On 8 September, the Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) voted overwhelmingly in favour of a moratorium on deep-sea mining. That same day, the European Commission published its 2021 Strategic Foresight Report, announcing plans to step-up deep-sea mining exploration. This stands in stark contrast to the EU Biodiversity Strategy’s commitments to strong precautionary measures and the call of the European Parliament for a moratorium. The Commission’s ambiguous stance on deep-sea mining risks to cut deep.

In total, 81 governments and government agencies voted in favour of the IUCN moratorium motion and 18 voted against. Of the civil society organisations, 577 voted for and 32 against the moratorium. Of the European participants, government agencies or ministries of Italy, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Portugal and Romania all voted yes. Norway and Belgium were in a minority in rejecting the motion.

The negative votes from Norway and Belgium were unsurprising. Norway is seeking to safeguard its plans for deep-sea mining on its continental shelf, while the Belgian vote reflects Belgium’s sponsorship of an exploration contract in the Pacific held by Global Sea Mineral Resources (a Belgian company), and its continuing assertion that deep-sea mining can somehow be ‘sustainable’.

The yes vote from the German federal agencies was a positive shift, with Germany currently holding two exploration contracts in international waters. Hopefully, this indicates a change in its policy in respect of deep-sea mining.

France abstained from voting. With two exploration contracts in international waters, it is deeply involved as well, and recently adopted a National Strategy for exploration and exploitation of deep-sea minerals. At the IUCN Congress, President Macron announced that France would in fact accelerate implementation of its National Strategy. It is difficult to reconcile such a move with France’s green and blue leadership ambitions, and is all the more worrying given that French territories account for the second largest maritime domain in the world, after the United States.

The European Commission continues to seem very divided on the issue of deep-sea mining. In a joint letter to Seas At Risk last July, the Directors General of DG GROW, MARE and ENV reiterated the wording of the EU Biodiversity Strategy:

‘In line with the precautionary principle and the ecosystem-based approach, the EU advocates that marine minerals cannot be exploited before the effects of deep-sea mining on the marine environment, biodiversity and human activities have been sufficiently researched, the risks understood and the technologies and operational practices able to demonstrate no serious harm to the environment.’ Letter to Seas At Risk by Kerstin Jorna (DG GROW), Charlina Vitcheva (DG MARE) and Florika Fink Hooijer (DG ENV), 14 July 2021.

However, in its 2021 Strategic Foresight Report, the Commission seems primarily concerned with diversifying and securing  greater supply of raw materials, concluding that ‘… novel ways of sourcing, such as seabed and space mining need to be explored in accordance with internationally agreed principles and commitments.’

This pro-deep-sea mining stance contradicts the core of the Biodiversity Strategy. It also runs counter to the June 2021 European Parliament Resolution on the Biodiversity Strategy, which calls on the Commission and the Member States to support a moratorium on deep-sea mining. The Commission’s 2021 Strategic Foresight Report shows little or no vision in respect of reducing the demand for metals. This is despite the existence of a multitude of possibilities to dramatically cut that demand, as outlined in Seas At Risk’s Breaking Free From Mining report.

To show true leadership in ocean protection, the Commission must step forward with clear and unequivocal support for a moratorium in international waters. The EU should lead by example, banning deep-sea mining in its territorial waters and setting binding targets to dramatically reduce its material footprint. Those are the top priorities for immediate EU policy action, as outlined in the recent Seas At Risk report Europe at Crossroads.