Exclusive interview with Michael Mann, EU’s Ambassador at large for the Arctic/Special envoy for Arctic matters

Exclusive interview with Michael Mann, EU’s Ambassador at large for the Arctic/Special envoy for Arctic matters


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Exclusive interview with Michael Mann, EU’s Ambassador at large for the Arctic/Special envoy for Arctic matters

The European Union (EU) has been engaged in Arctic matters since 2008 namely for various environmental, scientific and strategic reasons. These include among others the protection of the Arctic environment, combating climate change, advancing the sustainable use of natural resources and regional economic development.

The EU’s current Arctic policy is largely defined in the 2016 Joint Communication “An integrated European Union policy for the Arctic”. In the context of increased geopolitical attention to the region, an update of the EU’s Arctic policy was announced in Autumn 2019 and is now expected to be published in late 2021.While defence related issues are becoming increasingly present in public debate, the Arctic Council, the region’s main governance forum, is not mandated to discuss military security. Moreover, as climate change continues to have an impact on economic and social development, its significance also in terms of security needs to be appropriately taken into account. The EU has to re-evaluate its approach to a changing Arctic landscape.In 2017, by creating the official post of an Ambassador-at-large for the Arctic, the EU marked a definitive turning point in its ambitions to increase visibility and participation in the region’s affairs. Following the retirement of the first Ambassador at large for the Arctic, Marie-Anne Coninsx, in November 2019, Michael Mann was appointed to the position, now also known as the Special Envoy on Arctic Matters, in April, 2020. Mr Mann has previously served as the EU Ambassador to Iceland. Since taking up duties, Ambassador Mann has initiated a public call for consultations in preparation for the revision of the EU’s Arctic policy.

In this context, Mr Mann has agreed to speak with Le Grand continent about his role as EU Ambassador for the Arctic and major aspects of the EU’s engagement in the Arctic, in what is one his longest interviews in the matter. It was an occasion to also address issues relating to the EU’s institutional structure, the geographical scope of the Arctic, and the geopolitical vision of the EU in more detail.

Where are you from? What was your position before and how did you start working on Arctic related topics? We noticed that often people working on the Arctic have a special relationship with the region, is it the case for you?

I am Michael Mann and I have been the EU’s Ambassador at large for the Arctic since the 1st of April 2020. I am also called “Special Envoy for Arctic matters”. I have two job titles, strangely. Before that I was the EU’s Ambassador in Reykjavik for two and a half years. A lot of my work surrounded the Arctic, because Iceland is at the moment the Chair of the Arctic Council. But also, the annual Arctic Circle Assembly, the biggest Arctic event on the international calendar, happens in Reykjavik every October and we had a number of people coming from EU headquarters to that event. I suppose I did fall for the Arctic a little bit. We went on a family holiday to Tromsø over the New Year a few years ago, because we wanted to do the classic Arctic things, see the Northern lights and go dog sledding. That was a really fantastic trip actually and ironically, after having gone to Tromsø to see the Northern lights, about a year and a half later I was posted to Iceland where I just had to look through my window to see them! Before Iceland, I was the Head of Strategic communications at the European External Action Service (EEAS) for seven years actually. And for the first four years of that, I was also the Chief spokesperson for Catherine Ashton, the High Representative / Vice President. One of the many trips I did with her was actually a trip organised by the Foreign Ministers of Finland, Sweden and Norway to visit their Arctic regions. So, I did get up to Longyearbyen in Svalbard, to Kiruna in Sweden and Rovaniemi in Finland. It was probably one of the most enjoyable trips that I did in all my time working for her. 

I was very much a communication person before I went to Iceland. And before that I was a Commission spokesperson for a number of different portfolios for a long time, more than a decade in total. The job that I have now is partly about policy obviously, and we can come to that later when I speak about updating our Arctic policy document, but it is also a communication job to a certain extent. Here I am speaking to you and I do a lot of webinars, a lot of conferences talking about the EU’s Arctic policy. I originally went to Brussels in 1993 as a journalist for a publication that wrote about agriculture and fisheries. In fact one of my first jobs was to go to Norway just before the referendum [in 1994] about EU membership and to talk to fishing organisations to see whether they were going to vote yes or no. Originally I’m from Britain, I’m from Kent in England and I’ve actually got German nationality now as well. I’m married to a German lady so I am Anglo-German these days. But as you can tell by my voice, if not my name, I’m British by background.

What does the Arctic mean for you? 

