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How Many Heads Can a Cap Accommodate?

Published on , , Sofia

In the middle of the summer, with the fuel prices high, the prices of the goods rising and against the background of the deepening eurozone crisis, the region of the Arctic came again into the spotlight. The European Commission published a review of the EU’s Strategy for the Arctic region and Russia is planning to build military bases there. For years new maps have been drawn with complex explanatory annexes, representing various distributions of this apparently uninteresting territory. Some people start even to look forward to the effects of climate change, although they are traditionally regarded as environmentally dangerous. The reason is that the hardly accessible Arctic region can possibly open long desirable new economic opportunities.

For several years a number of countries have had territorial claims for this no-man’s land. According to the UN Maritime Convention, the economic zone of a country extends within 200 nautical miles from its coast. Today Russia, Denmark, Canada, US, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland (all members of the Arctic Council) are the northern powers that rub happily their hands before the perspectives emerging as a result of the melting of the permafrost. Those perspectives are namely:

- Extraction of natural resources – according to a 2009 American geological study 13% of the unexploited reserves of oil and 30% of natural gas are in the Arctic;

- Opening of a sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean – the opening of the sea route between Europe and Asia will shorten the sailing time of cargo ships by one third and will, as a result, reduce the trade expenses;

- Opportunity for management and exploration of the marine biologic resources in the region;

- Opportunity for environmental tourism.

All those opportunities are lately giving ground to many countries to aspire for a review of the situation to the north. In the beginning of August, the Federation of the American Scientists issued a report on the problems and the opportunities in the region. Part of the obstacles before an actual study of the Arctic are territorial disputes among the Arctic countries. Such a dispute is, for instance, Russia’s claim for the Lomonosov Ridge. A year ago, the country attempted to prove that the ridge is part of its continental shelf. If Russia’s pretences were to be satisfied, it will end up with almost half of the Arctic at its disposal. In 2010, the country solved a protracted argument with Norway about their mutual border in the North Sea. With the border agreement signed the examinations for the exploration of the resources there can now finally start. The American report, however, reminds that there still are a couple of unresolved conflicts in the Arctic:

- In the next decades, the global warming will probably make the permafrost in the northern Canada archipelago thinner and this will allow for the use of the trans-arctic route, called the Northwestern Passage during the summer months. Ottawa regards this zone as its own territorial waters and wishes to have the right for control and monitoring there. The rest of the Arctic countries will insist the Passage to be granted statute of an international channel between two seas.

- The dispute between US and Canada about their mutual border in the Sea of Beaufort;

- The dispute between US and Russia about the zone dividing Alaska and Chukotka in the Bering Sea. Despite the 1990 agreement, that attributed this area of 47 000 m2 to the US, the conflict has not been solved as the agreement has not been approved by the Russian parliament.

- The dispute between Denmark and Canada over the territorial right to
- Hans Island, a tiny piece of rock between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

Against the background of all this unresolved disputes, last week it became obvious that Russia does not intent to waste time in defending its territorial claims but is planning to simply set up military bases and border controls on the northern sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The EU issued a communication on the progress on the implementation of its Arctic Strategy from 2008. The resolution of the European Parliament from 20 January 2011 on the sustainable EU policy in the High North recalls: “three EU Member States – Denmark, Finland and Sweden – are Arctic countries” and confirms “the legitimate interest of the EU and other third countries as stakeholders by virtue of their rights and obligations under international law, its commitment to environmental, climate and other policies and its funding, research activities and economic interests, including shipping and exploitation of natural resources”.

The 26 June communication of the Commission appears as a well-grounded letter of intent on the EU's rising activity in the region. For example, it recognises that the funds committed for the Arctic in the 2007– 2013 budgetary period under a series of programmes and initiatives amount to 1.14 billion Euro. Through the Horizon 2020 strategy in the next programming period 2014–2020 EU plans "to make an even more significant contribution to Arctic research”. The focus of the Strategy is research, protection of the environment, exploration of resources, transport and fisheries. A series of initiatives will be put in place to support the indigenous people of the Arctic and to the communities in the remote regions of Northern Europe so that better economic, social and healthcare conditions are guaranteed for them.

EU’s goal regarding resources is to “actively pursue a raw materials diplomacy with relevant Arctic states with a view to securing access to raw materials, notably through strategic partnerships and policy dialogues”. This would provide a significant contribution to the social and economic development of, for example, the Barents Region which is essential to the EU with its iron, copper and lead reserves and its well-working production facilities. By all means the exploration of the region, the building of bases and the setting up of probing facilities in the underwater territories is linked to serious environmental risks that will rightfully disturb the environmentalists.

In this regard, all preliminary studies and environmental impact assessments are of key importance. The recent communication on EU’s future activities in the Arctic demonstrates that there is a categorical commitment in this regard. The question is how rapidly will the EU react to the increasing impatience of some Arctic countries to be the first to put their hands on the so much needed resources.

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