The Hellenic Parliament of Greece in Athens, North of Syntagma square. Photo: Gary Todd
The Arctic region stands at the threshold of unprecedented changes with profound socio-ecological and geopolitical ramifications throughout the region and beyond. Previously local challenges have nowadays become global, and non-Arctic stakeholders demonstrate an ever-expanding interest in engaging with Arctic affairs, much driven by the consequences of global warming and emerging geopolitical realities. Whether Greece is impacted by what happens in the Arctic remains beyond question. The question lies as to whether Greece should be interested in increasing its involvement in Arctic affairs and eventually developing a pertinent strategy. This policy brief aims at articulating Greece’s established relationship to the Arctic and investigates the main motives that may drive the shaping of a potential Greek Arctic policy in the future. After illuminating the status quo of the existing Greek Arctic engagement, the brief explores strategic pathways to overcome ongoing barriers and secure the state’s interests in the region.
Greece and the Arctic – From past to present
Although the northernmost Greek settlement, Ormenio is located approximately 1,700 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the interest of the Greeks in the high north has been expressed for over two millennia. It was Pytheas of Massalia, the ancient geographer, who became the first Mediterranean person to pursue a scientific expedition in the North Atlantic, and most possibly reached as far north as Iceland and the Arctic Circle.1) Following Pytheas’ voyage to the North, a number of early Greek thinkers extensively wrote about the region that later meant to be named ‘Arctic’, originating from the Greek word ἄρκτος (arktos) derived from the northern constellation of the Bear.
Disregarding this premodern genuine interest in circumpolar exploration, in the contemporary political history of the state known as ‘Greece’, or better ‘Hellenic Republic’, the Arctic has been at least obscure if not absent. Greece’s engagement with the poles has historically been minimal and the modern state lacks an Arctic strategy that outlines national interests in the region or willingness to contribute to Arctic research. Greece never held a research station in the Arctic (neither in its geographic opposite), nor did ever lead systematized polar expeditions.
Under ongoing geopolitical developments and given the major implications of the dramatic changes in the Arctic on the outside world, the state has more recently expressed an ever-increasing focus on Arctic (and Antarctic) matters. Greece is part of the European Union which is long now established as a significant geopolitical player in the high north, and many of its Member States, have already demonstrated individual strategic concerns in the region.2) In this state list, Greece’s Mediterranean neighbors Spain, Italy, and France are included, who witness a long historical presence in Arctic research and exploration and currently hold observer status at the Arctic Council, the most prominent forum for Arctic collaboration.
Greece, together with Switzerland, Turkey and Mongolia, previously applied for Observer Status at the Arctic Council,3) stimulated by the Union of Greek Shipowners (UGS), that acknowledged the growing value of polar shipping routes for the global maritime economy.4) Although the state’s application for an observer status was rejected,5) in a 2016 meeting with the Russian president, the former Greek prime minister declared the state’s persistent interest in acquiring observer status on the Arctic Council, with the latter aspiration being encouraged by Russia.6) In 2017, the Greek foreign minister reaffirmed Greece’s intention to eventually become an observer to the Council,7) but, as of the time of writing, an official submission has not yet been pursued. The UGS however succeeded to acquire membership at the Arctic Economic Council in 2018,8) paving the way towards the deeper engagement of the state with Arctic matters.
Climate change: From the pole to the Mediterranean
There is a variety of parameters linking Greece to the poles, of which climate change constitutes the most prominent. Anthropogenic climate change is directly responsible for the demise of sea-ice ecosystems, and the Arctic sea-ice decline is one of the most severe manifestations of the phenomenon. Much like the Arctic, the Mediterranean region witnesses a high level of vulnerability to global climate changes. The increasing warming-up of the Arctic has so far impacted the whole Europe and the Mediterranean region is one of the regions mostly affected by global warming, being warmed up 20% faster than the global average.9) The Mediterranean Sea is a hotspot of biodiversity, and climate warming is expected to further impact its marine ecosystems. Mediterranean endemic and native fish have started to move northward due to sea warming, while alien species have recently passed to the region through the Suez Canal and proved to be disastrous for local ecosystems.10)
With over 16,000 km coastline, and only 130,647 km2 land area, Greece is in its very essence a coastal nation, whose about one third resides at a distance of up to 2 km from the coast.11) Ninety percent of the country’s tourism infrastructure is also located in coastal areas. In its 2019 report, the IPCC predicted 0.6 to 1.1 meters of global sea level rise by 2100, if greenhouse gas emissions remain at high rates.12) That said, much of Greece’s infrastructure located in coastal regions will potentially be confronted with coastal erosion in the decades to come, with conspicuous environmental, economic, and societal effects for the local communities. Global coastal erosion is predominantly driven by changes in the poles, with the ongoing loss of the Greenland ice sheet and the melting of Antarctic glaciers being major factors. As additional derivatives of the changing climate, heatwave days have increased in Greece, along with forest fires and other extreme weather events (storms, floods) that have at times precarious repercussions for the states’ people and wildlife. The ever-drying climate in the Mediterranean is further estimated to adversely impact the Greek economy in the mainland, especially agricultural production in key areas such as Thessaly and Central Macedonia,13) further justifying the need for Greece to keep gaining footholds in international discussions on global warming and changes in the poles.