Well, it means many things. It is a place I fell in love with when I came to visit it. I am a big fan of outdoor life and hiking and I come from a country where the weather is pretty terrible so I don’t mind bad weather and the cold. It is a fantastic place to visit for me. It’s also obviously my job; for which I am extremely fortunate. Not many people can say they are doing a job involving something that they care about and they are interested in. Also, we are talking a lot in Europe about the Green Deal and the green recovery from Covid, etc. For me there is no better illustration of why we need a European Green deal than what is happening in the Arctic. We all know that the temperatures are increasing twice as fast there as anywhere else. We’ve seen absolutely crazy things this year alone: temperatures of 38°C in Siberia, temperatures reaching more than 20°C in Svalbard, wildfires, oil spills in Russia because permafrost is thawing and things are simply collapsing. So, what the Arctic means for me is a combination: it is a place I love, it is a place that is fascinating, it is my job but it is also a concrete illustration of why the world needs to change and what politics need to change.

Sometimes you are referred to as Ambassador at large, sometimes as Special envoy, is there a difference?  How do you see your role as Ambassador-at-large for the Arctic?

It is different titles for the same job really. In reality my internal job title within the institutional set-up is Special envoy for Arctic matters, but in my external contact with third-country people for instance, I am allowed to call myself Ambassador at large because that is a job title that everybody recognises. It is just 2 ways of calling the same thing.

I see three things as my main tasks. The first is to work on policy. We last published an EU Arctic policy document in April 2016 and a lot has changed since then. The environmental situation and the socio-economic situation in the Arctic have changed enormously. But also, the Arctic has gained more traction: more people, more players are interested in what is happening in the Arctic. Whereas before it was mainly a region that was of concern for the Arctic States, I think it is fair to say that it has now gained more geopolitical importance. The ice is melting, it is opening up new connectivity and shipping opportunities, and so forth. There is also a lot of speculation about extraction of minerals in the Arctic. So, part of my job is to work on policy and we are already working on updating the policy and we aim at publishing it in the fourth quarter of 2021. 

But I have two other roles as well. My second task is to increase the external visibility of what the EU does in the Arctic. Because the EU is extremely active in the Arctic in many different ways but very few people know about that. My position was only created three years ago, and my predecessor did a great job, but I think we have to do much more to make people realise what the European Union does in the Arctic and to make people realise that the Arctic should not be only a concern for the Arctic states. I have done a few briefings for our Member States to convince them that they should care about the Arctic because what happens in the Arctic will affect everybody. 

My third role is to work on the internal visibility of the EU in the Arctic. The update of our Arctic policy is on the work programme for the Commission for 2021, but Arctic policy and Arctic thinking still need to be more mainstreamed in the European Union and in policy-making more broadly. There are a number of policy documents that have come up recently on critical minerals and on hydrogen, etc. There have been a lot of different policy documents, but people have to start thinking about the Arctic more when they are developing these policies. The Arctic really does need to be more mainstreamed in EU thinking. As I said earlier, we have the Green Deal, that’s the number one priority of the Commission. But what better illustration is there of the need for the Green Deal than what’s happening in the Arctic? Secondly, we have a Commission that calls itself “geopolitical”, and the geopolitical situation in the Arctic is extremely interesting. There is much more geostrategic interest in what is happening there around the world. You only have to have a look at the Observers in the Arctic Council to see how many countries are interested in the Arctic these days. 

We have to ensure that the wealth extracted from the resources in the Arctic don’t leave the Arctic but is actually fed into the people who live there, the indigenous people and the local populations.


You are British national: do you think that the position/tasks would be completed differently by a Nordic EU Ambassador for the Arctic?

I don’t think the role would be any different. The way of doing it might be different perhaps or the person’s experiences may be very different, but I work on the Arctic policy for the EEAS and I have a passion for making sure that I’m doing a good job. I wasn’t brought up in the Arctic regions, I would not claim to be the world’s biggest expert on the Arctic before I took this job. But in a way if you are slightly further away perhaps you can take a more objective view. I also have to stress that I don’t do that on my own, I have many people working with me, many of whom are Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and from other European countries. If you look at the European Commission, in all the different Directorates General there are many people working on Arctic issues, on European science or satellites or environmental policies. I like to think that my role is to bring all these people together. I’m playing an honest broker role trying to have a relatively objective view of these things. 

We noticed that compared to your predecessor, Mrs Coninxs, you seem to have a very active and visible approach to communication: is it a global strategy of the EU or is it a personal way of working? Why?

In a way it is easier for me than it was for Marie-Anne [Coninxs], because in pre-Covid times if you wanted to speak at a conference you would have to fly there. Budget and time are not unlimited so it’s much easier for me to click and switch on to take part in a webinar. But the European Union in general and each institution are trying very hard to do a better job of communication. Because for too long we have been underplaying our hand or we have been too shy about publicising the work we do which I think is rather impressive. But also, it is a personal thing as well, as you have seen from my background, I have worked in communications most of my life so it just comes naturally. I’ve been paid for talking; so, I like to talk. So, it is partly policy that we want to do a better job of getting visibility to what we’re doing in the Arctic but it’s partly because I just enjoy it actually. 

