• Stephan Raab

A Green deal for Greenland or the new European Artic Policy

Somewhere up in the High North, still unnoticed by many, the Arctic has turned into a focal point of changing geopolitical patterns. Due to the impacts of climate change, up in the melting regions the dynamics of a new geopolitical strife seem to literally surface. This article shows how a green deal for the Arctic could contribute to a thawing of current political rivalry.



Breaking the ice- A rising geopolitical interest

In 2019 a proposal by U.S. president Donald Trump to purchase Greenland was received with irony and indignation by Denmark and Greenland alike. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called this proposal simply “absurd”. She stated: “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland. I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously.” However, this is not new, since the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the United States has tried to buy Greenland several times for strategic positioning and, supposed natural resources.

Recently, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, the German polar research ship “Polarstern” returned home to Hamburg from its mission in the Arctic. Researchers had spent one year on board, frozen into an ice-shelf, studying the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. Prof. Markus Rex, leader of the MOSaic expedition, concluded: We have seen how the Arctic ice is dying. In the summer, even at the North Pole, it was characterised by extensive melting and erosion. If we do not make immediate and sweeping efforts to combat climate warming, we’ll soon see ice-free Arctic summers.” The thawing artic shelf, new trade routes and access to presumed tremendous resource have triggered a new run for dominance in the Arctic region. Apart from Russia, the United States and China are new actors to have entered the polar stage.

This all comes at a time when the European Union launched a special consultation with the goal to update the European Arctic Strategy, last approved in 2017.


A region of peace and polarisation- Presenting the Arctic stakeholders

“The Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole, as well as on the survival, the development, and the shared future for mankind.” Astoundingly this message was delivered through the Arctic Policy of the Peoples´ Republic of China in 2018, a country rather far away from the North Pole.

In the long term, the Arctic has been rather at the margins of international affairs when suddenly in 2007, it become a focal point of changing geopolitical patterns. That year the race for the Arctic was inaugurated, when Russia set its flag on the North Pole, emphasizing its geopolitical interests on the Arctic area. Shortly after, an EU delegation visited Greenland, which slowly evolved into a hotspot for politicians campaigning against climate change. Under the commitment of the Finnish and Danish presidency of the European Council in 2008 the first official European Arctic Strategy was approved, considering the Arctic as an area of multilateral cooperation that promoted polar region building; “a common space of sovereign states, bound together by a shared history and future challenges”. (Raspontik 2018:2)

The most striking challenge in this region is its presumed bounty of natural resources. According to estimations by the U.S. Geographic survey, about 30% of the still uncovered gas reserves are presumed to be in this area, totaling to about 12% of the still uncovered reserves of oil . However, instead of a comprehensive Arctic Treaty similar to Antarctica, approved in 1959, there is only a complex construction of various treaties and organizations dealing with the status of the Arctic.



Topics range from geopolitical claims over territorial waters, economic exploration to strategic investment or also military alliances such as NATO and NORDEFCO. Nevertheless, the Ilulissat declaration 2008 declared, there is no need for an Arctic Treaty. According to this, the concept is valid until today and further reiterated in 2018. The European Union considers this approach in their current European Arctic Strategy from 2016. This is based on three pillars: Climate Change and Safeguarding the Environment Sustainable Development in and around the Arctic as International Corporation in Arctic Issues. Instead of ice and snow somewhere at the margins a wide diversity of topics these movements prove the topic is surfacing .


A near Arctic State or approaching the Arctic affairs

Following the events in the High North, the Arctic can be considered as a harbinger and test ground for global trends. The latest movement known as Friday for Future is a tremendous program of raising awareness for the impacts of a changing climate. Especially in the polar region, climate change is impacting even stronger, due to the special surface of the arctic shelf. Even if the international community is successful in curbing the Paris goal of 2° the result would still imply a 5° rise for the Arctic ocean .This is called ‘Polar Amplification’. In other words, the Arctic is not simply affected but rather speeding up the urgency for climate change.

The first Arctic state taking this into mind is the tiny nation of Iceland. Being known as the most peaceful nation in the world, in 2008 the Alþingi, the parliament of Iceland, approved its first defence law in the long history of the country reaching back to the year 874. Observing the trends far away inspired the Finish EU presidency to set up a new Arctic policy.


The last decade since the beginning of a renewed discovery of the Arctic, it seems that a frozen conflict is to freeze again. Current events remind to the times of a literally cold war however it seems, that since then, actors have changed, and new ones have entered the ice. Dealing with a new Arctic Policy, besides Russia and the USA, the European Union has to take into mind the rising geopolitical ambitions of the Peoples Republic of China. Observing the changing patterns of international relations especially the rivalry with China will be an issue. Put differently, even so far away at the edges, the Artic is a mirror of changing global patterns.


A frozen conflict unfrozen again. Old and new actors in the Arctic

On one side there is the United States of America. Since the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the U.S. has become a strong Arctic stakeholder. Nevertheless, during the last years there was a rather weak interest in developing a particular Arctic policy. “Despite over a decade of studies and assessments, the U.S. Coast Guard continues to rely on outdated capabilities and thinly resourced budgets, which equates to a seasonal U.S. Coast Guard presence” a recent report by the Congressional Research Service laments. For instance, in 2006, the U.S. army closed down their military base in Keflavik, Iceland, which had been established in 1951. It was just recently when President Obama and then Trump became aware of the rising importance of the Artic. “The greatest failing of U.S. policy has been its reluctance to understand the strategic implications of great power competition in the Arctic” (Conley; Melino 2019: 4).