Towards a Greek Arctic Strategy
As the Arctic experiences rapid changes, an increasing need for international collaboration is generated, and many non-Arctic stakeholders have gradually succeeded to become an integral part of Arctic fora and dialogues. Should Greece also decide to formalize its will to engage with Arctic matters, certain premises however need to be met. In accordance with the Arctic states’ fundamental values, as listed in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration on the creation of the Arctic Council, a state’s approach to the Arctic shall comply with several basic principles such as the foremost respect of the sovereignty of the Arctic States; the support of local and Indigenous peoples’ traditions and cultures; the contribution to the economic development of the Arctic and compliance with topmost environmental protection standards and sustainable development principles. It is to be noted though that demonstrating interest in Arctic affairs, and substantially implementing it, constitute two different commitments. Against this background, three main areas of interest are hereby suggested to be developed as most promising in light of a forthcoming Greek Arctic Strategy: 1) Participation in Arctic Fora; 2) Research and Innovation; 3) Peace and Collaboration in the Sea
Participation in Arctic fora
There are many international pathways to the Arctic region and international legal developments such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Spitsbergen Treaty offer different opportunities and strong platforms for non-Arctic states to participate in Arctic governance. Greece signed the Svalbard Treaty already in 1925, while in 1995 adopted UNCLOS without any reservation. As part of the EU, Greece is further bound by the 2018 Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAOFA), while will also be bound by the forthcoming international legal instrument under UNCLOS on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ Agreement), which, inter alia, codifies how states conduct themselves in the Arctic high seas.
Not of least importance for getting a foothold in Arctic fora is a state’s approach to Arctic Indigenous peoples. Without having any Indigenous groups recognized within its national territory, Greece voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. The state could further assure its support towards the rights of Arctic Indigenous peoples by ratifying the 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169) of the International Labour Organization. Other EU states, such as Spain, Luxembourg and most recently Germany, have ratified the Convention,14) while others have strongly supported the Sámi people, EU’s only recognized Indigenous population.15)
Gaining a status as an observer to the Arctic Council would ultimately be the ideal testimony of the growing engagement of Greece in the Arctic region. Before returning though with an updated application, Greece needs to demonstrate political willingness as well as financial ability to contribute to the work of the Arctic Council and its Permanent Participants. Although the smooth operation of the Arctic Council has temporary been affected by the ongoing situation in Ukraine, it could be arguably asserted that, in a post-war era, the imperative need for perpetuating peace and collaboration in the high north may make room in the Council for additional non-Arctic observer states with a strong interest in Arctic dialogue.
Research and Innovation
The scientific evidence that the Arctic socio-ecological systems are transforming in response to anthropogenic activities is extensive. Due to the importance of changes for both the region itself and its people, but also for the benefit of the global community, over the last few decades, the Arctic has been of utmost importance to global scientific research. As the Arctic undergoes rapid changes with direct ramifications on the Mediterranean climate and ecosystems, another appropriate way for the Greek state to approach the region is thus by undertaking Arctic scientific research. Climate research projects are vital in the fight to tackle the effects of climate change in the Arctic region and currently dominate the strategic agendas of both Arctic and non-Arctic states. Lacking a research institution at Ny-Ålesund or in other Arctic key areas, significant preparatory work needs to be carried out by the Greek state, along with political commitment to engage with research and scientific dialogues. Transnational collaboration in the protection of the marine environment, safety of life at sea and expertise relevant to the work of the Arctic Council, are among the Arctic states’ major research areas, the development of which could further rise Greece’s credibility in Arctic fora if desiring to increase its Arctic presence in the years to come.