What do you think of the EU’s engagement in the Arctic so far? What has been positive or negative? Why? 

I think that generally it has definitely been positive. Of course, I would say that, but I also think it is true. It surprised me when I took this job just how much the EU does do in the Arctic. Many people ask why the EU is interested in the Arctic. I see four main obvious reasons: (1) we are in the Arctic, as three of our Member States are Arctic States; (2) we are a big consumer of Arctic resources; (3) being a major industrial area we are also one of the reasons why there are climate change issues in the Arctic; (4) we are also a global leader on actions to fight climate change. So, there are many reasons why we should be interested in the Arctic. I would also say that our activity in the Arctic has been unequivocally positive if you look at the scientific research we’ve done for instance. The Mosaic expedition that just came back was partly funded by the EU and had many top European scientists there. Also, we are a global trendsetter leader in the fight against climate change, but you have to make a distinction between what we are doing globally on climate change and what we are doing specifically in the Arctic. It is not the Arctic that is causing climate change and the thawing of Arctic ice, it is what is happening outside that is causing that. We do a lot of work globally in the Paris process to fight climate change, but within the Arctic we act on a microlevel. For instance, the EU participates in the work on black carbon. The EU is also working on sustainable development. That is a very fashionable word, but what does that actually mean? It means that economic development is happening in the Arctic and should happen, because people live there and should be allowed to have socio economic aspirations, but it has to be done in a sustainable way. Not only environmentally sustainable, which is of course very important, but also socio-economically sustainable. That means that we have to ensure that the wealth extracted from the resources in the Arctic don’t leave the Arctic but is actually fed into the people who live there, the indigenous people and the local populations. The third priority in the EU’s Arctic policy, beside climate change, environmental protection, and sustainable development, is international cooperation. 

The EU is the great champion of multilateralism and we try our very utmost to ensure that issues that are affecting the Arctic are dealt with by international cooperation. There is a lot of hype at the moment about military build-up in the Arctic and people wondering if we are heading toward a military clash in the Arctic. There is military build-up; the Russians have been restoring some of their cold war military bases, NATO has reacted and there have been military operations, and the Americans have been, under the Trump administration, relatively tough on this. However, our analysis so far is that we are not heading towards military conflict in the Arctic. These are not tensions caused in the Arctic, but more a reflection of global posturing by global powers outside of the Arctic. To come back to your question I think we have had nothing but positive influence on the Arctic. The beginning of our time preparing policies on the Arctic was not always easy. I remember hearing at the time that the European Parliament suggested that the Arctic should be treated in the same way as the Antarctic in terms of declaring a sort of globally protected area. But of course, the Arctic and the Antarctic are completely different. The Arctic is sovereign territory of eight countries. Therefore, that was a false start. But I think the debates in the European Parliament moved on from there. We now need to update our policy to bring it up to date with what has changed over the last four years.

Our analysis so far is that we are not heading towards military conflict in the Arctic. These are not tensions caused in the Arctic, but more a reflection of global posturing by global powers outside of the Arctic.


However, the impact of the 2008 ban on seal products affected Indigenous communities and led many to question the EU’s role in the Arctic. Maybe there has not been enough attention on taking into account Indigenous peoples’ role and knowledge. Can the ban be seen as a downside of the EU’s action?

That is an interesting point. I should have said that we realise that it is extremely important to take into account Indigenous people, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because they have knowledge and experience. We have been very keen and very determined to make sure that what we do genuinely takes into account the views of Indigenous people. We have organised the Indigenous peoples dialogue since 2010. The feedback I get from the various Indigenous groups I talked to is that they are very grateful for that, and that they really do appreciate that we take them seriously. But we have to do more than just pay lip service to this, it really matters. Now the seal product ban is an interesting case.  The EU is not an official Observer in the Arctic Council. Initially we were blocked by Canada pending the resolution of a dispute over the seal product ban. That problem was dealt with through a derogation for Indigenous produced products, however we are now blocked for another reason. In reality, it does not really stop our positive engagement in the Arctic Council because the EU has been granted the status of de facto observer as recognition from the various Chairs of the Arctic Council of the EU’s useful involvement. It’s unfortunate if the seal product ban has sullied our relationship with people further down the road. There is now a derogation that allows Indigenous labelled seal products to come into the European Union, but I think we also have to remember that European decision makers are making decisions on behalf of their citizens. And EU citizens have different views of course, there are more than 500 millions of them after all. We can’t ignore the fact that the consensus at the time and now seems to be that people did not really want to buy seal products. So, we sympathise entirely with the needs of people who have made a traditional livelihood from this, and this is why we have granted a derogation to allow this to happen. We would absolutely not be in favour of damaging the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples, but, on the other hand, we have another constituency, EU citizens, which is also asking us to act. So, this is a difficult act of balancing policies. 

