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Keeping up with the commission

Foregrounder | Finally got a grasp on the EU’s position on the Arctic? The European Parliament is set to remedy that

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Each week, The Arctic Journal’s Foregrounder takes up an event or issue that we expect to be reading more about during the week ahead. If you have an event you think should be included next week, please contact us. 

Other topics we'll be paying attention to this week: 

January 30: Arctic Council working group Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) meets in Copenhagen.

January 30: Nordregio releases its Future Perspectives report, looking into the outlook for sustainable regional development in the Nordic Arctic.

February 1: Norwegian oil authorities release a report detailing the results of three projects aimed at making Barents drilling more efficient and safter.

February 1-2: Arctic Council working group Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) meets in Kautokeino, Norway.

February 2: Kirkenes, Norway, hosts the Kirkenes Conference, focusing on the political, commercial and social development of the country's Northern regions.

One way to judge how interested members of the European Parliament are in legislation is to look at the number of changes they suggest be made to its wording.

Run-of-the-mill legislation, according to Urmas Paet, an Estonian who is one of two MEPs shepherding the parliament’s proposed Arctic policy towards a planned vote on Wednesday, receives only handful of changes. The Arctic policy has received 400.

“This is a normal amount when it is something the MEPs feel is important,” he says.

SEE RELATED: Euro parliament in row over Arctic environment rules

To be fair, not all the changes Mr Paet and his co-rapporteur, Sirpa Pietikäinen, of Finland, received were controversial. Many were not unique; instead, they were copied verbatim, submitted as part of the political process to underscore partisan dissatisfaction with certain passages.

In the case of the Arctic policy, most dissatisfaction – a total of 51 proposed changes – was heaped on two passages calling for the establishment of an environmental-impact assessment that would be applied to businesses before they could sell goods produced in the Arctic to Europeans.

Some legislators suggested the passages be struck entirely; others called for stronger wording. In the end, the compromise was to make the wording vague by “inviting” the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, to “eventually” make such assessments mandatory.

Compromises like these, according to Mr Paet, have helped the policy secure the backing of all major political groupings in parliament. Barring anything unforeseen, he reckons it will be approved by the two committees preparing it when it comes up for approval on January 31, and then by the full parliament two days later.  

SEE RELATED: Editor’s Briefing | The EU

Once that happens, the European Union will, in effect, have two, mostly similar, Arctic policies. The first, adopted on April 27 by the European Commission (technically as a ‘communication’, in Euro-speak) focuses on things like science and regional development, but steers clear of foreign affairs, energy and other thorny issues. Instead, the EU’s foreign-policy interests in the Arctic are brought up in the commission’s security and defence policy

Mr Paet is generally supportive of the commission’s work but believes not addressing all issues in a single strategy is a clear shortcoming.

“The commission’s statement was well done on the areas it addresses, but the European Union should have complete Arctic strategy. Ten of its member states do, and the EU should be as clear as they are,” he says.

SEE RELATED: From a spring of statements to an Arctic future

Once handed parliament’s policy, the commission, suggests Andreas Raspotnik, a senior fellow with the Arctic Institute, a think tank, will likely take note of it, but probably do little else.

“When it comes to foreign policy,” he says, “parliament can voice its opinion, but the commission doesn’t have to listen. The commission and the EEAS [the EU’s diplomatic service] has its own policy already, and that is what it likely will stick to.”

The reason for turning a deaf ear has a lot to do with the evolution of the commission’s Arctic policy. The current policy is the third since 2008, but it appears to be the first to have a clear idea of what the Arctic really means to Europe, Mr Raspotnik suggests.

For the most part, this, he explains, means keeping the focus on the Arctic territories in its own neighbourhood, something that is supported by placing foreign-policy matters in a separate strategy.

SEE RELATED: Europe takes the stage

With the commission satisfied with the course it has laid for itself, and with the parliament's general satisfaction with it, there is little reason other than politics for parliament to get involved, according to Mr Raspotnik.

“They are showing the Arctic is important to them, but this is just as much an institutional struggle. They are saying they think it is important, but they are also trying to say they have voice in making policy, too.”

European Parliament meetings can be followed on-line. Tuesday’s committee meeting is scheduled to begin at 3pm. The vote by the full parliament will be held between 11 and 1 on Thursday, February 2.