Doing research in the Arctic is however high-priced, due to the harsh climatic conditions and vast remoteness that characterize the region, along with the modern technologies required for conducting research in compliance with the needs of the region’s fragile ecosystems. In the aftermath of a decade-long economic crisis that drastically impacted Greece’s overall participation in international scientific collaboration, such initiatives necessitate planning in a very prudent way. To date, there have been several Greek individual researchers active in Arctic and polar scientific research in general, while a few institutions such as the Research and Innovation Centre in Information, Communication and Knowledge Technologies (ATHENA RC) have been at times part of Arctic collaborative research networks. However, coherent and institutionalized Arctic research efforts by state authorities remain so far underdeveloped and beyond the corresponding ministry’s current agenda.
Peace and collaboration in the sea
Another core sector that Greece should operationalize to consolidate its presence in the Arctic, is its immense sea power. Greece traditionally remains at the top of the world’s largest ship-owning nations, with a long tradition in commerce and navigation. At the thirty-second session of the IMO member Assembly in 2021, Greece was classified under Category (a), among the world’s 10 States with the largest interest in providing international shipping services.16) As a leading global shipping stakeholder, Greece should have a stake in the Arctic, probably the world’s most emerging region for future maritime commerce, thanks to the opening of transpolar routes connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the huge reserves of natural resources that the region contains.
While Greece’s vast interest in global ocean governance and maritime commerce is undisputed, as affirmed in the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration of the Arctic five littoral states, Arctic governance and engagement with Arctic issues requires the peaceful collaboration of states in accordance with international law standards in the protection and preservation of the fragile marine environment of the Arctic Ocean. The geopolitical reality in the east Mediterranean however reveals existing barriers that Greece faces regarding maritime collaboration, security, ocean governance, and foreign policy. The resolution of the enduring multifaceted disputes in the Aegean with the neighboring state Turkey will be the first milestone for the Greek (and not least the Turkish) government to ensure credibility in Arctic fora and demonstrate a strong capacity to collaborate and engage in dialogue on the basis of international law of the sea. Indeed, a first significant step towards the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in the Mediterranean was the 2020 delimitation agreement with Italy,17) crystalizing the EEZ boundary between the two countries and resolving longstanding issues over fishing rights in the Ionian Sea.
While, at first glance, one could argue that Greece has nothing to do with the Arctic region due to its geographical distance, the popular proverb «what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the region» has become more and more relevant for non-Arctic states over the last years. Following the poles, the Mediterranean remains one of the regions to be mostly affected by climate change in the decades to come, as multiple reports have emphasized. With local challenges of the Arctic becoming global, Greece would thus gain a lot by formalizing its engagement with Arctic matters. Towards the arduous task of building up an Arctic policy, some groundwork has already been done. The Greek government is committed to the global initiatives for the fight against climate change,18) and echoes the EU’s aspiration for a ‘Green Deal’, situated in the heart of the its Arctic vision.19) In support of the implementation of the EU’s Arctic strategy, Member States should however demonstrate individual willingness to engage with the region in their own national policies, and identify nuances that could render them important players in the north.
Paramount attention to the particular socio-ecological conditions of the region, support of the Arctic Indigenous peoples and continuous commitment to Arctic research and innovation are the sine qua non of developing an Arctic strategy. For a state like Greece without a polar tradition and missing an institutionalized unified approach to Arctic affairs, asserting its position on the Arctic stage necessitates strategic planning, economic investments and constructive collaboration with actors already established in the region. International law, maritime navigation, science and collaboration, and support of the region’s peoples and ecosystems may thus be key elements in justifying the formulation of a future ‘Hellenic Arctic agenda’.
This Policy Brief was originally written in Greek titled “Μια «Αρκτική Στρατηγική» για την Ελλάδα; Χαράσσοντας το Μονοπάτι από τη Μεσόγειο στον Πόλο.”, published in Vol. 3 No. 1 (2022): HAPSc Policy Briefs Series. The Greek version of the piece can be accessed here. The opinions expressed in this Policy Brief are those of the author alone, and they do not necessarily reflect the formal views of the Hellenic Republic. Research conducted for this piece was funded in part by The Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of Maritime Spatial Disputes in the Arctic (GEOSEAS) project of the Research Council of Norway no. 302176.