There seems to be some disinterest among officials in Brussels about the Arctic’s political and strategic importance, which might hinder cross-institutional mainstreaming. How are the responsibilities for Arctic matters assigned within relevant institutions, all the different Directorates-General, for example? Has the process of assigning responsibilities in Arctic matters changed since 2008?

The European Union is a very complicated beast, as we know. It is partly inter-governmental and partly communautaire. It is a very difficult thing. But the basic problem or starting point is that the Arctic policy of the EU is a soft policy. Nowhere in the European Union’s governing treaties does it say ‘we will have an Arctic policy and we must achieve the following things a, b, c.’ And likewise, the Arctic is not specifically identified in any of the main multiannual financial frameworks.  There is no specific budget-line for the Arctic. So, we have conducted Arctic policy as an umbrella approach. Our Arctic policy is a soft policy. We have never had a strategy with an action plan with distinct goals that we have to achieve, because the legal basis for that simply is not there. So, what we have to do in our Arctic policy is to give an impetus to different policies that are happening in different Commission departments. And, hope that they will, as a result, feed into a more successful and a more committed approach in the Arctic. 

As I have mentioned before, there are several Commission Directorates-General (DG), about 15 of them, that have active engagement in the Arctic. Whether it be the new DG DEFIS, which handles the new space policy and is in charge of Copernicus and Galileo. Whether it be DG RTD and JRC, which are concerned with science and the Horizon 2020 programs. DG CLIMA, which is doing the international negotiations on the Paris accord, and DG ENV, which is leading on the black carbon projects that we do. So, all across the Commission there are people working on the Arctic and we just have to bring them together. We have a thing in Brussels called the interservice group for Arctic matters where we bring everyone together on a regular basis. The group is chaired by myself and my counterpart, the Head of Unit, in DG MARE. The Arctic policy dossier is co-lead by the EEAS, for the “geopolitical” or foreign policy aspects, and DG MARE which represents the Commission. We will be co-authoring the new report – the new policy document – with DG MARE with input from the different DGs. Commissioner Sinkevicius, for example, who is in charge of maritime and environmental affairs and by definition therefore also Arctic issues, spoke at the Arctic Futures Symposium which took place in Brussels in November 2020. Also, of course, there is an interest for the High Representative, the Vice-President, who I work for. There are the geopolitical and foreign policy aspects of the Arctic policy, so it is a joint responsibility. It is jointly led in terms of putting together the policy. The way it will work – the way it works – is that we work on the thing together and then we go to the individual DGs to get their input, because obviously we don’t know enough about what DG GROW is doing on vital minerals or what DG DEFIS is doing on satellites. It is a collective effort.

The Arctic policy of the EU is a soft policy. Nowhere in the European Union’s governing treaties does it say ‘we will have an Arctic policy and we must achieve the following things a, b, c.’


I was a little surprised by how little the Arctic was mentioned when the European Parliament Committee hearings took place as the new Commission was being approved. I recognize that there is work to be done to publicize it a little bit better internally.  As I’ve said twice before, the Arctic is a perfect illustration of the geopolitical commission and the green deal. However, in terms of the other institutions there is no parliamentary delegation for the Arctic, but there is a parliamentary delegation for Nordic affairs. There is also the friendship group from the European parliament chaired by Mr. Paet from Estonia, the former foreign minister from Estonia. Now, a group of 49 MEPs wrote to President Von der Leyen at the beginning of her term saying that we need to take a greater interest in the Arctic and be more committed.  She responded very positively that we would be doing an updated policy soon. Concerning the Parliament, there’s also the Foreign Affairs Committee. I’ve spoken to David MacAllister, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he is very committed to the Arctic. I noticed that when the EEAS got its budget discharge last year, there was a specific mention in the Parliament’s report to make a greater commitment to the Arctic. And that was thanks to the Foreign Affairs Committee. And while there is no dedicated Arctic group within the Council working groups, there is the COEST group which deals with Eastern European affairs. I have spoken to COEST, as they do also cover the Arctic. I’ve also spoken to the Political and Security Committee about our Arctic update. So, there’s definitely interest. And it would be my dream, I don’t know whether it’s going to happen, that there will be a discussion on the Arctic in the Foreign Affairs Council at some stage. Clearly one of the main impetus behind our updated policy was the Council conclusions from last December. Heavily helped, I must say, by the Finnish presidency, which called us to update our policy. So, there’s a number of different things going on and I think the creation of this role of Arctic ambassador in 2017 was partly to raise the external visibility, but also to have some internal coherence in the European institutions.

