The EU goes toe-to-toe with Russia and China over Antarctica

The EU wants to protect 3 million square kilometers of the Southern Ocean.

by Louise Guillot·13 HOURS AGO·4 MINUTE READ
The European Commission’s effort to play a bigger role in the world is running into trouble even in Antarctica.

Ursula von der Leyen said she wanted to run a “geopolitical Commission”, and Brussels is pushing for the creation of two Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Antarctic Ocean. But the idea is running into resistance from China and Russia, which argue it threatens their fisheries and economic interests.

“We have been reaching out to Russia and China for many years to discuss our MPA proposals and from those contacts, it’s still not really fully clear to us what their exact concerns are,” Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius told POLITICO. “But we remain open to discussing such concerns with them.”

The idea, in play since 2014, is to set aside 3 million square kilometers in East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea for protection.

On Wednesday, Sinkevičius hosted a second ministerial meeting on the topic and secured support from South Korea, India and Ukraine for the EU’s proposal.

“The EU is here playing the role of a coalition builder,” said Pascal Lamy, a former European trade commissioner and former director general of the World Trade Organization, but added: “The EU today does not have the means to twist the arm of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or [Chinese President] Xi Jinping.”

The lack of diplomatic heft was clearly shown by the absence of both Russian and Chinese diplomats from the ministerial meeting.

“We’ll try to use all our diplomatic means … but the chances are very limited,” Sinkevičius said, adding he will raise the issue again during a call with Russian Environment Minister Alexander Kozlov in the coming days.

Despite pressure from Brussels, Moscow and Beijing aren’t shifting.

“The creation of MPAs entails serious restrictions on legitimate economic activities, including fishing and shipping,” the Russian foreign ministry said in an emailed statement. It added that creating new protected areas should be “based on science” and that Russia “is ready to work substantively with the authors of the proposals for new MPAs and is open to dialogue on their scientific aspects.”

The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Arguing for preservation
Scientists and NGOs say protecting Antarctica isn’t only good for biodiversity but can also help mitigate climate change.

Global warming and ocean acidification negatively affect marine ecosystems and “such change also carries significant impacts for the human communities and industry interconnected to these areas by research, fisheries, tourism, and more broadly by the global climate system,” a group of scientists argued in a letter sent last month to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the multi-country grouping aiming to preserve Antarctica’s habitats.

Lamy, who is the co-president of the Antarctica 2020 coalition gathering experts and politicians campaigning for the creation of the MPAs, said the stakes are high because governments will finalize a global deal to reverse biodiversity loss at the 15th Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity hosted by China next year.

Although the Commission hasn’t made much headway, Lamy thought there might be some room for movement.

Because it is hosting the global biodiversity summit — where a group of ambitious countries will be pushing to include a target of protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030 — Beijing might have a reason to shift position. “It would be difficult to chair this edition of the biodiversity COP while refusing a measure as obvious as this one for increasing biodiversity protection,” Lamy said.

Russia too has an opportunity to act, Lamy said, “because it will be celebrating [this year] the discovery of Antarctica by the Russians 200 years ago.”

He said he “find[s] it difficult to believe that the interests of a few fishermen are preventing Russia and China from changing their position.”

Link to Politico article