Arctic politics and the EU-Norway fisheries dispute
Fishing is the economic lifeline of many small villages along the Norwegian coast such as Gjesvær in Finnmark. Photo: Gordon Leggett
With just two years of Norway’s presidency of the Arctic Council, a decades-old point of contention between Norway and the European Union – a dispute over fisheries – could become the focal point of Arctic politics and create a precedent for future relations between voting members and observers of the high-level intergovernmental forum.
The issue centers on access to fishing grounds around the Svalbard Archipelago and the interpretation of the century-old Svalbard Treaty, which has received increasing attention as the region evolves due to climate change. In recent years, the migration of living resources to the waters around the islands has been the source of legal disputes between the EU acting on behalf of member states and Norway which holds sovereignty over Svalbard. Norway, a permanent voting member of the Council, questioned the EU’s adherence to criteria allowing observers to recognize and respect the sovereignty and jurisdiction of Arctic states in the High North. As the EU has not yet obtained full observer status, these developments could constitute a significant obstacle to the ambitions of the multinational bloc in the Arctic.
Norway claims that the EU unilaterally issued fishing licenses and established catch quotas to member states for the waters around Svalbard in excess of the quota set for the EU by Norway without prior consultation, thus violating the rights of the Norway to control the resources within its exclusive 200 mile economic perimeter. (ZEE) as stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Calculations of fishing quotas around Svalbard are based on historical fishing patterns before the creation of the EEZ in 1977 and have evolved with EU enlargement, as in 2004, when Poland joined the bloc and Norway has increased the quota allocated to the EU. based on the addition of Poland’s pre-EU quota; this system of calculations was called into question with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU on January 1, 2021.
Internal EU calculations for fishing quotas continued to use pre-Brexit allocations that represent a gap of more than 4,000 tonnes of fish, which Oslo claims the UK took with it when he left the Union. In a letter to the EU’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the president of the European Association of Fish Producers Organizations (EAPO), Pim Visser, says Norway’s move could cost EU fishing industry 800 million euros over the next 20 years if not challenged. by Brussels. This takes place during the ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU on post-Brexit fishing rights, which have so far only reached one deal until the end of 2021. In tandem , both issues could present a significant challenge for the EU fishing industry in the near future if common ground cannot be found.
Norway’s decision to include the EU’s provisional status in the Arctic Council as part of this dispute is a significant and arguably unusual escalation in what is normally a cooperative relationship. The escalation presents the possibility of a new precedent for relations between the eight permanent voting members of the Arctic Council and the thirteen observers of the forum. Although observers have no power in rule-making, debating or scheduling within the Council, their ability to attend meetings and work through permanent members was seen as a disadvantage. an important way for non-Arctic states to voice their concerns within the main governance of the High North. organization.
The EU has not yet been granted full observer status due to opposition from Russia, but has always been allowed to attend meetings with other observers, Norway’s report of the fragility of this arrangement could produce a culture within the organization in which disagreements with permanent members come to the risk of expulsion. The expulsion should, however, be carried out with the consensus of other Council members who may oppose bilateral issues interfering with multilateral governance within the Council. With the EU’s unique status as a quasi-observer, its fate could come down to Norway’s unilateral decision once it begins its presidency, should it choose to interpret the 38e rule as conferring such authority on the president. This could discourage other states and organizations from seeking observer status and participating in the forum, which could lead to the founding of a competing multilateral organization, which former Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide warned. in 2019 when he said that “it is better for these people to join our club than to allow them to form another club to our detriment.”
The evolution of the Arctic is greatly affected by climate change and these changes bring it closer to the forefront of world politics and international relations as the historical identity of the region is shaken by 21st realities of the century. What has been a region of remarkable cooperation since the Cold War could become a theater of exclusivity as Arctic states close ranks to protect a revealing abundance of resources. Norway’s decision to potentially tie this dispute over fishing rights to EU status in the Arctic Council could be a harbinger of the tone the Council could adopt as non-Arctic actors claim. more and more the region as common heritage of humanity and question the idea of the Arctic primacy of states over Arctic affairs. This bet could also backfire against Oslo, as the Council, which operates by consensus, could challenge the president’s interpretation of unilateral power in the organization, although the EU has yet to overcome initial objections to its observer status. in its own right. Finally, this dispute has to be seen in the broader context of otherwise friendly Norway-EU relations, which leads observers to question whether the potential fallout from this diplomatic chicken game is worth the perceived rewards.
Zachary Lavengood is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for International Studies, Charles University, Department of North American Studies in Prague, Czechia. His research focuses on Arctic geopolitics, international development and the analysis of global systems. He can be reached at [email protected].