You mentioned the COEST working group. Is there space for establishing an Arctic specific Council working group?

My personal view is yes. But again, I have to temper my personal view with whether it is just because I work full-time on the Arctic or whether there is actually a case for it. I would say there is a case for it, because there is an overall recognition that the importance of the Arctic is growing. More and more people are interested in it. I would be in favour, but then again, it’s not really my decision. I would perhaps make that recommendation if someone were to ask me. But, COEST meets every week. I don’t really know whether an Arctic working group could really be justified to meet on such a regular basis. But my personal view is yes.

Geography is a blind spot for the EU because the EU has been seen as a project – as an idea – and as a result it has had difficulty to position itself towards neighbouring regions, especially the Arctic. However, in the Arctic “geography matters” because the Arctic is such a specific region with different sub-regions and different legal statuses from sovereign states to international High Seas. The current argument is to highlight the fact that “the EU is in the Arctic” because EU Nordic member-states have part of their territory in the Arctic. Moreover, the EU also has further impact in the Arctic through closely associated countries such as Norway and Iceland. Thus, the lines between the two regions, between Europe and the Arctic are blurred. We would like to have your view on why the Arctic is not seen as a neighbourhood like the Eastern or the Southern neighbourhoods. Would you see any benefit from the EU positioning itself outside and seeing the Arctic as a neighbourhood rather than seeing itself inside? Are southern member-states really in the Arctic? How can the EU raise the interest of Cyprus, for instance, on Arctic matters?

That’s a very interesting question. I think the geography question is a bit tricky, because, you know, we are in the Arctic, but I think it is wrong to think of the Arctic simply in terms of being in the area above the 66 degrees line [the Arctic circle]. The Arctic means different things to different people. And different things to different countries. So, it is not a hard and fast geographical region, but of course everybody knows what we mean. I am not allowed to talk about ‘the Arctic’, I have to talk about the Arctic regions or Arctic matters or Arctic issues. Because, there are things that happen in the Arctic, but are not really caused by things that are done in the Arctic, climate change, for example. Also, certain things in the past were dealt with purely by the Arctic states, and they do still have a lead role in Arctic matters, of course as they should, because they are the sovereign states in the Arctic. But certain things happen beyond the borders – the strict borders – of the Arctic and that is when the EU comes in. There is a call – a recognition – that there is a role for the European Union and for other non-Arctic players in the Arctic, because the issues and the problems and the challenges in the Arctic do not stop as soon as you move south of Iceland. That leads me to answer the other part of your question “how can we get sort of southern member-states interested” – they are interested, actually. I was quite surprised when I spoke both in COEST and PSC (Political and Security Committee) that in both instances there were 15 countries speaking up, and they were not all northern countries. I think people recognize that things are changing in the Arctic. It is a horrid old cliché, but what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic and there is a recognition to that. If you are The Netherlands, it is obvious that climate change is going to have an effect on your country. But even in the south, we have climatic changes, we have extreme weather situations because of climate change. You can buy Icelandic fish in supermarkets in Spain – it seems crazy, but you do. I mean, that’s it. And in terms of the neighbourhood. I have to be a bit cautious here because we have a ‘neighbourhood policy’ and I am not a politician, I am a bureaucrat, so I cannot suddenly declare to you today that we should have the Arctic as a neighbourhood. Because it is a neighbourhood, but we are also in the Arctic, so it is not the same as talking about the Eastern or the Southern Neighbourhood. Because we are in there to a certain extent. But we do not have a formal label for the Arctic and Arctic states.

The Arctic means different things to different people. And different things to different countries. So, it is not a hard and fast geographical region, but of course everybody knows what we mean.


We can still cooperate with Arctic states in a very close way. I mean, let’s look at Russia. We do not have the warmest relations with Russia across the world. We have our problems with Russia, but in the Arctic, there is, to a greater degree than anywhere else, real practical cooperation still going on with Russia. Particularly on environmental issues. We have this thing called the Northern Dimension Policy framework where we have good environmental work going on; on black carbon, on nuclear waste. And there are transport projects, cultural projects and health projects. We can have good, pragmatic and real meaningful cooperation without giving it a label, I suppose. The EU’s Arctic policy sort of complements the national Arctic policies of the Arctic states. But also, if you look elsewhere in Europe; Italy has an Arctic policy, Spain has an Arctic policy, the Netherlands have just published their new Arctic policy – or are about to publish – so there are people who are interested. And there is scientific expertise from all across the European Union working in the Arctic.

Do you see the EU more as complementing national Arctic policies rather than having its own?

