Tuath / Deas: A Scottish Arctic Policy Focuses on Local and Regional Opportunities

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaking at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, October 2016 [Photo via Arctic Circle]
After many years of building its Arctic identity through regional initiatives and Track II engagement, such as via the Arctic Circle Conference, the Government of Scotland went all in with its interest in the far north and released its first formal Arctic policy paper last week. The document not only demonstrated the Scottish government of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ongoing interest in deepening its ties with the Arctic states, but also reflected Scotland’s concerns and frustration over the perpetual shambles of the Brexit process, which this month became even more rampageous with a legal crisis forming around embattled UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Since taking office in July this year, Mr Johnson has so far presided over a widening political chasm between England and Scotland, with the latter being far less supportive of Britain’s departure from the European Union. Discussion continues around a possible second referendum on Scottish independence, (the first being in 2014 which resulted in a ‘no’ vote), which the Johnson government has vowed to block, while the Sturgeon government continues view it as an option, optimally before 2021.

Despite American bombast to the contrary, the line between Arctic and non-Arctic states continues to blur with the release of the Scottish Arctic policy, along with the recent publication by Germany of upgraded strategies in the region, as well as ongoing international attention to China’s interests in the far north,.

The Arctic Policy Framework was officially launched by Scottish External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop in Orkney, a set of islands in Scotland’s north with deep-rooted historical ties to the Nordic region. Orkney and its northern archipelagic neighbour Shetland, were both part of the then-Danish-Norwegian Kingdom before being placed under Scotland’s aegis in the late fifteen century. Both island groups retained a great deal of Scandinavian culture to the present day.

Other highlights of Scottish history in the Arctic which the paper described in its introduction was the legacy of John Rae (1813-93), from Orkney and an explorer of the Canadian Northwest Passage. The paper elaborated on Orkney’s considerable role in the operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company trading conglomerate in the Canadian north, as well as Scottish founders of the Northwest Company, a onetime rival of Hudson’s Bay, in 1779. Borrowing a page from other non-Arctic European states with long histories in the region, including France, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland, Scotland has been seeking to develop an Arctic identity via not only modern policies but also past contacts with the region.

Scottish flags
Nordic cross-inspired flags of Orkney (left) and Shetland [Images via Wikipedia]
The Scottish policy paper was noteworthy in its detailing of the multi-level approach which the government has taken towards Arctic engagement, ranging from the European Union to individual agreements with Arctic states to more local, people-to-people endeavours. Scotland has been a member of the EU’s Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, established in 2014 and has been committed to sustainable development and community-building in the European Arctic and sub-Arctic. Scientific, educational and research funding programmes including Erasmus+, UArctic, LEADER, and Horizon 2020 have also linked Scottish and Arctic interests over the past decade.

The policy paper was not reluctant to detail concerns that Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union may lead to a cutting of European research ties, to the detriment of Scotland’s Arctic interest. As the final deadline of the Brexit process remains set for 31 October of this year, the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ departure is very high, especially as infighting over the eventual status of the UK-Ireland border remains unresolved.

Ice fog St. Andrews
Ice fog in St. Andrews, Scotland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As with the British government’s first major Arctic policy guidelines [pdf] released in 2013, in a document which stressed that ‘The United Kingdom is not an Arctic State, but we are the Arctic’s nearest neighbour’, the Scottish Arctic policy framework also pointed to geographic proximity as a main selling point to qualify Scotland as an Arctic actor and stakeholder. Scotland is referred to as a ‘near-Arctic marine transport and logistics hub,’ and noted that the Orkney and Shetland Islands are closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, sits at slightly over 60ºN. In the spirit of ‘location, location and location,’ the document described Scotland not as part of the Arctic periphery but rather as a conduit to the far north.

From an economic viewpoint, the report made reference to a study from April of this year, Scotland: A Trading Nation [pdf], which identified many Arctic states, including Canada and the United States as well as neighbours Denmark, Norway and Sweden as emerging high potential trading partners. Scotland’s main assets, including oil and gas, shipping, tourism, fishing/aquaculture were described as highly relevant to the emerging Arctic economy, as is the potential for high-technology ventures including internet connectivity and space research. However, the policy paper vowed that economic activities would be tempered by policies to address climate change and other environmental challenges including maritime pollution, with a promise to better coordinate with Arctic actors in addressing these problems. For example, progress in the Nordic region on electric vehicles was cited as an area of potentially closer cooperation.

As a recent commentary in the Polar Connection explained, Scotland’s Arctic policy placed a strong focus on the sub-state level, including the development of rural communities and the specific issues of local economic growth, youth, and the issue of out-migration. The protection of indigenous languages, including Scots Gaelic, was another local issue about which Scotland would be seeking communication with Arctic actors. In short, Arctic engagement is being tied to the issue of improving living standards in the regions of Scotland which abut the Arctic.

The subject of rural and island development will also be the centrepiece of a panel at the Arctic Circle conference next month, sponsored by the Scotland government, and Scottish Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse will be hosting a plenary session at the event to further detail overall Arctic strategies. In November 2017, Scotland hosted a breakout forum of the Arctic Circle which stressed regional business development along with environmentally sustainable ‘blue growth’.

Lerwick, Shetland [Image by Peggy Choucair from Pixabay]
The policy document’s conclusion presented an ‘Offer to the Arctic’ to develop and strengthen connections between Scotland and the Arctic. Specific agencies were promised such as the introduction of an Arctic unit within Scotland’s external affairs ministry, and a dedicated fund for Scotland-Arctic awareness, but there were also calls to further improve Scottish representation at Arctic conferences and cultural ties. Methods of developing cooperation on environmental and energy issues as well as stronger linking of the Scottish north with the greater Arctic community were also recommended with a focus on education and knowledge-sharing.

However, an editorial in the High North News stated that what Scotland was seeking in return for its ‘offer’ to Arctic actors was unclear. Moreover, the question of Scotland’s future political status, depending on the still impossible to predict Brexit process and the potential for a future independence referendum, hangs like Banquo’s ghost over the entire question of emerging Arctic engagement.

Scotland’s Arctic policy is the latest example of governments on the Arctic’s periphery, figuratively and actually, seeking a greater voice in Arctic affairs as the region draws more intense global attention. While some non-Arctic states, notably Germany, Japan, and the UK, have placed a strong focus on the state level, as well as pointing to the Arctic as a strategic asset, Scotland’s approach differs in that it examines the opportunities for Arctic engagement on many distinct levels with a greater focus on the Scottish northern periphery while at the same time framing Scotland in its entirety as an Arctic partner.