Friday, March 25, 2011

European Parliament pushy, ill-informed on Arctic, Canadian diplomats say

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press, 24 March 2011

Canadian diplomats are facing a determined and often ill-informed push by European lawmakers to increase their influence in the Arctic, documents show.
Briefing notes obtained under Access to Information legislation suggest many members of the increasingly influential European Parliament consider Canada a barrier to Europe gaining the larger role in Arctic governance it wants. The same notes suggest those parliamentarians understand little of the region they seek to influence.
"There is increasing attention to the Arctic within the European Parliament," says the March 15, 2010, note for officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, written after a meeting of the parliament.
"The wide range of knowledge and, at times, stunning lack of knowledge on the Arctic caused our Norwegian contacts also attending the debate to note 'we have our work cut out for us.' "
The note says that Catherine Ashton, the European Union's head of foreign and security policy, told the meeting that Europe is concerned about environmental protection in the Arctic. However, the powerful trading block is also seeking to ensure "citizens and companies are treated fairly, including in the areas of transport and natural resources."
The EU, she said, also seeks to contribute to "robust and enhanced governance" in the area.
The briefing note says "Canada was raised several times, both by (members of European Parliament) calling for the European Union to work together with Canada and those who objected to Canada 'blocking' the (European) commission's observer status at the Arctic Council."
Canada has been accused of retaliating against the EU's ban on the import of seal products by blocking any official status for the group at the Arctic Council, the body of eight Arctic nations that is becoming the chief international forum for the region.
Other briefing notes on individual members of the parliament hint at their level of sophistication on the Arctic.
Canadian diplomats are asked to inform the Europeans that the Arctic is not empty and is home to 107,000 Canadians. The notes point out most of the Arctic already lies within established territorial borders and that Canada has had Arctic environmental protection legislation for 40 years that was recently extended to cover 200 nautical miles from shorelines.
"They're just starting up a very steep learning curve," said international law professor Michael Byers. "The parliament is fumbling its way forward into a new era with nothing to go on but a sensationalist media."
The EU has moderated its goal since 2010, when the notes were written. It is no longer calling for the Arctic to be governed by an international treaty.
But interest in the region remains.
Europe has hardened its position that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway, said Rob Huebert at the University of Calgary.
"Every time they are releasing a document they are taking a stronger stance," Huebert said.
Earlier this month, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told an Arctic conference in Berlin that research in the region must be as unencumbered by national red tape as possible.
"Germany is anxious to ensure that shipping concerns are given due consideration," says the German government's website on the Arctic.
Byers warns that Canada should proceed carefully.
"It's important that we don't play to their own uninformed suspicions by engaging in their own blustering. That gets transmitted to Europe as examples of Canadian belligerence in the North.
"If we pulled back on some of that we'd get a more open reception."
But Huebert said European countries have had plenty of time to get up to speed on the Arctic. He said Canada should work harder to make its case and get the facts out to the European public before current attitudes and misinformation hardens.
"At some point, it's going to cross into political mythology in Europe," he said. "As soon as that gets into political mythology, it'll be too late."
For the original text, see: European Parliament pushy

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