No, we do have our own. We have a different role in the Arctic, I think. Obviously, the Finns, the Swedes and the Danes have a national interest in the Arctic, because they are in the Arctic. And a lot of what we do mirrors what they do, but there are big distinctions also. Because, of course, the Danes can write about security in their Arctic policy. The European Union does not have treaty competences on hard security. There are things that we can do to complement what member-states are doing. There are things that we can do that are completely unrelated to what member-states are doing. There are certain things that member-states are doing that we cannot do. So, for us the key, and I might be jumping ahead in the interview, but the key for us is to find the right balance between precaution and preservation in environmental protection in the Arctic and a meaningful form of sustainable development. We are not going to stop economic activities in the Arctic, nor should we. Because people have to live and have to have existences and lives and livelihoods. But we can ensure that – to the extent that the treaties allow us to do so – it is done in a way that is environmentally sustainable, but also allows the internal economy in the Arctic regions to continue and gives people a future. And, we are lawmakers in the Arctic because the laws that we pass are applicable directly in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, but they are also applicable to some extent in Norway and Iceland because of the European Economic Area agreement. So, we are quite influential on the legal side as well. We can try, I hope, to champion best – highest possible – standards, whether it be filters for factories or whatever it may be. I see, and I hope we can actually achieve this, the Arctic as a kind of a testbed for technologies that will be very vital in the green transition all around the world. If we can champion these things in the Arctic, and there is already a lot of good stuff going on, then it can maybe be an example not only for other Arctic countries, but also for the rest of the world and for the rest of Europe when it comes to the green transition.

We have our problems with Russia, but in the Arctic, there is, to a greater degree than anywhere else, real practical cooperation still going on with Russia.


In a way it seems a bit paradoxical that the EU is called a non-Arctic actor and has to claim for observer status, like France, whereas you say that the EU is in the Arctic. How could the EU streamline or better position itself towards the Arctic or Arctic regions? The US, for example, while they do have the state of Alaska providing an Arctic coastline, do not claim an Arctic identity because Texas consumes Arctic products. Comparisons between the US and the EU are not perfect, of course, not least because the EU is not a federal state and its sui generis status is more complex. 

Well, three of our member-countries are in the Arctic Council. And the EU is not a country either; we are not even an international organization like any other. We are unique, because we are partly intergovernmental and partly “communautaire”. There is not even an English word for that! We are a hybrid. So, what counts for us is that we can actually work in the Arctic, and our Arctic-ness, if that is a word, is not only expressed by membership in the Arctic Council. We are active in the Arctic, because we have laws that apply to some of the Arctic, because we fish in the Arctic, because we use oil and gas from the Arctic, because we heat up the Arctic, unfortunately. The Arctic Council is not the be all and end all of the Arctic. It is a fantastic organization, but we have a lot of other cooperation mechanisms besides the Arctic Council. We have the Barents Euro Arctic Council, we have the Northern Dimension policy. There is the Council of Baltic Sea States, there’s all sorts of fora that we are involved in. And you also mentioned the fisheries agreement [agreement on the ban on unregulated fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean], which I should have mentioned in my introduction because that’s a very significant thing. We were instrumental in the negotiation of the agreement, and that is a major achievement of international diplomacy. Despite the fact that we have issues with other countries in other parts of the world, we were able to agree on a moratorium in the Central Arctic Ocean. And we have a lot of past experience in overcoming fisheries policy problems. The agreement was a good example of how there is a way of doing business multinationally in the Arctic and it can be successful. We just have to hope that all the countries will ratify… There’s still one that hasn’t ratified, but I think that will happen soon.

The Arctic Council is not the be all and end all of the Arctic. It is a fantastic organization, but we have a lot of other cooperation mechanisms besides the Arctic Council.


EU’s Arctic policy can be quite confusing for many due to the different levels of policy-making. The EU has to continue on a balancing act and to take into consideration internal difficulties, external ones, competence, etc. Considering the current debate on the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’ many issues seem to be at stake with different meanings associated by different people. How does the redevelopment of the EU’s Arctic policy align with this pursuit of strategic autonomy? How does the EU develop a new Arctic strategy while keeping in mind that there are aims for strategic autonomy, and to what extent do they interact?

