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

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The Arctic is becoming a key battleground between states due to a lack of international rules around security and the increasingly aggressive push to tap its mineral riches, the European Union’s first ever ambassador for the region has warned.

The Arctic is warming up two to three times faster than most of the rest of the world and most of that heating isn’t caused by the 4 million people there, it’s coming 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 like oil.

Security concerns

But it is a delicate balance between the two, which is further complicated by competition in the high latitude region. The official warned that there was “a security vacuum” in the Arctic that increases 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. And because of these geo-economics implications, it has an effect on geopolitics and on security,” she said.

Russia is heavily invested in the region, which accounts for between 10 and 15 per cent of the country’s total GDP. The Brussels-based diplomat said that Russia was becoming an increasingly dominant force in the Arctic, but China has also upped its investment in the region in recent years.

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

She said though that conflict in the region still remains at a low level, the EU’s diplomatic clout has been hindered by it not being a formal observer on the Arctic Council, which comprises Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Security in the Arctic is an increasing concern. Jamie Lafferty
Security in the Arctic is an increasing concern. Jamie Lafferty

“We are blocked in our observership because of Russia, though in practice we are treated the same as the other observers. 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 [security] 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,” she said.

Dialogue with Beijing

Ms Coninsx has an impressive CV 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 Mexico. She was behind the creation of the Arctic role, given her experience working in sub-zero temperatures of Canada.

She said it was essential to maintain steady dialogue with China around 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. Because 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.”

“Also, if you want to ensure that China respects the international rule of law, you have to work with them. China speaks with two voices. If you read the Chinese Arctic policy from 2018, they speak 22 times about UN law of the sea. But if you look at what they are doing in the South China Sea - it's not exactly respectful of the law of the sea.”

Arctic policy update

The EU is preparing to update its Arctic policy, after receiving the green light 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 safeguarding the environment; sustainable development in the (European) Arctic; and international cooperation on Arctic issues.

Climate change already got a grip on Greenland, the giant island at the Arctic Circle. dpa/Corbis
Climate change already got a grip on Greenland, the giant island at the Arctic Circle. dpa/Corbis

The ambassador told The National that she wanted to reinforce the existing three pillars in the next update but develop them in accordance with recent geoeconomic and geopolitical developments in the region.

“The three pillars will remain but we have done an internal exercise within the European Union with Arctic stakeholders and we asked them on what future Arctic policies we should focus on most. The one which came out at number one is promoting connectivity. Connectivity within the Arctic and the Arctic with the outside world.”

She 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 has said she wants to lead
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said she wants to lead "a geopolitical commission".  AFP 

“I don’t think they have a lot of choice because if the EU leadership, Ursula Von der Leyen, wants to have a Green Deal, you can’t speak about the climate change without dealing with the Arctic,” she said.

Ms Von der Leyen has said wants to lead “a geopolitical commission”. Ms Coninsx believes that in order 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 last four decades.

Updated: February 18, 2020 01:36 AM

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