UK Arctic Policy after Brexit: What Might Change?

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Pro-European Union protestors in London near the House of Parliament [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
This week may mark a turning point in the tumultuous process of finalising the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union when a long-delayed parliamentary vote is scheduled to take place on the exit deal proposed by the Conservative government of Theresa May. Even if the vote passes, which reports suggest is very unlikely, the ‘Brexit’ process may still be far from resolved despite the looming March deadline for the process to be completed. The possibility of a ‘no-deal Brexit’ remains a strong possibility at present, and in addition to the impact of such an outcome on British domestic politics, there is also the concern about UK regional (and border) policies with Europe, including the Arctic region.

Parts of the Arctic have already tangentially factored into the Brexit process in various ways. For example a compromise position on the EU withdrawal which is popular in some British political quarters is the so-called ‘Norway model’, which would involve London emulating the distinct economic relationship which Norway has with the European Union. Norway is not an EU member, but it is part of the European Single Market, the European Economic Area (EEA) and the Schengen Agreement on borders, (the UK is not part of Schengen at present).

The Norway model is favoured by policymakers worried about a ‘hard Brexit’ creating economic shocks throughout the British economy, but is opposed by others who point out that the model would also entail being subject to many EU regulations in exchange for staying within the Single Market, but without associated voting rights. As well, under the Norway option Britain would still be obliged to allow for free movement of EU citizens, a problem since restricting immigration was a major rationale for ‘leave’ voters.

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Stortinget (Norwegian Parliament) in Oslo [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
It was also revealed this week that the UK was in low-key talks with Canada about jump-starting a bilateral free trade agreement which could enter into force possibly as early as 2020, assuming an orderly British withdrawal from the EU. There has also been much support for the UK to potentially (re-)join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), which Britain co-founded in 1960 but left in 1973.

The four-party EFTA has two Arctic members Iceland and Norway as well as Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and while there has been some support for British admission to the EFTA, there have been some reservations expressed recently as well, including a pointed quote from a member of the Norwegian Høyre (Conservative) party, regarding post-Brexit Britain, ‘I think you would mess it all up for us, the way you have messed it all up for yourselves’.

The government of Greenland has also been watching the Brexit situation closely, given imports of Greenlandic seafood to the United Kingdom. Greenland is not an EU member, but due to its status as part of the Kingdom of Denmark is allowed to export products to Union members without tariffs, a situation which would not apply to the UK should a no-deal Brexit take place. The government of the Faroe Islands has expressed similar interests in preserving its seafood trade with the UK after Brexit.

Another potential side effect of the Brexit process is the question of maritime borders, which could also impact British relations with its Arctic neighbours. As was reported last week in Al-Jazeera, a no-deal Brexit might produce fishing boundary disputes reminiscent of the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970s and previously, when UK and Icelandic fishing boats periodically clashed over disputed fishing zones.

In terms of Britain’s overall Arctic policy after Brexit, there is the question of how UK research in the far north will be affected after the country disconnects from the EU and its own scientific programmes. The UK sought to clarify its stance on Arctic diplomacy with an updated policy paper published last year by the May government. The paper [pdf] included comments which affirmed that the Arctic would be a major component of post-Brexit UK foreign policy, including British regional cooperation as well as specific initiatives with key Arctic governments. The country was an original observer state in the Arctic Council, and has frequently touted its status as the ‘Arctic’s closest neighbour’ in regards to its geography.

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[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Also last year, the British government releasedseparate document [pdf] outlining its expanding strategic interests in the Arctic, especially in the wake of still-poor relations between London and Moscow. With Russia’s strategic policies in the Arctic being seen as turning more assertive in much of Northern Europe, Britain after Brexit would be under pressure to confirm its own capabilities of securing its interests in the Atlantic-Arctic region.

In Scotland, which has traditionally been more sympathetic to the EU and less optimistic about Brexit, the Arctic has become a notable means for distinguishing the Scottish government’s differing foreign policy views from that of London. Scottish policymakers, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, have been regular participants at Arctic Circle events, and Edinburgh hosted its own breakout Arctic Circle forum in November 2017. Although it is unclear whether Brexit may spark a push towards another Scottish referendum vote, it is very likely that should moves towards another vote take place, the idea of better connecting Scotland to Arctic affairs would be a factor in any such debate.

Even though much of the Brexit debate so far has focussed on its potential effects on UK domestic politics and economic affairs, as well as future British relations with the EU, it is becoming more evident that the Arctic will also be play a role in, and be affected by, the still-bumpy road and uncertain destination Brexit represents.