the EU chief must take stock of the pristine region, which has lost about 1.86 million square kilometres of ice in the past four decades.