“For now, Washington is acknowledging Russia and China’s growing footprint in the Arctic, but it is allowing both nations to largely shape the region’s future;” the Center for Strategic and International Studies emphasizes. Recently, the Russian president Vladimir Putin emphasized: “Now Russia should expand through the Arctic. We will increase, and we will reach new frontiers. There is no doubt. “ . This announcement was followed by tremendous investment in military capabilities in the Russian Arctic area, such as setting up new army bases . Nevertheless, despite the sanctions and tensions with the European Union, on a regional level at the Euro Barents Council European- Russian collaborations seems to function smoothly.

However, what might be most astounding, that is the involvement of China in Arctic affairs. Eventually in 2013 China was approved as observatory member of the Arctic Council, meanwhile the European Union is still denied from that status. The continued challenge for China is how to convince the Arctic Council of a true Chinese Arctic identity. The argument brought forward by China is, that as all nations on the planet, will be affected by the impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, for China it is not simply about being an observer anymore (Koivurova et. al. 2020: 25ff.). The goals pursued by China are ‘to understand’, ‘to protect’, ‘to develop’ the Arctic, and ‘to participate’ in the Arctic’s governance. This can be understood as a focus on economic aspects, exploring and exploiting the bounties of the Arctic. Besides that, China pursues a special strategy, the so called “small state strategy”. Foremost small states such as Iceland (300k people), Greenland (50k people) or Faroese Islands (51k people), have limited access to domestic resources. Therefore, they benefit substantially from bilateral and multilateral partnerships, making them more welcoming to Chinese offers (Brownman; Qingchao 2020: 8f.). In 2018 China published its first ever Arctic Strategy, which in accordance with the Belt Road Initiative, is to set up a Polar Silk Road. Massive investment and rising influence of China in the Arctic region are the expected consequences. Yet, China having been declared a “systemic rival” by the EU. The Chinese Arctic policy has to be exerted with special care, proving that China is a reliable and trustworthy partner on thin ice.


Breaking the Ice or a European Arctic Narrative

On the 10th of November 2020, the consultation by the European Commission for a new Arctic Policy ended. At the moment, it seems like the European Union is frozen between the United States of America and its Arctic Stakeholders such as Norway and Iceland on one side and the rising ambitions of Russia and ever more obvious China on the other side. Looking at Brussels, the Arctic still seems to be a rather niche subject in daily political business. “The European Union did not manage to develop an Arctic narrative”, the researchers Adam Stępień and Andreas Raspotnik from the Arctic Institute lament (Stępień ; Raspotnik 2019:2). These are especially more concrete measures than the rather vague rhetoric as the mentioning of the available sources for funding diverse research projects would be needed according to them.

Following the trajectory of European Arctic policies since 2008, there seems to be an “Artic Paradox”, considering the trade-off between environmental protection and economic prospects. A research group has compared various Arctic Strategies by European Member states, whether they are more in favor of an EU or a national approach or rather economic prospects over environmental protection. They conclude that there three clusters, a first cluster constituted of the EU Institutions Parliament, Council and Commission favors a strong European Arctic approach. A second cluster of non-EU Arctic states such as Germany, France and Italy support more environmental protection, meanwhile the third cluster of Arctic EU States such as Sweden, Finland and Denmark clearly focus on economic aspects. The results of that study are shown in the graph below. Eventually, they argue that the European Arctic Strategy is “green by omission”, in other words, the EU Arctic policy is trying to avoid addressing the trade-off.


Figure 1 Environmental policy integration in the EU’s Arctic policy: discourse clusters. (Schunz et. al. 2020:14)


Climate change in a changing world or the Arctic wind of opportunity

“The Arctic is a new gateway to the world, and innovative cooperation for its sustainable development is key to the future of the planet”, stated High Representative Federica Mogherini in her speech 2017, presenting the European Arctic Policy . Often still perceived at the margins, the changes in the Arctic are a symbol of a changing global world. Facing the tremendous challenges ahead, the Arctic might serve as window of opportunity for many issues.


Currently, it becomes obvious that our world is changing with climate change and thus it will be one of the core challenges of the next decades and future generations. This analysis showed that the defrosting the Arctic has also unfrozen new conflicts and competition for resources and influences. Nevertheless, facing the huge distances in the Arctic no one will ever be able to control them alone. Especially here on the Arctic shelf mutual corporation is more than essential. Therefore, with the new commission having proclaimed climate change as core priority, a comprehensive and long-term Arctic Policy could serve as a test ground for a common European Foreign Policy, facing the tremendous burden of global polarisation with the EU in the middle.


Obviously, many challenges are associated with establishing a climate friendly global policy. Nevertheless, to conclude the Arctic experience, it is advisable to look from far outside. During the cold war, the Arctic served as an open space laboratory for putting people on the moon, with a nation full of passions and potential standing behind this historic project.


Once the Arctic gave support to extend human civilisation to outer space. Maybe this time, the Artic will serve as an open space laboratory for influencing passion about our planet as well. Obviously, with the Arctic as icebreaker for global climate policy, joining competing countries in a common goal, could be just a cold dream, yet once the famous polar researcher Ernest Shackleton stated: “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”









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