Auteur: Honor Mahony
BRUSSELS - In September this year a container ship for the first time completed a trip from China to Rotterdam through the Russian Arctic.
The captain docked in the Dutch port after a month of sailing and in the knowledge that his journey was around 5,000km shorter than if he had gone the traditional Suez Canal route.
The groundbreaking trip was yet another reminder that the Arctic region, due to melting ice, is slowly being opened up.
The effects of this can be seen geopolitically as the nations in and touching the Arctic circle increasingly seek to regulate, monitor and measure the growing economic interest in the region.
The EU has been seeking for several years to get onto the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental body, that oversees the region. China, which was recently accepted on the Council, has become a major investor in the area.
But interest in the Arctic is manifesting itself at smaller regional levels too.
The Northern Periphery Programme (NPP), a group of EU and non EU member states that have clubbed together to get EU regional aid, is for the first time seeking to include the Arctic region in the already large territory that it covers.
Jim Millard, steering reflections on possible programmes to benefit from EU aid in 2014-2020, said the "wilderness of the Arctic has not remained intact this long due to strong legislation but rather because of its remoteness, inaccessibility and harsh climatic conditions of this region."
"These conditions are now changing," he told an audience at an "Arctic Dimension" seminar hosted by the Norwegian authorities in September.
The issue now is "how best to accommodate the emerging Arctic dimension and challenges affecting the programme area," said Millard.
Involving indigenous people, tackling the effects of climate change and growth in economic development are considered among the most important issues.
But Millard noted that because it is sparsely populated and dominated by microbusinesses, the area faces the extra barrier of lacking the "critical mass" for EU-funded programmes.
There is also a wider more general problem - a lack of knowledge about the Arctic.
An Arctic think tank?
Countries and regions already involved in the NPP are considering setting up an Arctic think tank or observation body to collate studies and expertise.
Jose Palma Andres, from the regional unit in the European Commission, said he "welcomed" the emphasis on the Arctic.
He also indicated that projects involving in the Arctic region will have a sympathetic ear in the commission as the region's problems are in line with thematic goals (such as on renewable energy) that projects have to aim for if they are to get Brussels' green light.
But while the emphasis at the Norwegian seminar was on regional cooperation, an official from foreign ministry of Russia - which jealously guards its role in the Arctic - reminded participants that the political buck stops with member states.
The proposal for a thinktank was "a very interesting point" said Igor Kapyrin but it is something that should be first be proposed to the Arctic Council.