The prospect of a Yes vote in the independence referendum in September heralds important possibilities for the northern region around Scotland, and for our neighbours, allies and friends.
No other part of the world is going through comparably extreme climactic changes, and a mix of challenges and opportunities will face decision-makers for generations to come.
If voters decide that Scotland should be a sovereign state, it is Scottish ministers and the Scottish Parliament that will shortly be tackling these issues. It will certainly be of the highest priority for all decision-makers, regardless of which party is in government.
Scotland is a northern European nation, with the Atlantic to its west, the North Sea to its east and the Iceland Gap to its north. Scotland is in a key position that is relevant and important to the regional and international community. Scotland is one of the most energy-rich countries, as both an oil producer and with vast offshore renewables potential. Scotland is in a critical geo-strategic location, highly important for stability and security.
Climactic changes are radically altering the Arctic and High North, melting the ice at an unprecedented rate and opening up northern trade routes from Asia to Europe. Mineral extraction and new fishing grounds are a huge potential economic driver and at the same time a concern for the protection of the pristine ecology.
With these competing interests, there is also a wish to maintain co-operative, rules-based international relations, maintaining stability and trust.
Hardly a week goes by without important news emerging that relates to the northern dimension. Last week, the first oil from a northern Russian platform east of Murmansk was delivered to Rotterdam. It was met by Greenpeace protesters, many of whom had previously been arrested at the Arctic drilling platform last year. A few weeks ago, the authoritative Centre for American Progress published a report stating: “In the Arctic, which is warming two times faster than any other region on Earth, the effects of climate change are staggering. Arctic sea-ice volume has shrunk by 75 per cent since the 1980s, and we are likely to see ice-free summers by mid-century.”
The report goes on to recommend that these environmental changes should become the key priority for the Obama administration as the United States takes on the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the body that brings together the eight nations with territory north of the Arctic Circle. Scotland’s direct northern European neighbours – Denmark, Norway and Iceland – are all members of the Arctic Council and have been taking the northern dimension seriously for a long time.
Nordic foreign ministers met last week in Iceland, where they discussed the northern dimension and security co-operation. At present, maritime patrol duties are undertaken through Nato, with two northern naval groups and fast-jet air-policing from Keflavik, outside Reykjavik. The UK has not provided vessels for a number of years, and has never contributed any aircraft. Even non-Nato Sweden and Finland are providing jets.
Meanwhile, Nordic neighbours are moving ahead with reform plans to “modernise, streamline and renew” their multi-lateral co-operation through the Nordic Council. This is being particularly focused on innovation, particularly in “welfare, education, creativity, entrepreneurship, sustainability and research”.
These are the developments that a sovereign Scotland will deal with directly soon after a Yes vote. It will come as no surprise to northern neighbours that there is an understanding of these issues in Scotland and a willingness to play a constructive role.
The independence white paper, Scotland’s Future, details its “cornerstone” international commitments, including “as an active member of the European Union with strong links to the Nordic countries and the Arctic”. It goes on say that the Scottish Government “intends that Scotland will also seek a closer relationship with the Nordic Council of ministers. Scotland has shared interests with our geographical neighbours in the North Atlantic, such as Iceland and Norway, and a common interest in the Arctic and High North”.
When it comes to stability and security, the white paper underlines that as a northern maritime nation, Scotland will have the capabilities and commitment to work together with neighbours and allies. We will have the conventional vessels and aircraft based in Scotland to take our responsibilities seriously. This was underlined in a speech given to the Brookings Institute by First Minister Alex Salmond in Washington DC.
Even with the limited powers of devolution, the Scottish Government has been making progress, recently launching a Nordic Baltic policy statement, jointly hosting a conference with the Norwegian government and regularly meeting with ministers from across the region.
The UK and Scottish governments signed the model Edinburgh Agreement committing both administrations to work constructively after the independence referendum result. During the 18 months between the referendum on 18 September, 2014, and Scotland becoming sovereign in 2016, the necessary arrangements will be made for transition to statehood from within multilateral organisations like the European Union and Nato. Continuity in the European Union and the single market and important long-standing Nato defence arrangements are in the interests of all members.
While not an Arctic State, Scotland will be the Arctic’s nearest neighbour. Scotland will seek to co-operate with the Arctic Council, with Nordic and other northern neighbours.
All of this will be an improvement on the slow and piecemeal approach of the UK government. In a commentary for the Scottish Global Forum, one of the leading experts in the region and a former UK diplomat, Professor Alyson Bailes, pointed out that it took the UK government until October 2013 to formulate a comprehensive statement on the issue.
It didn’t even warrant a mention in the last UK Strategic Defence and Security Review. Diplomats report that the UK has repeatedly failed to raise the northern dimension at meetings of the International Maritime Organisation.
In recent years, the Russian armed forces have been making renewed appearances off the Scottish coast, as they are entitled to do. Standard operating security procedure would normally involve advance UK monitoring and screening by vessels and aircraft. However, the first time the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier arrived off Scotland, there were no Royal Navy craft there, so the Ministry of Defence had to rely on Scottish fishing vessels for information. The second time the carrier visited, the Secretary of State for Scotland boasted of being informed by social media. Having been so repeatedly embarrassed, the MoD now issues photographs to prove it is doing the job it is supposed to do.
Whether it is formulating policy late, having it as a lower priority than necessary or scrapping key capabilities used in the north like Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the Westminster government has proven that it does not take the northern dimension seriously enough.
A Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum will be a vote to take northern issues seriously and deal directly with the challenges and opportunities. Neighbours, allies and friends throughout the region will see that Scotland intends to work well with them all, both bilaterally and multilaterally. We owe that to the people who live in the region, to everyone impacted by unprecedented environmental changes and future generations who will have to live with the consequences of today’s actions.
• Angus Robertson MP is the Westminster SNP leader, foreign affairs and defence spokesman