Mine in Kiruna, Sweden. Courtesy of Heinz-Josef Lücking / Wikimedia Commons
Deliberations between the two northern states could have significant consequences for European strategic autonomy.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid a state visit to Sweden between 7 and 9 September. Invited by the Swedish king, the most critical leg of Steinmeier’s trip was the final day, which saw him flying to the Arctic city of Kiruna. Coming on the back of his call for strengthening ‘the triangle of climate protection, economic competitivity and social balance’, the president’s first stop was Esrange, where he met with a number of Swedish and German space startups, followed by an afternoon stop at the Swedish mining giant LKAB, during which he was briefed on – among other things – the company’s automated and carbon-free operations.
The geopolitical significance of Steinmeier’s visit for both Sweden and Germany cannot be overstated. Home to some of the largest mining sites in the world, northern Sweden has gained additional geostrategic significance as US–China competition over the supply chain of critical materials heats up and Brussels’ push for European strategic autonomy gains momentum. This is because Sweden’s Arctic region has the potential to become a reliable supplier of iron ore for the German and indeed the wider European renewable, automotive, defence and hi-tech industries.
For that to happen, securing long-term investment in the region’s infrastructure as well as LKAB’s own operations, including R&D, is a must. And it seems that both Swedish and LKAB officials had this objective in mind when Steinmeier visited the company. Not only was he briefed on LKAB’s efforts to move the city of Kiruna without interrupting the company’s operations, but he was also given a detailed insight into the company’s future plans and the need for large-scale and sustained production of carbon-free iron and iron ore.
Minerals are at the heart of the fast-unfolding great power competition between China, the US and Europe
Berlin has adequate strategic incentives to be keen on assisting LKAB to achieve its goals. To begin with, it is important to keep in mind that there is a long – albeit shameful – history of bilateral mining cooperation between Berlin and Stockholm. Fast-forward to today, when minerals are at the heart of the fast-unfolding great power competition between China, the US and Europe, and having access to reliable sources has gained both geo-economic and geopolitical significance for advanced economies such as Germany. By investing in Sweden’s mining sector as well as infrastructural projects in northern Sweden, Berlin can lock in the secure supply of critical minerals for its industries, boost the prospects of the EU’s newly announced alliance for critical minerals, and take a pivotal step in reducing both its own and Brussels’ vulnerability to the geopolitical whims of Beijing and Washington.
Equally significant is the prospect of space cooperation between the two northern European countries. Over the course of the past two years, a number of countries, including France, Germany and the UK, have followed NATO’s lead in recognising space as a separate domain: that is, they have all established their own space commands. Today, Germany considers space as a ‘critical infrastructure that we need to secure’, and Berlin is determined to substantially enhance its space capabilities in order to be able to better defend its own interests while simultaneously contributing to both EU and NATO space initiatives.
For its part, Sweden sees a direct link between its contributions to the development of pan-European space capabilities and its ability to safeguard its commercial, environmental and geopolitical interests. This is why its state-owned space agency has been investing heavily in Esrange, aiming to convert it into a European hub for space technologies, the first orbital launch site for satellites in Europe, and a testing site for Europe’s first reusable vertical rocket.
Mining and space cooperation could prove pivotal to Brussels’ ability to establish an independent armed forces capable of carrying out complex missions outside the EU’s borders
Given the rising importance of satellite-based technologies for emerging digital economies, a more accurate understanding of climate change, and uninterrupted military operations, governments’ renewed interest in space technology should not be surprising. Meanwhile, an increased private sector and, more crucially, Chinese and Russian presence in space has led some analysts to warn of the spillover effect of space accidents triggering conflict in other domains. As calls for the development of a legal framework grow, Germany and Sweden’s mutual interest in ‘peace, security, democracy and the rules-based international order’ would make them natural partners for such an undertaking in both regional and international forums.
Individually, Germany and its various space-focused startups would benefit from having access to Esrange. Its vast landing zone and remoteness make it the ideal location for experimental rocket launches, since failure would not harm any human settlement, nor should noise pollution be a concern. For Sweden, meanwhile, its space cooperation with Germany would be complementary to its broader cooperation with NATO, as it could facilitate a degree of doctrinal and operational compatibility between the two sides. What is more, its strategy of aiming to become the EU’s space hub would not just enhance its strategic value in the eyes of its European partners, but it would fall rather neatly within the broader strategic objective of retaining a high degree of autonomy in the context of its relations with the EU: that is, to opt in and out of EU-wide initiatives at will.
The ability of a continent-wide military-industrial complex to produce the machinery of modern war rests on access to a reliable stream of critical minerals
More broadly, the evolving German-Swedish mining and space cooperation could have important implications for the EU’s push towards strategic autonomy, as well as the geopolitical significance of the Arctic region. With regard to the latter, their burgeoning cooperation reflects the fact that the Arctic’s geopolitical worth is not confined to fossil fuels and shortened maritime routes between global trading hubs. Rather, and perhaps even more importantly, the Arctic matters because it could be a source of critical minerals deemed essential for industries and technologies which are commonly associated with the fourth industrial revolution.
In relation to strategic autonomy, it is indeed ironic that the EU’s ability to accomplish this is now closely tied to the strategic deliberations of two member states that have so far been highly sceptical of such a move. Berlin and Stockholm are concerned that the attainment of strategic autonomy would ultimately undermine the EU’s ideal of being a ‘peace project’ or, even worse, become a vehicle in service of France’s military operations in its former colonies.
In the light of the US’s slow but steady strategic reorientation towards the Indo-Pacific as well as the recently announced AUKUS deal, however, the northern duo might be willing to substantially soften their stance on the EU as a defence and security actor. In this regard, their . This is because the ability of a continent-wide military-industrial complex to produce the machinery of modern war in large volumes and with a minimal environmental footprint intimately rests on access to a reliable stream of critical minerals, while space-based technologies for secure communication and air defence systems constitute critical prerequisites for successful military operations.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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