The Arctic region presents itself as a complex geopolitical chess game. Given the emerging concerns of climate change and its consequences, the region has gained significant relevance. The Arctic Circle Zone is composed of a number of states, such as Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Island. Furthermore, the European Union holds a significant agenda on the region not only for it has some of the Arctic States as its members, but also due to the close socio-economic relationships with other Member States, through the Schengen Agreements. Furthermore, the geographical element cannot be overlooked, as it is closely impacted by the consequences of the defrosting. (European Commission, 2016) The inclusion of the Arctic in the European Unions’ external policies and agenda is, therefore, of high relevance.

European Union as an Arctic player

The defrosting of the Arctic region can lead to several consequences, some beneficial, and others of grave risk. This duality enhances the instability and fragility of the equilibrium between the relationships of the Arctic players. The risks are multilayered, as they can be related to the maritime traffic, natural resources, or even territorial issues and disputes.

In terms of risks associated with maritime issues, one of the major ones is related to the opening of new routes of communication and sea navigation. They are identified as Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, and Transpolar Sea Route, which is expected to allow the reduction of time and distance in about 40%, compared to the existing ones that cross the Panama and Suez Canals (Boylan, 2021). This does not mean that the already established routes would be be totally replaced. Because, the new routes would be navigable only for a number of months of the year, if the conditions are favorable (Government Office for Science, 2017; Khon et al., 2009). Still, these new routes would represent an extraordinary opportunity to the Arctic States in terms of customs rights, and in reduction of the trading costs.

Another risk is the fact that they could lead to potential conflicts, due to jurisdiction and passage rights. Currently, the dispute of territorial waters involves Russia and Canada; and the straits and navigation rights are being discussed between several Arctic States. Consequently, this matter reveals itself as an important issue to the Union, having Member States that have, or potentially will have, control over the commercial routes and other activities that are inherent to it.

From an environmental standpoint, the risks are obvious and significant, as the melting of the Arctic Ocean and emergence of new projected routes, would directly translate into an increase in the volume of maritime navigation in these waters. In terms of the European actor, the ratifying of the Polar Code, under the International Maritime Organization (IMO), will allow combatting the rising of the pollution levels, which may be a result of the increase of navigation in polar waters (European Commission, 2021).

The energy aspect is equally a pressing one. As a result of the melting of the ice caps in the Arctic,  exploration of the resources present in the region will be possible due to easier access. It is estimated that at least 25% of the global fossil fuel reserves are concentrated in the area, featuring 13% of the petrol reserves (Lorenz, 2013). Upstream and downstream exploitation of these resources could lead to the polarization of suppliers in the international energy market. 84% of the energy resources are located within the Exclusive Economic Zones of respective littoral states. Yet, although not constituting the main concern, jurisdiction is another issue. In the current situation, the Russian Federation is in a clear advantage as the majority of the Arctic mineral resources are located in its territories, such as the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea. (Bird, et al., 2008)

As per the natural Gas, it is concentrated in three main provinces, the Western Siberian Bay, the Eastern Barents Bay and in Alaska (Bird, et al., 2008).

This potential of the Arctic region, in terms of energy resources, becomes increasingly relevant to for the EU given its dependency on Russian hydrocarbon exports. Consequently, exploration of new reserves in the State Members territories or exclusive economic zones, or other countries that has Free Trade Agreements with the EU, will translate into lesser dependency on the Russian energy (Offerdal, 2010).

Another element to be considered is also the somewhat amiss relationship between science and local knowledge. The Arctic involves different types of actors, one of them being the most vulnerable ones, the individuals. Local habitants and indigenous communities play a crucial factor in the development of the situation as they will be heavily affected by the repercussions of the defrosting. In order to have a more centered response to the crisis, climate change response mechanisms need to adapt the scientific knowledge basis. According to Knapp and Trainor (2013), local and indigenous knowledge can enhance the practical effects of scientific and academic research. A more individual focus approach can lead to an easier and more effective implementation of adaptation strategies towards climate change.

Further in this matter, the European Union integrates several organizations that allow the discussion of the Arctic problematic, either as a member or as an observer. Furthermore, scientific projects are also funded through the Union, and are managed by the “EU Arctic Stakeholder Forum” (European Commission, 2021) (Council of the European Union, 2019).


With emergence of climate change risk and forecast scenarios in the Arctic, the European Union has increased its involvement, intervention and participation into the issues regarding the  region. These issues affect the EU as a global actor directly or indirectly, and present themselves as grave threats and great opportunities.


In terms of the maritime traffic, the European Union, through the trade rights of its member States’ can benefit greatly from the opening of the new routes. However, the conservation factor should not be ignored and the efforts to preserve the ecological balance of the region should be maintained. In that matter, the Union has ratified accords and created instruments for that equilibrium to be respected. In terms of exploration of new energy resources, the EU will gain from new initiatives. The exploration of resources in the territories of the member States can reduce the dependency on the Russian hydrocarbons. Additionally, constructivist organizations provide a stronger participation of the individuals. Through the creation of instruments such as the “EU Arctic Stakeholders Forum”, the gap between scientific and local knowledge can be reduced. This results not just in a more comprehensive and complete understanding of the issues, but also in a better adaptation and practical application of potential climate crisis response plans.


Carlota Lobão is a research assistant intern candidate at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.



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Lorenz, W. (2013). Could the Arctic Warm Up NATO-Russia Relations?. PISM Policy Papers. 52, 1-6.

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[*] Carlota Lobão is a research assistant intern candidate at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.