Explaining the “Arctic Exception” in European Union–Russia Relations: What is Missing?


  • Pami Aalto University Tampere, Finland


The European Union (EU) and Russia have a strategic partnership while also co-operating extensively in the framework of various northern regional institutions. However, their relatively low-key mutual relations in the Arctic have so far constituted an exception to this pattern. At the same time several actors, among them the EU, display increasing interest towards the Arctic. This article sets out to explain the “Arctic exception” in EU-Russia relations by scrutinizing the institutional environment of Arctic interaction. This examination will concern in particular how informal institutions—principles, norms, and rules—condition and shape the fundamental structure of that interaction. It is found that the institutions of sovereignty and great power management most significantly constrain the EU-Russia relationship in the Arctic and also narrow the scope of activities under the diplomacy institution. The trade and environmental stewardship institutions are essentially more integrative but cannot at present break the re-emerged set of more traditional institutions, in particular sovereignty and great power management. The article makes use of earlier research, documents, and policy-maker interviews and concludes by outlining what needs to change in the institutional set-up for the Arctic exception to cease to exist, and what co-operation formats from Europe’s North could consequently be emulated in the Arctic.

Author Biography

Pami Aalto, University Tampere, Finland

Pami Aalto is professor in the Institute of Advanced Social Studies, University Tampere, Finland (on a leave of absence from a Jean Monnet Chair, School of Management/Politics until the end of 2014).






Special Collection: The Arctic Council, the EU and Polar Politics