EU needs to strenghten its Arctic dimension

Recently, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, met with several European foreign ministers in the Lapland region of Finland, in the Arctic Circle. This was, by all accounts, a jovial meeting, which gave the ministers a chance to discuss foreign policy and enjoy a bit of snowmobiling.

However, the setting of this meeting also served as a reminder that the European Union, geographically diverse, stretches well into the Arctic region. And, while many of Europe’s citizens and resources are in the Arctic, the EU itself does not have a strong Arctic policy, or a coherent system for monitoring and staying informed on matters relating to its northernmost territory.

Having this information is very important because the Arctic is in an extremely diverse region. The melting of the polar ice caps is just one of many issues that the EU should be monitoring carefully. The citizens of the European Arctic also grapple with issues related to fishing, mining, tourism and trade.

The EU cannot forget that it has a vital interest in the wellbeing of the Arctic region and all of the citizens who live there. It has a responsibility to the Arctic population, and must make their concerns a priority in the coming months and years.

To do so, the EU must begin by improving its basic understanding of the area and its needs, which is exactly why the idea of creating an EU Arctic Information Centre has been gaining ground. Such a centre would benefit the EU by providing information for decision makers and the public, so that both can learn about the challenges facing the Arctic region, and the opportunities that the Arctic can provide.

The Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland has offered to serve as the location for this project, and their site is ideal for several reasons. The University’s Centre is located near the Arctic Circle and conducts work around the circumpolar Arctic. It is international and multidimensional in its scope, and its Science Centre exhibition serves as a source of information for many locals and visitors. It also functions as Finland’s national institute for Arctic research and information dissemination.

If the EU moves forward in its plan to establish an Arctic Information Centre, then it should seriously consider placing that Centre in Rovaniemi, within the borders of the EU. From this site, near where Ashton and the national foreign ministers met, the EU could effectively monitor the evolving challenges of the Arctic region, establishing an important link between the Arctic and Brussels.

The wellbeing of the Arctic region is directly tied to the wellbeing of the EU, and this connection will only grow stronger in the future. It is therefore important that the EU establish a comprehensive and coherent Arctic policy as a framework for addressing concerns that may emerge in this environmentally, economically and socially unique region.

Published in Helsinki Times 6.5.2010