The parliamentarization of the European Union’s Arctic policy

Jaanus Jagomägi / Unsplash
Lukuaika: 7 min.

The Arctic region raises many conflicting interests within the EU. It is the struggle between various political interests designed at the state-level, but also at the supranational level that makes the EU’s Arctic policy a very interesting issue to be analyzed.

The European Union has devoted great attention to climate change over the last decades in one of the most recondite areas of the world – the Arctic region. The Arctic region is divided between 8 nations, is home to 4 million people, and is an area where climate change is felt at a greater level.

The debates at the European Parliament have shown there is a certain level of dissensus on what this EU policy in the Arctic should be, how it should be designed, and it is also a good point of departure for the analysis of European integration theories.

 

European integration theories and Arctic policy

The scientific literature on European integration theories mostly dates back to post-war times and is dominated by a small number of theoretical approaches and schools of thought.  When analyzing the success of the first years of European integration after the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, many authors started analyzing the reasons for these very first steps of European integration.

Ernst Haas (1921-1986), former professor at the University of Berkeley, Leon Lindberg (1932-), professor emeritus of political science, and cultural theorist Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985) are considered to be the first and most important theorists, who formed the first school of European integration theory, neofunctionalism. Neofunctionalist theory states that supranational institutions, at first the High Authority and then the European Commission, were the ones responsible for the growth of European integration by acting as consensus makers amidst the interests of individual states.

The European Commission, established in 1958, became an institution dedicated to the development of consensus in difficult policy areas, thus building legitimacy and precedence for more policy areas to fall under a supranational type of decision-making in the European context.

Rather than offering sweeping theories, contemporary critics focus on specific cases, where various supranational, national and civil society actors can at times have great political influence in legislative outcome.

The neofunctionalist school was dominant in explaining how European integration worked until the late 1960s. However, growing academic criticism started to appear that began by attacking some of the principles of neofunctionalism, which, in their view, did not properly consider the role and effort of the individual nation states and their economic and political interests.

This opposing school was later named intergovernmentalism and its most important scholars were Harvard political scientist Stanley Hoffmann (1928-2015), Princeton university professor of politics Andrew Moravcsik (1957-), and economic historian Alan Milward (1935-2010).

Their view was that the individual interest of states was the main drive behind European integration and not the political influence of the European Commission. It was the political and economic interest of the leading European states that guided its governments to a consensus-push.

Without going into too much detail, more contemporary mixed theories, such as constructivism, distributive bargaining theory, and rational-choice theory have tried to use the positive aspects of both the neofunctionalists and the intergovernmentalists to develop analysis focusing on states together with supranational institutions. The growth of the powers of the European Parliament (EP) after the 1970s and particularly after the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 also led to a growth in theoretical literature with the intergovernmentalist perceptions starting to come under scrutiny.

Rather than offering sweeping theories, contemporary critics focus on specific cases, where various supranational, national and civil society actors can at times have great political influence in legislative outcome.

 

The distinct aspects of Arctic policy

The specific political and societal situation in the Arctic region is interesting if one is to debate it considering the various European integration theories.

Due to its economic, geographical, and scientific importance, the Arctic region has many interested states, institutions and attentive civil society organizations. The Arctic region currently envelops parts of Russia, the United States, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland (Kingdom of Denmark), and Canada. Only Finland, Sweden and Denmark are EU members, although Norway and Iceland belong to the European Economic Area (EEA), which puts them into the European integration framework.

These 8 countries have a seat in the most important intergovernmental forum in the Arctic: the Arctic Council, created after the 1996 Ottawa Declaration. Thirteen other countries around the world have an observer state position, and numerous other civil society organizations also participate in other ways. The European Union does not have an observer status as its request was rejected by Canada in 2013.

The EU has had an active interest in the Arctic region as a dimension of environmental policy, indigenous rights, and, to some extent, security policies.

The EU is nevertheless a great economic supporter of Arctic cooperation and Arctic policy, in all its complexity. However, many decisions regarding the Arctic are made through intergovernmental practices, which often generate dissensus between states, such as in the case of Norway and the EU regarding fisheries, which would give credence to the intergovernmentalist school.

Additionally, the EU has had an active interest in the Arctic region as a dimension of environmental policy, indigenous rights, and, to some extent, security policies.

Being one of the original 15 measures to be decided under equal codecision, EU environmental policy is formulated between the EP, the European Commission (EC) and the Council of the EU. In other words, in important policy areas, the deliberative bodies of the EU deliberate within themselves, but also together with other decision-making institutions of the EU. Indeed, the EP has devoted much of its attention to environmental policy throughout all of its legislatures.

