Europe’s share of the Arctic Pie

Originally this is not my story. But it seemed hot and well-grounded. So I dare to post it here with consent of the author

“When the United States bought Alaska from the Russian Empire nobody could foresee the pending importance of the region. Now, not that it just turned out to be a Klondike, important as it might be, a most vital issue nowadays refers rather to sharing of the Arctic. Presently, the littoral Arctic Ocean states are viewed as potential owners of multimillion tons of hydrocarbons stored underneath the arctic ice. Due to global warming northern shipping lanes become accessible reducing delivery time by several days. But if the economic benefits of arctic shipping are something premature to discuss now, since the ocean stays covered with thick ice most part of the year, the extraction of hydrocarbons is a vital issue. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, nearly one-quarter of the earth’s undiscovered recoverable petroleum resources lay in the region.

By virtue of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the coastal nation has sole exploration rights over all natural resources within the exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles from its shoreline.

There are 5 such countries in the Arctic region: Denmark, Canada, Norway, Russia and the USA. Article 76 of the Convention stipulates that each of these countries can claim extension of this limit up to 350 nautical miles from its coast if it can provide scientific proof that the seabed is a natural extension of its continental shelf. Up until now requests for extension of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean have been filed by Russia and Denmark, with Canada to follow them in the nearest future.

Naturally, the participants of this share-out strive to seize the biggest piece of the pie, which is actually a breeding ground for endless territorial disputes. Say, Canada, Denmark and Russia have been long at odds trying to prove that underwater Lomonosov Ridge is a part of their relevant continental shelves. The country able to prove it, will get a huge portion of the Arctic region stretching till the North Pole.

The USA, the EU and other parties involved insist that the Northwest Passage should stay under the international jurisdiction while Canada asserts it is located in its territorial waters. The US also disapproves of Russia’s intention to see the Northern Sea Route as a national transport communication way. Canada and Denmark are involved in dispute over Hans Island. Washington and Ottawa fail to come to an agreement on the maritime boundary in the resource-rich Beaufort Sea.

Several international bodies regulate the tense situation in the region. Major of them is the Arctic Council comprising Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. International community is eager to be involved as well and several states have already received the observer status: France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Great Britain, China, India, Italy, South Korea, Singapore, Japan.

Despite the previously failed attempts, the EU is also at pains to get the observer status. Its most weighty argument being that EU has three Arctic Council states amongst its members. The EU is also a major destination of resources and goods from the Arctic region. Thus, Brussels plans to increase its influence on the Arctic decision making. According to the recent letter of the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden Margot Wallström, the EU has already filed a request with the Chair of the Arctic Council, the United States, and is now awaiting support in this issue from the Swedish representatives.

On top of that, the EU is set to exert pressure on the coastal Arctic states to force them into disclaiming their right to extension of the continental shelf as it is stipulated by Article 76 of the UNCLOS. Considering ‘the strong opposition to it of some members of the Arctic Council’, Brussels wants to press Denmark so that it could create a precedent and become the first country in the context to throw up substantial share of its national wealth. The EU is firmly set to get support of Sweden, the US and Finland.

However, bearing in mind all the economic gains Denmark may get in case its sovereign rights for the Arctic resources are extended we shouldn’t expect Copenhagen to make that sacrifice just to satisfy political agenda of Brussels.

Nowadays the comprehensive exploration of the Arctic region depends on many factors. It is not enough to make scientific research and investments into infrastructure. Some common political concept containing tough rules and terms obligatory for all the parties involved must also be worked out. Unfortunately, we may only observe some initial steps in this direction at the moment. The future of the Arctic depends to a great extent on the clear-cut position of the countries and political consistency of such artificial international formations as the European Union.”


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