With its first Arctic policy, Scotland seeks to deepen northern ties

Scotland will look to the Arctic for future economic growth — and distance from an increasingly messy Brexit.

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Scottish Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs Fiona Hyslop talks during an interview with Reuters in Brussels, Belgium, January 22, 2018. (Yves Herman / Reuters File Photo)

Citing close cultural and economic connections to the region, Scotland on Monday launched its first ever Arctic Policy framework.

More than a quarter of Scotland’s exports already head to Arctic nations, while more than half of its direct foreign investments already come from those countries, and Scotland has been increasingly engaged in the region in recent years. Now, Scotland hopes a further northward pivot can deepen those ties.

[Post-Brexit, Scotland looks toward a more Arctic future]

The new policy aims to position the nation as “a European gateway to the Arctic,” and “the international partner of choice for both our Arctic neighbours and other like-minded countries.”

The new document also comes against the backdrop of an increasingly messy Brexit, as Scotland’s Eternal Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop made clear in her remarks introducing it.

”Scotland remains an outward looking European nation, committed to positive relationships with both our European neighbors and those further afield, despite the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the EU,” she said.

Those arguing for a stronger Scottish pivot to the Arctic — including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during her attendance at Arctic events — have made the point that Scotland’s northern islands are closer to the Arctic than to London. So it comes as no surprise that Monday’s announcement came in Stromness, on Mainland Orkney. In addition to its proximity to the region, Orkney also has historical ties to the Arctic, including a past as home to ports for Arctic-bound British ships, and as a place where cultural connections to the Scottish islands’ Nordic past remain strong.

Still, Scotland may have some hurdles to overcome in its pivot to the North. Previous bids by nations south of the Arctic Circle have met with some resistance from Arctic countries. In releasing its own Arctic Policy white paper, China dubbed itself a “near-Arctic” state, a move which has prompted pushback, including the especially blunt rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Scotland’s new policy sidesteps this — or attempts to — by framing its engagement in the Arctic not as a forceful step forward into the region, but as a two-part offer to Arctic nations.

The first part amounts to an offer of collaboration, backed by the establishment of an Arctic External Affairs office. That might seem like a vague diplomatic nicety — except that Scotland has a lot of very specific things to bring to such a collaboration. While the policy document mentions education, research and first-hand knowledge of how to conduct economic development in far-flung rural  areas, perhaps none shows more potential for the Arctic than Scotland’s expertise in renewable energy. In Orkney alone, renewable sources such as wave and wind power generate more electricity than the island can use — nearly a fifth of the total United Kingdom demand under the right conditions.

Unlike other technologies, which can’t easily be transferred from points south to the Arctic, Scotland’s renewable energy knowledge could quickly benefit many communities in the region.

The second part of the offer couched in Scotland’s policy — an even more concrete step — is a fund to support these Scottish-Arctic collaborations. No immediate figure for this fund was given. The future of Scotland’s engagement with the Arctic will depend in some measure on such details. Still, the message the Scotland sends by releasing a fully-fledged, official government policy is clear; Scotland is committed to its turn to the North.

You can find the full text of Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework here.