Rising temperatures are transforming the Arctic. If melting progresses at the current rate, the Arctic will be free of ice all year round by 2030. Arctic states compete for sovereignty and the right to exploit the region's resources. All over the world, interest in the Arctic region is on the rise, as climate change has resulted in a major increase of its navigable waterways.
Canada and the issue of "Arctic Sovereignty"
Since 40% of Canada's total area is in the Arctic, successive Canadian governments have been claiming sovereignty over the Arctic territories and waters for decades. The "Northern Dimension of Canadian Foreign Policy," released in 2000, defines the government's responsibility in the region and towards its original inhabitants: the First Nations. According to this, the use of arctic resources is to take place in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner and while keeping the collective good of the people in mind.
In line with the maritime law agreement of the United Nations, Canada will formally claim approx. 1, 8 million square kilometers of Arctic Ocean bed in 2013.
Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister in office, believes Ottawa's lasting claim can be substantiated if Canadian presence in the Arctic is strengthened.
The legal framework of the Canadian policy
The most controversial issue is that of Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic waters north of its territory, an area that stretches to the geographic North Pole. Other states, especially the US, have not accepted this claim; but since, until now, these waters were largely unnavigable, the dispute was only of modest importance.
Beside the complications involved in setting the border to the USA in the Beaufort Sea, which presumably holds reserves of oil and gas, the main point of contention from a Canadian perspective has been the international legal classification of the North-West Passage which connects the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
If the waterway is categorized as "Canadian inland water," it is liable to Canadian law and control. On the contrary, if it were to be classified as an international waterway, all kinds of ships would have right of way and international navy traffic would unavoidably increase if the passage was to become navigable all year round. This would also mean that in the long run, Canada would find its position impossible to sustain.
The determination to maintain good relations with the USA has resulted in fairly limited Canadian military presence in the Arctic and a certain ambivalence of Canada's Arctic policy. Harper's government has favored activities that merely highlight the country's presence in the region over military initiatives. The former have included inspection ships, plans for a port in Nanisivik meant to function as a supply base, and the increase in number of the Canadian Rangers, a militia that scans, searches, and supervises the region.
The sub-state dimension
The territories of Yukon, Nunavut, and the North West, which actually constitute the Canadian section of the Arctic, campaign for a more multilateral regulation of the use of the Arctic than Harper's government defends. They are active within the Western Premiers Conference, an association that brings together Canada's seven north-western provinces.
The organizations representing the First Nations are also playing a growing role since their interests cannot be neglected by the federal government. Their stance is ambivalent: although they acknowledge the economic potential of the Arctic and their interest in its opening, they also voice concern with respect to the consequence of an unregulated use of the region.
Recommendations for German and European policies
As far as the EU Commission is concerned, the North-West Passage is an international waterway. Yet since most EU member states are connected to Canada by their membership to NATO, they would unlikely be refused right of way so long as they comply with certain security and environmental standards. NATO membership is also the reason why the Arctic riparian states Norway and Denmark should not be a threat to Canada despite differing views on the issue of Arctic sovereignty.
Germany is geographically too far away and politically too irrelevant to attempt an active Arctic policy unless it is pursued within the European framework. The following actions are conceivable:
- Enlarging the circle of the five Arctic powers: The European Union could in the future, insist on being incorporated with other players in the deliberations of the five Arctic states. Yet realistically the circle remains exclusive and even Denmark does not foresee a greater role for the EU.
- Making more use of existing forms of cooperation: The EU and the Germany could exert pressure on the Arctic Council, which includes Finland, Iceland, and Sweden in addition to the five Arctic states - so that it becomes a central cooperation forum for the region with a larger agenda.
- Valorizing the EU/Canada Summit: The EU/Canada Summit could be used as a platform to bring up the issue of Arctic development and further European interests in Ottawa.
- Involving territories and non-state actors: Germany and maybe the EU could seek to establish and intensify the dialogue with the three arctic territories and the organizations of the native inhabitants of Canada. In principle, these groups are favorable to the European leaning towards increased multilateralism and regulation of the Arctic policy.
Dr Markus Kaim is a researcher at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik - German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
A longer version of this article first appeared in Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik Aktuell 49 (SWP) in June 2008.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- C. Deblock & M. Rioux: Canada and the EU: From Transatlantic Economic Dialogue to Monologue
- Harald Welzer: Climate Change Brings Forth a Century of Violence
- Frank-Walter Steinmeier & David Miliband: Addressing the Emerging Challenges of Climate Change