It is a bit early to say, as we have not written the policy yet. In a lot of webinars and conferences, I am often asked “is the Arctic heading into conflict?” My answer is: a) I think it is exaggerated, it is more a reflection of great-power competition elsewhere than great-power competition in the Arctic; b) I have to tell people that it is not in the EU’s competence to write an Arctic policy focusing on defence and security. Of course we cannot ignore it either. But for us security has a broad meaning. I think we have to take into account a broader definition of security, including safety. For example, we know that there is not enough rescue capacity in huge areas of the Arctic. If you are a fisherman and you get lost, that’s a problem for you, and a problem for your family, and a problem for your home port. If an LNG tanker gets into trouble, that’s potentially a huge environmental emergency. If a cruise ship with 5 000 European citizens on board goes missing in the Arctic, you have got a major issue for 5 000 families and 20 countries, or so. If a nuclear submarine goes down, then you have got a major problem in terms of environmental pollution, geostrategic tensions etc. So, we have to take a broader definition of security in our writing of an Arctic policy. It could be environmental security; it could be health security. COVID is waking everyone up to health issues. And there is also permafrost thaw that is releasing bacteria and viruses that have been frozen for hundreds of years as deer and bears are being dug up. So, there is also the environmental dimension. I am not trying to avoid your key question. It is just that we have to be very careful to know the limits of what our competence is while dealing with this issue of strategic autonomy. I am not going to talk about armies and defence forces, because that is still outside our competences. There are projects under the European Union defence funds for researching into weapon systems for extreme polar temperatures. That is not Arctic specific but it exists. Strategic autonomy has other meanings as well. For example, we are trying to do a green transition and at the moment a lot of the rare minerals that are required for the technologies to allow this green transition to happen are largely produced outside of the EU, mainly in China. Now there is a question of whether we can become more strategically autonomous in terms of that. I am meeting business groups from the Arctic that are telling me “we need help to extract [the minerals] so that we become less dependent on others”. Regarding the energy transition there are a lot of things going on at the moment, but we are still heavily dependent on hydrocarbons from parts of the world that are not necessarily very stable. So, again, if we can make the green energy transition a reality, partly through projects developed in the Arctic, that is another good thing.

We have to take a broader definition of security in our writing of an Arctic policy.


Strategic autonomy seems to mean more than only defence capabilities, also referring to an ability to act independently on certain issues in certain contexts. Do you see the Arctic as a way for the EU to promote and secure strategic autonomy without military policy?  

Yes, I do, in terms of energy transition and in terms of critical minerals that we need. Again, it is not the place of the EU nor its Arctic policy to say “we should stop digging up rare minerals in Greenland”, that is not our business. But we should be able to provide a framework for businesses that want to do that, and could perhaps be able to do it, but also to do it in the most environmentally sustainable way possible. It is not our role to say “you should be doing this”; it is our role to be providing a framework to allow it to happen if that is what people want to do.   

How is the current situation with Russia affecting the EU’s new Arctic policy? How is the EU preparing for the Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2021?

Clearly, we do not have the best relationship with Russia in many parts of the world. Of course, we have the sanctions regime in place since the annexation of Crimea and the difficulties caused in Eastern Ukraine. And the relationship is not as good as it could or should be. Having said that, we do have very good practical cooperation with Russia. Again, anything we do with Russia in the Arctic has to be according to the principles of our engagement with Russia, and it also has to be beneficial for the EU. So, we do cooperate with Russia, for example through the Northern Dimension policy framework, on dealing with nuclear waste and on reducing black carbon. And there are transport issues, cooperation on people-to-people contacts, and there is health cooperation as well. It is not by any means great, not as wide ranging as it perhaps once was, but the great thing about the way we work with Russia in the Arctic is that there are still mechanisms through which we do practical work with benefits for both sides. 

In terms of the Russian presidency of the Arctic Council, we are hoping and anticipating that we would be able to play the very useful, and practical and pragmatic role that we currently do within the Arctic Council. We are not official observers, but we have been able to act in the same way as an Observer acts. Mid-November 2020 was a Senior Arctic Officials meeting, online on this occasion, and I was part of the event organized for the observers as if I were an observer. We were able to listen to any sessions in the same way as any observer would be. We are hoping that it will continue. Russia has set out a program for the Arctic Council chairmanship covering Indigenous people, sustainable development, among other things. It covers a lot of the issues that we are also interested in. So, we are hoping that everything goes well, that we can continue to make a good contribution to the Arctic Council. But will the COVID pandemic be gone by then or not? I mean, the Icelandic chairmanship is being highly affected by all this, and there has not been a meeting in Iceland for a very long time. So, hopefully things will improve on the COVID front before the Russians take over the chairmanship.

Russia has set out a program for the Arctic Council chairmanship covering Indigenous people, sustainable development, among other things. It covers a lot of the issues that we are also interested in.


The Trump administration has brought forward some areas of tension in the Arctic, and has been critical on climate change. Do you have any expectations from the coming US administration in terms of Arctic cooperation and politics? How do you see the future of US policy in the Arctic?

