Last week the EU published a call for an integrated Arctic policy (read it here). With this document the EU joins a long list of countries that have either already formulated such a policy framework (a.o. Norway, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Germany, Sweden, India and Italy) or are in the process of doing so (e.g. the Netherlands, France  and Spain).

This blog has featured a number of posts on the Arctic (1,2,3) and spoken about good reasons for policy formulation, such as invasive species, ballast water and oil, and in that respect the policy call of the EU is full of good intentions. Its three priority areas are (page 4):

  1. Climate Change and Safeguarding the Arctic Environment;
  2. Sustainable Development in and around the Arctic;
  3. International Cooperation on Arctic Issues.

These are all noble goals, that are well worth pursuing, but still the cynical economist in me asks: why now? Why do we suddenly see an explosion of policy papers regarding the Arctic, also in countries that do not have a direct stake in this area (e.g. the Netherlands, India, Italy). I cannot seem to get that quote of the Dutch minister for foreign affairs Bert Koenders out of my head when he doubled the money available for Arctic research:

De Nederlandse regering vindt het heel belangrijk dat dit onderzoek wordt voortgezet, ten behoeve van het klimaat, maar ook omdat dit geostrategisch een belangrijke locatie is. Er moet een goede afweging zijn tussen de belangen van scheepvaart, exploratie en de natuur.

This roughly translates as:

The Dutch government thinks it’s important that research is continued for the good of the climate, but also because this is an important geostrategic location. We will have to make a good trade-off analysis between the interests of shipping, exploitation and nature [emphasis mine].

Incidentally, note the order of interests: shipping, exploitation and nature. Of course it is only logical that a country such as the Netherlands takes an interest as soon as shipping is involved, and the geopolitical importance of the Arctic and the North pole has been recently illustrated by the discussion of who owns the North pole. However, all of this makes me suspect that the EU is actually just acting to be part of the rush, while they still can.

When it comes to the pure direct economic values of the Arctic I see two potential sources:

  1. Natural resources such as oil and fish
  2. Potential for shipping (not necessarily long transport, but tourism, and transport to local harbours)

It seems that the EU has discovered that, too, because they write in their policy document on sustainable development:

The wider Arctic region is rich in natural resources such as fish,minerals, oil and gas. […] The European part of the Arctic also has significant potential to support growth in

the rest of Europe. However, as the EU does not currently have a complete north-south traffic connection, it could explore the merits of strengthening links to the Arctic through trans-European networks. (p.8-9)

The offered policy response in the document mainly talks about innovation, investment and potential for growth, but hardly about the specific challenges to make that development sustainable, or to grow green. Having just taught a course on Green Growth, I know: “It’s not easy, being green”, but I had hoped for a bit more effort.

Image credit: By Cantwell, George G. – Library University Washington; first published in 1900, “The Klondike, a souvenir”, Rufus Bucks Publisher, Seattle, 1900 (no page numbers). Digitally altered image to remove caption at lower left (see uploaded version for original)., Public Domain,