Lesley Riddoch: Options for a North Atlantic Scotland

Scotland has a lot in common with the Arctic Circle, in heritage,culture and sometimes the weather
Scotland has a lot in common with the Arctic Circle, in heritage,culture and sometimes the weather
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Hundreds of politicians, activists and civic leaders from Norway, Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia and the wider world will arrive in Edinburgh next week for a special Arctic Circle Forum entitled “Scotland and the new North”.

Clinching this conference – that will focus on sustainable development and climate change – is a feather in Scotland’s cap and recognition that although not independent, Scotland is already regarded as a “player” by our North Atlantic neighbours.

The Iceland-based organisers describe the Arctic Circle as ‘a network of dialogue and cooperation on the future of the Arctic’, whose members gather for an annual assembly in Reykjavik and across the world in special forums on Arctic cooperation. There have been forums in Washington, Singapore, Québec, Greenland and Alaska – and next week it will be Edinburgh’s turn.

Why Scotland?

Nicola Sturgeon did concede it might be an unlikely connection when she delivered a keynote speech at last year’s Arctic Circle conference in Iceland. “Scotland may not quite, geographically, be part of the Arctic Circle, but in our heritage, culture, policy approach – and sometimes our weather – there is much that we share.”

Claiming that Scotland is actually the Arctic’s closest neighbour, Ms Sturgeon told 2,000 delegates: “Our north coast is closer to the Arctic than to London. That’s why we want to play our full part in facing the challenges and harnessing the opportunities that stand before the Arctic right now.”

These are more than mere words – Scotland is a North Atlantic nation. We are connected through the oil and gas deposits that stretch north across the North Sea into the Barents and Kara Seas. Some of the greatest Arctic explorers like John Rae and Alexander Mackenzie came from Scotland – and these days, many of the staff on platforms in the Norwegian sector are Scots too. Our North Sea fishing grounds flow into the rich fishing waters of Norway, the Faroes and Iceland.

And though these High North nations are more physically remote than any part of Scotland, their infrastructure is generally better and their human populations proportionally larger than Highland Scotland – the result of concentrated and absentee landownership here and centuries-long under-investment.

As the whole of Britain shivers in a three-week cold spell with predicted temperatures colder than parts of Russia, the Arctic is clearly closer than many realise – and though global warming has had more catastrophic impact on human life in the Caribbean, no area has experienced more dramatic habitat change than the High North.

These are the nations with which Scotland must rub shoulders if we are to make real economic, ecological and social progress. Scotland is well ahead of the UK pack in meeting targets for climate change, green energy, water and air quality. But with the exception of renewable energy production, we are only fair to middling in green credentials in a North Atlantic context.

Of course, other energy-rich Arctic nations are also “cute”. Norway stands charged with hypocrisy for using hydro-electric power to satisfy domestic consumption, whilst continuing to explore and extract oil and gas from new fields in the North Sea. Iceland’s pioneering development of geothermal energy has encouraged the location of power-intensive aluminium smelters, which are associated with higher than average local levels of heavy metals, sulphur and fluoride. Nonetheless, the moral, energy and environmental dilemmas faced by these northern states are a closer fit with Scotland than nuclear-energy oriented England.

And of course there is geopolitics – not the aggressive, threatening stances that characterise Brexit talks, but subtler approaches by more cooperative and independent-minded Nordic neighbours. North of Scotland lie a cluster of small nations who pay 90-96 per cent of full EU membership dues and abide by regulations they did not create so they can have “no strings attached” access to the EU’s single market. Iceland and Norway opted not to join the EU mainly because of the same bothersome Common Fisheries Policy that prompted many Scottish fishermen to vote leave, only to see access to Scottish waters being openly dangled as a Brexit bargaining chip by UK Environment Minister Michael Gove.

Tiny Greenland and the Faroe Islands have also opted out of EU membership even though their “mothership” Denmark has been a member since 1973.

This kind of flexibility is fairly normal in other member states and though top-down, centralising Britain prefers a one singer, one song approach, the Danish model (proposed by Nicola Sturgeon last year for Scotland) may yet land back on the table to accommodate Ireland. If Northern Ireland stays in the single market post-Brexit, as Irish Premier Leo Varadkar suggests, the need for a problematic internal border would disappear. Of course, petty politics is likely to obstruct such a rational solution.

But the flexible trade and constitutional arrangements of Arctic and sub-Arctic nations present a clear challenge to the British government’s insistence there can only be one pan-UK framework for post Brexit trade and regulation.

There is also a challenge for Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has kept her options open regarding trade strategy should a chaotic Brexit and another UK election prompt more Scots to explore the escape route offered by Scottish independence. Would an iScotland apply immediately to become a full member of the EU or aim instead for the “halfway house” of the European Economic Area (EEA) whose members are Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Lichtenstein?

There are pros and cons with each scenario – but at least iScotland would have options. Britain has none. Unwilling to accept freedom of movement or the other three acquis communautaire required for single market membership beyond a short transitional period, and far too large to join the small-states-EEA without sinking the vessel, Britain has very few options to a hard Brexit, save creating an entire mirror image of EU structures and regulations at great expense. Such a “solution” would run the real risk of creating “zombie” institutions – not updated, monitored or subject to new EU directives.

Meanwhile, North Atlantic fibre optic cables could facilitate super-fast broadband and the development of a new data storage industry here. Intermittent wind from Scotland together with base-load geothermal power from Iceland could produce a powerful, new, green Northern energy network. These are huge engineering challenges – but one thing’s clear: as options close for Brexiting Britain, they are just starting to open for networking North Atlantic Scotland.

Speakers from Norway, Iceland, Scotland & Greenland will discuss climate change at a free Nordic Horizons debate on November 19. Tickets are available here