European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy
Transforming the Arctic
"Arctic Transform" Conference
Brussels, 5 March 2009
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Arctic region is under threat as never before. Like the canary in the coal mine it is sending us a clear signal about the dangers which lie ahead. Scientific evidence shows that climate change is much faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world. In the past six years alone, the ice cap has lost up to half its thickness near the North Pole and may have passed a tipping point.
That is a warning sign we would be foolish to ignore. The radical transformation of the Arctic is having an impact on its people, its landscape and its wildlife – on land and at sea.
Of course policy makers are now under pressure to prioritise the response to the global economic crisis. But we should not see long term environmental issues as incompatible with economic recovery. On the contrary, now is the time to act.
That is why this conference, and the Arctic TRANSFORM project, are so important. Over the past 15 months experts from both sides of the Atlantic have worked together on solutions to the Arctic’s challenges; be they protecting fragile ecosystems, safeguarding the rights and interests of indigenous peoples or promoting the sustainable use of resources.
They have highlighted areas where the EU and US can, and must, cooperate if we are to tackle the rapid environmental change we face. International cooperation is vital to address the Arctic’s problems; hence we need the governments of Canada, Norway, Iceland, Russia, Greenland and the Faroe Islands also on board.
I have high expectations for the climate change conference in Copenhagen at the end of this year. But we also need action targeted at the Arctic’s specific situation.
The EU is well placed to contribute. By geography we are a natural stakeholder: three Member States have territories in the Arctic; two Arctic States are members of the EEA; and all the others are EU strategic partners. We are important contributors to Arctic research – notably through our DAMOCLES programme for the International Polar Year - and have worked to defend the rights of the indigenous peoples.
But perhaps most importantly we are world leaders in the fight against climate change. Not only have we set ourselves the most ambitious targets, we have also done our homework on how to achieve them.
That is why, together with my fellow Commissioner Joe Borg, I presented a Commission Communication with proposals for the first ever EU policy for the Arctic. Our objectives are:
-to contribute to the preservation of the Arctic, fully involving its people in debates and decisions about its future;
-to promote the sustainable use of resources; and
-to beef up multilateral governance.
‘Protection’ and ‘Sustainability’ must be our watchwords. It is clear that without effective multilateral governance and the involvement of those who live in this region, any progress will be difficult.
We believe in adding value rather than reinventing the wheel. So we support the further development of Arctic multilateral cooperation based on principles established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). I am pleased that the US government is pushing Congress to ratify UNCLOS, which will facilitate greater international cooperation on protection and sustainability.
We also want to give more support to the work of the Arctic Council, which has made a great contribution on research, the environment and including indigenous peoples. That is the reason why we have requested permanent observer status at the Arctic Council, and I count on the support by the US government and others.
In my four years as Commissioner for External Relations, it has become ever clearer to me that addressing climate change is one of the most pressing foreign policy challenges of our times. The Arctic region needs our attention, and we must respond. As Martin Luther King put it, “We are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” The generational challenge we face is to avoid acting too late. Action is not a matter of choice – but of urgent necessity.