The first of December (Antarctica Day) 2019 will not only mark the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Antarctic Treaty; it will also mark the 10th year since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. This second treaty furthered the EU on its path towards becoming a major actor on the global stage by establishing inter alia the function of High Representative and the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s own diplomatic network. Indeed, as the European integration project has advanced, the EU has increasingly turned its gaze outwards, toward the world. Already in 2001, the European Council solemnly declared in its Laeken Declaration that “Europe needs to shoulder its responsibilities in the governance of globalisation.” Today, the question remains whether the EU can deliver on its continuously growing ambitions. Given the overlap of these special days and the growing recognition of Antarctica’s importance to the Earth system (Will Steffen has an interesting podcast episode on this topic), there seems no better place to start answering this question than Antarctica.
The EU’s historical engagement
Somewhat surprisingly, the EU’s engagement in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) has historically been relatively limited. The EU has only participated in the four special Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs) in which the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated, while playing a minor role in the debate on the Protocol’s Liability Annex. In part, this is due to legal factors. Although the legal basis under Union law for the EU to participate is indisputable, the Antarctic Treaty and its Protocol limit accession to States. Political reasons are also at play, however: it is clear that the EU’s Member States prefer the Union not to encroach on what they consider their sovereign domain (which can be taken quite literally in the case of the UK and France who maintain territorial claims in Antarctica). It is therefore unlikely that the EU’s relationship to the ATCM will change anytime soon.
However, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and its Commission (which I will refer to as “CCAMLR” to avoid confusion with the European Commission) are the exception. The EU has ratified the former and is full member to the latter. Moreover, the EU has been quite active in CCAMLR. Perhaps most famous has been its joint proposal with France and Australia to establish an “East Antarctic representative system of marine protected areas” (the EARSMPA-proposal). Unfortunately, this proposal’s progress has been frustrated over the last couple of years by Russia and China. Both countries seem to base their resistance on (pseudo-)scientific grounds. In the most recent CCAMLR meeting (report available here, see paras 6.19-6.21), Russia has argued that “the quality of available baseline data was not suitable”, while China invoked five general principles (necessity, certainty, measurability, accountability and rigidity) which more or less apply to the process of developing MPAs as a whole. Yet, the proposal as such and the actions that the EU has taken in support thereof have clearly demonstrated the EU’s ability and willingness to put its shoulder to the wheel of an ambitious Antarctic project.
Enhancing the EU’s role
Strong engagement from the EU does not only make sense, it could also benefit both the EU and Antarctic governance. The alignment of the EU’s external policy goals and the objectives of CCAMLR makes EU involvement in CCAMLR a matter of common sense. The Treaty on the European Union commits the EU to contribute to “the sustainable management of global natural resources” and to promote “multilateral solutions to common problems”. CCAMLR, as a multilateral organization dedicated to the protection of the Antarctic marine ecosystem, presents a means to achieve these EU objectives in Antarctica. It also presents the EU with an opportunity to demonstrate the global environmental leadership it frequently touts. Vice versa, the EU’s engagement in CCAMLR can contribute to CCAMLR’s sustainable management of the Antarctic ecosystem and the long-term stability of this multilateral regime. This remarkable concurrence of objectives even presents a compelling arguments for enhancing the EU’s role in CCAMLR. Whether an enhanced role is possible still depends on certain factors.
First, science equates to political capital in Antarctica. The EU needs solid scientific research, not only to back up its proposals, but also to demonstrate its commitment to the central role of scientific research to Antarctic governance. EU-funded research projects, such as the deep ice-core drilling project, Epica, and the network project, EU-PolarNet, are indispensable for the EU’s political standing in Antarctica.
Secondly, the EU needs to maintain a united internal front. In this regard, Brexit could considerably impinge upon the EU’s leverage in CCAMLR. The UK has great experience and expertise in both Antarctic research and governance, while maintaining strong connections with other influential States, such as Australia and New Zealand. The UK’s absence from EU coordination meetings could lead to a loss of information and influence. Ideally, the EU would find some practical way to prevent such losses from occurring, even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Furthermore, it is essential that the EU keeps its other member states on board. They too provide the EU with valuable input in terms of research, information and connections. In this sense, the cases brought by the European Commission against the Council before the European Court of Justice (CJEU) seem ill-advised. In two cases, the European Commission claimed exclusive competence over CCAMLR matters. The CJEU rejected these claims in its on sound legal grounds, but had it not, the European Commission’s claims could have hurt its representation in CCAMLR rather than reinforced it. Member States stay engaged in CCAMLR partly because it enhances their national prestige. Therefore, mixed representation in CCAMLR, for all the coordination woes it may entail, might have its advantages.
Finally, the EU needs to be willing to expend political capital on getting Antarctic things done. It took former US president Barack Obama’s direct intervention with Chinese president Xi Jinping and the former US secretary of state John Kerry’s direct intervention with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to convince China and Russia not to oppose the Ross Sea MPA. It might require similarly high-level engagements from the EU to move forward the EARSMPA-proposal, as Geneviève Pons and Pascal Lamy have recently argued in relation to the April EU-China summit. Such moves, preferably in concert with allies such as Australia, could not only push forward the Antarctic MPA process. It could also demonstrate the EU’s willingness to do what it takes to “shoulder its responsibilities in the governance of globalisation.”