Scotland, Brexit, Indyref2 and the Arctic

The Scottish Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse, stands with former Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, to promote Scotland’s Arctic policy framework (Photo credit: Arctic Circle).

Scottish government elaborates on Scotland’s first Arctic Policy Framework amidst Brexit uncertainty

Acknowledging that Scotland’s northernmost islands are closer to the Arctic Circle than they are to London, Scotland’s Arctic policy framework emphasizes that these connections go beyond just geographic proximity but also extend to cultural, economic, and political ties.

Released earlier this year amidst the building uncertainty of Brexit, the framework also speaks to the importance of the Arctic in signalling—in particular to the European Union—that Scotland remains committed to cooperative and collaborative international partnerships.

The Scottish Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse, emphasized as much in an interview with High North News on the sidelines of the recent Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland.  

“We recognize we are not in the Arctic region as such, but we are a gateway to the Arctic,” he said, “We have many of the same challenges as neighbouring countries and so it makes sense for us to work together.”

No place for Scotland in United Kingdom’s Arctic policy

Although Scotland recently released its Arctic policy framework, the United Kingdom (UK) has had an Arctic policy in place since 2013 when it released Adapting to Change: UK policy towards the Arctic—the first of its kind for an observer state at the Arctic Council.

The 2013 policy does not mention Scotland, however, and a post-Brexit update to the policy only briefly mentions the existing efforts and intentions of Edinburgh. For its part, the Scottish policy framework does not engage with the UK’s Arctic policy.

When asked about why the two Arctic strategies appeared to be speaking past each other, Wheelhouse highlighted that there was room for cooperation, noting that Edinburgh and London do work closely on some issues.

This is the case with climate change where, according to Wheelhouse, Scottish and UK ministries collaborate “to present a united front even though we’ve got political differences.”

It’s no surprise to me that there’s a UK document that doesn’t mention much about Scotland.
Paul Wheelhouse

Nonetheless, he remained unsurprised that the UK’s Arctic strategy did not mention Scotland.

“We would collaborate where we can,” he said before adding, “It’s no surprise to me that there’s a UK document that doesn’t mention much about Scotland. Unfortunately, this does seem to be a common phenomenon. But we do try and project our voice and make sure our ideas are taken on board, that our ideas are taken seriously.”

Devolved powers limit framework

Despite being comprehensive, Scotland’s Arctic policy framework contains some notable omissions. There is no mention of the preeminent regional organization, the Arctic Council (or its cousin, the Arctic Economic Council), for example.

During the plenary session co-hosted by Scotland and Switzerland, an audience member also pointed out that Scotland’s policy framework does not deal with any issues of hard security.  

Echoing his answer during the plenary, Wheelhouse emphasized in the interview with High North News the limitations of the Scottish government in this regard: “We’re obviously in a difficult situation in that we’re trying to respect our devolved powers.”

Any engagement with international organizations, as it currently stands, would have to be channeled through representatives of the United Kingdom as foreign affairs remain reserved for national ministries.

Brexit and Scottish independence

Of course, these limitations on Edinburgh’s ability to formulate an Arctic policy (and other policies, for that matter) would not exist if it were to secede from the UK.

Although Scots voted down independence in 2014, the Scottish National Party (currently in power) believe that Brexit changed the calculus. They argue that the anti-independence campaigners misled voters by promising that voting to stay part of the United Kingdom was the only way to remain part of the European Union.

An official statement from the SNP highlighted as much in 2016:

“After being told by the Tory Westminster government and No campaign in 2014 that the way to protect Scotland’s place in Europe was to vote No, we now find ourselves potentially being dragged out of the EU against our will.”

Indyref2 and Arctic policy

If Scotland were to become independent and assume the full range of powers enjoyed by sovereign states, there would be plenty of room for Edinburgh to grow its Arctic policy according to Wheelhouse.

“Entire areas of policy that are currently reserved would then become open to us. Much of trade policy is reserved at the UK level, aspects of transport policy, aviation, oil and gas, energy policy, defence.”

The chances of a second referendum (indyref2) happening seem increasingly likely. There is currently a referendum bill working its way through the Scottish parliament and it’s expected to pass by the end of the year.

Ramping up pressure, the recently concluded Scottish National Party convention ended with Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, demanding a second independence referendum next year. The Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, promptly vowed to prevent it.

Message to the EU and Arctic states

In light of the chaos of Brexit, Scotland’s Arctic policy is being framed as an important message to the European Union, European nationals living in Scotland, and neighbouring Arctic countries.

In contrast to the mixed messaging coming from London, Scotland’s Arctic policy framework is being framed as a way to signal that Edinburgh is still open to positive international collaboration.

It’s important to continue to say that we are part of a European family and a larger family of Arctic nations.
Paul Wheelhouse

According to Wheelhouse, it’s important “to continue to say that we are part of a European family and a larger family of Arctic nations. We want to be part of that—we want to be positive.”

Scotland’s offer to the Arctic

Questions of Brexit and a possible referendum aside, the current Scottish framework makes much of Scotland’s offer to the Arctic. Some have questioned, however, what Scotland expects to get in return.

To this, Wheelhouse stressed that “the framework itself is not a geopolitical move.” Instead, the framework is best understood as an invitation.

“It’s an offer from Scotland saying that we want to collaborate. We believe we have shared problems, shared challenges, and that we may be able to develop together to find collaborative solutions to these problems.”