The EU moved closer to Russia’s vision of Arctic governance but did not achieve its goal of observer status in the Arctic Council.
The melting of Arctic ice is transforming the region into a hotspot of economic expansion and geopolitical competition. The EU’s longstanding goal has been to be part of this development by acquiring observer status in the Arctic Council and it has been seeking Russia’s support for the bid. However, in May, the EU’s second attempt at observer status was derailed because of resistance from Canada, with whom the EU has a dispute over seal-fur trade. Russia has indicated that it would not object to observer status for the EU if all other Arctic Council members approved it. However, the true nature of Russia’s position will be tested if and when the EU sorts out its dispute with Canada. The EU assumes that its observer status will be active from the moment Canada drops objections, but Moscow has hinted that the EU may still need to wait and apply again during the next ministerial meeting, which is due only in 2015.
In recent years, the EU’s official vision of Arctic governance has changed. In 2008, the EU said that it wanted the Arctic Ocean to be governed multilaterally as humankind’s common heritage. It has now come round to the position that some Arctic states, and Russia among them, always held: that the Arctic should be divided up among the littoral states according to the UNCLOS. This may have helped to soften up Russia on the issue of observer status. However, at a deeper level, the EU and Russia have very different visions for the Arctic: while Russia emphasises sovereignty, ownership, and economic gain, the EU focuses on co-operation. In 2013, Russia started to restore its military bases in the area and reacted furiously when Greenpeace activists, sailing under a Dutch flag, tried to board a Russian oil platform in the Pechora Sea. Russia arrested 30 activists and accused them of piracy; they were only released months later.