Explaining the 'Arctic exception' in European Union-Russia relations: what is missing?

Author:Aalto, Pomi

Abstract: The European Union (EU) and Russia have a strategic partnership while also co-operating extensively in the framework of various northern regional institutions. However, their relatively low-key mutual relations in the Arctic have so far constituted an exception to this pattern. At the same time several actors, among them the EU, display increasing interest towards the Arctic. This article sets out to explain the "Arctic exception" in EU-Russia relations by scrutinizing the institutional environment of Arctic interaction. This examination will concern in particular how informal institutions--principles, norms, and rules--condition and shape the fundamental structure of that interaction. It is found that the institutions of sovereignty and great power management most significantly constrain the EU-Russia relationship in the Arctic and also narrow the scope of activities under the diplomacy institution. The trade and environmental stewardship institutions are essentially more integrative but cannot at present break the reemerged set of more traditional institutions, in particular sovereignty and great power management. The article makes use of earlier research, documents, and policy-maker interviews and concludes by outlining what needs to change in the institutional set-up for the Arctic exception to cease to exist, and what co-operation formats from Europe's North could consequently be emulated in the Arctic.


In this article I scrutinize the "Arctic exception" in European Union (EU)--Russia relations (1). By this I mean how the Arctic constitutes an exception in EU-Russia relations in general and in the context of EU-Russia relations in the North in particular. In other words, this exception concerns the conspicuous lack of EU-Russia co-operation in Arctic policy-making seen against the background of their otherwise highly institutionalized strategic partnership on a more general plane, as well as their extensive co-operation in the context of northern institutions. Moreover, this Arctic exception is even more striking when considering how central a position the Union occupies in northern policy-making in general.

It should be admitted upfront that this Arctic exception appears as an exception mainly when contemplated from certain European locations--in particular Brussels and the northern EU member states Finland and Sweden, as well as their active partners in co-operation with Russia (such as Norway). (2) For them, EU involvement in northern policy-making institutions is natural and its extension deep into the Arctic a logical corollary. My analysis will concern precisely this bias.

In contrast to Europe's North, in the wider Arctic the most salient perspectives are not EU or Nordic biased but include those of the Arctic great powers Canada and the United States (US), and Russia, which for many reasons holds the key to the region's future (Griffiths 2011, 3). At the same time, when moving from the European North further up to the Arctic, the institutional landscape changes dramatically. In Northern Europe we have a plethora of international institutions--on the intergovernmental, regional, and sub-regional levels, many of which view the EU as a key partner and point of reference. In the Arctic, by contrast, we only find a single major international institution, the Arctic Council (AC) with a relatively limited mandate and miniscule role for the EU.

Why does the Arctic exception exist? What needs to change if the region's states and the AC wish to erase it? What policy-making options could consequently open up? To address these questions, in this article I introduce a "deep" institutional approach. This approach stresses the centrality of institutions for social interaction. Institutions are taken to include both formal organizations such as the AC, its constituent states, and interest groups such as the Indigenous peoples' organizations that are represented in the AC's work; and informal institutions reflecting more deep-seated principles, rules, and norms underwriting and conditioning the work of formal institutions (cf. Buzan 2004, 184-7). This means that formal and informal institutions are "nested" (North 1990, 83). They exist on several interrelated levels, needing to be interlocked with each other so that the work of formal organizations proceeds in accordance with the established principles, rules, and norms of international conduct in a given context (see Aggarval 1998, 5-8). By referring to more deep-seated informal institutions, we can explain what types of factors have so far hampered the EU in the Arctic. By referring to the more durable, yet formidably consequential informal institutions, we can explain why the centrality of the EU-Russia relationship and some of its co-operation formats characteristic of the North are not, so far, seen much in the Arctic.

The deep institutional approach and its focus on informal institutions complement the existing research on Arctic international relations that has been coloured by varieties of realist and liberal approaches (Dittmer et al. 2011). In crude terms, realists stress the role of national interests, great powers, and their drive for relative gains to gain an advantage over other states. Varieties of liberalism stress economic or trade interests in the interaction of various actors, including states and transnational actors, while these studies also address the governance of that interaction. The two explanations are sometimes combined either directly or indirectly (e.g., Palosaari 2012; also Griffiths 2011). The value added of the institutional approach utilized here is its capacity to treat both great power politics and trade interests in the same comprehensive framework. They are understood as historically developed informal institutions alongside other ingrained practices that today condition and inform the policies of Arctic actors. Although the set of informal institutions is usually relatively resilient, it allows for incremental change and evolution (cf. North 1990, 5-8). This means that the Arctic actors concerned have choices to make. Better awareness of the institutional constraints of these choices can help actors to overcome the limitations of either realist or liberal approaches and associated institutional practices. To inquire into the institutional dynamics understood in this way I will make use of policy documents, earlier research, as well as thirty-nine expert and stakeholder interviews conducted with northern and Arctic policy-makers. (3)

In the following section, I will discuss the Arctic exception in EU-Russia relations in more detail by reviewing the existing research. In the second section I move to explaining its existence by referring to the underlying structure of informal institutions. The task in the final discussion is then to consider briefly what could follow in Arctic international relations should the exception cease to exist.

The Arctic Exception

The Arctic exception in EU-Russia relations is best understood against the background of what is the rule in Northern Europe. The rule can be summarized into three main claims appearing in the research so far.

The Rule in Northern Europe

First, several studies note how the EU has assumed a pivotal role in Northern Europe's main intergovernmental institutions created in the early 1990s. The Union is a member of the Norwegian-initiated Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) together with the Nordic states and Russia. In the BEAC the EU is represented by the European External Action Service (EEAS) created in 2009 to strengthen the Union's voice, weight, and unity in international relations. The EEAS also represents the Union in the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) that extends southwards towards the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Germany, and Poland; originally, the Council was a joint Danish-German initiative. The more exclusive, well-resourced Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM), founded in 1971, has assumed an active role and committed tangible resources for the implementation of the Union's Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region of 2009 (Commission 2009).

The Union's involvement in and its generous co-financing available for the activities of these northern institutions--in some cases offering up to twenty times more funding than the previously central NCM funds (Mariussen 2001, 225)--has transformed Northern Europe's regional cooperation into an EU-funded and EU-designed landscape. Although the Union started in a low-key role in the BEAC and CBSS, by the mid-2000s it had become dominant in Northern Europe's regional co-operation (Browning 2011). Today in northern Europe, actors frequently weigh up their policy proposals against their own EU obligations or those of their partners, as well as the anticipated positions of the Union (Aalto 2006; Etzold 2010; Mariussen et al. 2000).

Second, it can be suggested that the Union's relationship with Russia is the main axis in Northern Europe's regional co-operation. The BEAC links the EU and Russia in northern regional co-operation; it especially works on the initiator country Norway's sphere of interests on the Kola Peninsula. The NCM is originally an intra-Nordic institution but today, in many policy sectors, it has to take into account its members' EU commitments while also engaging in extensive regional co-operation with Russia's northwest through the NCM's regional offices in Russia. The EU and NCM also frequently co-finance projects.

Alongside these institutions we find the Northern Dimension (ND), which constitutes the main interface between the EU and Russia in the North (Aalto, Blakkisrud, and Smith 2008). This policy was renewed on Finland's initiative in 2006 to become a regional expression of the EU-Russia "Common Spaces" and to support their strategic partnership on this level. Both the strategic partnership and the ND are based on equality, even though the ND includes as partners on...

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