I think it is pretty early to say but we can make a pretty good guess. First thing I must say is that as an official, a bureaucrat, I have to be diplomatic in the way I answer such questions. But clearly the Trump administration had a particular view on climate change and the Biden administration has a different view, and it is obviously very good if the US is going to get back into the Paris process. That is fantastic news and we will welcome that. On a technical and diplomatic level, we have been working very well with the US for the last 4 years, because they have officials in place working on the Arctic who have continued to be very cooperative in a lot of areas. Now, there were differences in opinion between the EU and the soon-to-be-previous US administration on climate change. So, as I said, once the US steps back into the Paris agreement, and they recognize the manmade elements of climate change, that can only be a positive thing. Obviously, during the Rovaniemi ministerial, the statement from the Secretary of State was very strong. There was also the failure to reach a ministerial declaration because the other parties wanted to mention climate change in the declaration. Hopefully, that should also be overcome in the future. What I have noticed in a lot of US administration’s discourses about the Arctic recently is that they have talked a lot about China; the threat from China. They do not agree with the idea of China being a “near-Arctic” state. Their comments on the Arctic have reflected their overall attitude towards China’s global ambitions. Again, I do not think at this point in time that it is possible to predict how a new administration in the US will be positioned on the China question. At least, the really positive news is they get back into the Paris process and they start working with us not only on a technical diplomatic level, but also on a political level in fighting climate change.  

Is the EU going to further its scientific engagement in the Arctic? How?

Science is a great success-story for the EU’s Arctic engagement. We have spent about 200 million euros over the last seven years on Arctic science. We have also set up a number of international cooperative scientific operations as well. There has been a lot of very good work with partners from all over the Arctic. In fact, the standard in Arctic science has gone up over the last couple of years. Since 2018 there has been a bigger push for Arctic science. Initiatives like the EU-PolarNet being set up, or our assistance towards the MOSAiC expedition and so forth. If you also take into account the satellite aspect, the Copernicus program, there is a massive undertaking, a massive engagement on science from the EU. In the initial multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027 that was proposed by the Commission, there was the proposition to increase the budget of Horizon 2020 (now called Horizon Europe) by 20%. When the final agreement was done, I don’t think we got as much as we wanted, but that’s the nature of the beast: the initial proposal for the budget is never actually the final agreement that is reached. But certainly, there is more money allocated in the next pluriannual budget for Horizon Europe than there was for Horizon 2020, as you saw perhaps from the budget agreement that was reached early November 2020 by the three institutions in Brussels. There is an undertaking that 30% of the money would be spent on projects and scientific activities linked to climate actions as well. I think there is also a lot of honest attention put on biodiversity protection, another important issue in the Arctic. I think the future is rosy. I think we have got more money for scientific research in the Arctic, and probably a greater political commitment. Now that we have an agreement between the institutions on the multiannual financial framework, it is now time for the DG JRC and the DG RTD to actually put their work programmes together. That is not done yet. But I think we will see an even greater commitment to Arctic science. The bad news of what is happening in the Arctic has at least had one positive effect; that people are waking up to it now. That can only be a positive result in terms of the level of commitment that we have towards scientific research in the Arctic. Also, the MOSAiC expedition, which is fascinating, brought back a lot of data, which gives you something really solid on which to base your future work on as well. I think there will be an even greater commitment to Arctic science in the future.

Science is not being done for its own sake. I was talking to an audience of scientists; people need to understand that it is through this that the EU gets an Arctic profile in Arctic affairs.

Michael Mann

As you mentioned, science is a way to produce knowledge on the environment and on climate change in the Arctic. Is science also a diplomatic or a political tool for the EU? A way to participate in Arctic governance, and to cooperate with Arctic states?

MM: Yes, totally, I should have mentioned it. I actually spoke at the opening of the EU polar science week in October 2020. One of the points that I made was that science is not being done for its own sake. I was talking to an audience of scientists; people need to understand that it is through this that the EU gets an Arctic profile in Arctic affairs. Also, we do scientific research within all channels, we do not keep our scientific research for ourselves. We are working with China, with Russia, with the US, with Canada; all across the board of international scientific research. You only have to look at how many people were on board of this MOSAiC expedition; how many different countries people came from. This is really an international thing because everybody around the world is waking up to the importance of understanding what is happening in the Arctic. It is a very important diplomatic tool, our scientific engagement. I think we have been able over the last seven-year program to really utilize that, to really take our international scientific cooperation to another level. It is also important to know that science is not only about climate change in the Arctic. I have talked about the importance of bringing this green transition in the Arctic. Some of our Arctic money is going to these innovative projects, quite small projects in many cases. Some of our projects from Horizon are huge, but there are also mechanisms for small innovative companies to get access to seed finance for green energy projects or e-commerce projects. When I was in Iceland as the ambassador there, they were amazingly successful in getting Horizon 2020 funds for a number of innovative small start-ups and scientific ventures that turn into small companies. 

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Emilie Canova, Aleksis Oreschnikoff, Mayline Strouk, Michael Mann, Exclusive interview with Michael Mann, EU’s Ambassador at large for the Arctic/Special envoy for Arctic matters, Jan 2021,

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