From the perspective of rational choice theory or distributive bargaining theory, national or supranational institutions do try to gain as much political leverage as they can with the intent to influence the outcome of legislation to the highest extent possible. However, the EP debates have also shown great political cleavages both on left-right spectrum but also on environmental or national economic predispositions.

 

The European Parliament and Arctic Policy

Parliamentary decision-making procedure and debates between very different parties are an essential part of the EP’s functions. The EP has frequently sought to develop fast consensus under the ordinary legislative procedure. Studies have shown that, statistically speaking, legislation has been most likely completed through codecision between the three EU legislative institutions after 2009 in the most rapid manner, in parliamentary terms, on the “first reading”.

However, despite the extensive use of codecision, the EP has not reached political unity when it comes to its Arctic policy. Based on the parliamentary debates, it seems that different EU parties have had somewhat different opinions on how to develop a more effective supranational and EU-wide Arctic policy.

The frequency of the debates dealing with Arctic policy has also grown throughout the EP legislatures. Some of the main issues have related to the EU’s position towards the Arctic Council versus the desire for other parallel strategies to make the EU an even more important actor in the region without an involvement in or with the Arctic Council.

The integrity and uniformity of EU policy towards this region is difficult when there are so many interests at stake – whether party interests, national interests, EU institutions’ interests, economic, environmental, defense-related – and when opinions are so varied even between and amidst EU institutions and member states.

Debates were also frequently related to policy priorities, perhaps less surprisingly, showing the friction between environmental and economic policy interests. The pursuit of a supranational policy towards the Arctic versus an intergovernmental approach still seems to generate dissent as well.

The integrity and uniformity of EU policy towards this region is difficult when there are so many interests at stake – whether party interests, national interests, EU institutions’ interests, economic, environmental, defense-related – and when opinions are so varied even between and amidst EU institutions and member states.

By analyzing EP debates, one can see that although there are tendencies that seem to depict party-level inclinations and left-right cleavages, the relative uncertainty of this problematic region makes MEPs have a varied approach.

Nevertheless, the EP has offered numerous resolutions in 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2017. The EP has pushed for a proximity with the Antarctic policy, but later dropped it. It has also argued for a jointly coordinated EU policy and strategy in 2014 and 2017, calling for a ban on heavy fuel oil use.

The EP has, notwithstanding its own divisions, been a strong supporter for a Europeanization, or, in other words, a supranationalization of political decision-making regarding the EU’s Arctic policy. This approach favors inter-institutional agreements despite intergovernmental friction in specific issues, such as with Norway or Canada when dealing with fisheries or energy extraction.

The global impact of this region makes it an important policy issue even for southern European countries.

It is the struggle between various political interests designed at the state-level, but also at the supranational level that makes the EU’s Arctic policy a very interesting issue to be analyzed under European integration theories.

The global impact of this region makes it an important policy issue even for southern European countries. France, Italy, and Germany also favor a supranational approach to the Arctic, while Nordic EU countries seem quite interested in economic possibilities with environmentally safe methods.

This phenomenon is perhaps due to a state of relative defensiveness towards this area by Arctic Council states, particularly by Denmark, while other Nordic EU countries with high expertise in energy extraction by environmental methods show a bit more support for a EU role in the Arctic.

 

Is intergovernmentalism still king in the Arctic Policy?

Intergovernmentalism and its methodology seem to be a very important point of analysis for the EU’s Artic policy. The EU’s supranational interests and legislative advancements have greatly evolved in recent years, but they seem to be frequently confronted with older partners in Artic affairs.

Unlike other common policies in the European Union such as the Common agricultural policy that has had 60 years of evolution and consensus-building, the EU’s Arctic policy is still a bit far from being a common policy due to international legal constraints and divergent states’ interests such as with the United States, the Russian Federation or even Canada or Norway.

Individual states still seem to have the upper hand when dealing with Arctic policy whereas EU institutions still seem to suffer from internal dissensus and path-dependency.

Individual states still seem to have the upper hand when dealing with Arctic policy whereas EU institutions still seem to suffer from internal dissensus and path-dependency which seem to give more credence to the intergovernmental school of European integration theory and to a general preference for an intergovernmental style of politics.

With time, and perhaps with the search for greater consensus, the EU’s Arctic policy can maybe develop itself into a true common policy having the EU become an equal and perhaps greatly influential partner in the Arctic region.

Luís Sargento Freitas received his doctorate from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland in 2018 and is presently developing other research.

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