Angus Robertson: High time to join our friends in the North and face the Arctic challenge

Sea ice in the Arctic is melting faster than at any time in the past four decades and during this summer the Northwest Passage was open, a trend that will continue. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Sea ice in the Arctic is melting faster than at any time in the past four decades and during this summer the Northwest Passage was open, a trend that will continue. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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The UK has opted out of taking a serious approach to the economic and military changes the melting ice cap will bring. Scotland must not

THE seas north of Scotland are warming at an alarming rate. Recent studies show that the warming in the Arctic is occurring faster than anywhere else on the planet, and the average temperature in the region has surpassed all previous measurements in the first decade of the 21st century.

Sea ice has been shrinking, and the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet and other Arctic ice caps will contribute more and more to the rise in global sea levels.

The facts are sobering. Sea ice in the Arctic is melting faster than at any time in the past four decades. During this summer the Northwest Passage was free of ice and this trend is set to continue and become the norm.

These changes in Scotland’s back yard are significant and are accelerating. Our neighbours are at action-stations and Scottish Government ministers are thinking about the challenges as we approach the independence referendum. The massive changes impacting on the High North and Arctic will become a significant feature of the years and decades ahead. While the environmental concerns are alarming there are also significant economic opportunities and geo-strategic challenges which must be tackled.

These include oil, gas and mineral extraction and new international shipping routes. Up to 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves and 10 per cent of oil resources are believed to be located in the Arctic. With the opening of northern shipping lanes, vessels sailing between East Asia and Western Europe could save more than 40 per cent in transportation time and fuel costs by navigating the sea lanes north of Siberia rather than the southern route through the Suez Canal. Rising sea temperatures also mean that there are new fishing grounds.

Given all of these developments, one would imagine that the United Kingdom government would be taking this very seriously. Sadly it is not. At last week’s International Maritime Organisation assembly, the UK did not even raise the massive challenges of the northern dimension.

Amongst our neighbours the changing circumstances are however being thoroughly considered. Given the national priorities at play they are keen to ensure stability in the region, which necessitates ecological, economic, diplomatic and defence cooperation and understanding.

All of this explains why the countries adjoining the Arctic are taking the issues very seriously. Norway, Denmark, Russia, Canada and the United States have all developed specific policy priorities for the High North and Arctic. Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands consider this a top priority as do nations like Sweden and Finland.

Last week in Oslo, the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies hosted an event to discuss the recent white paper on the High North published by the Norwegian government. Participants included experts from Norway, Brussels and the United States.

Our neighbours’ multilateral engagement is extremely serious and they are working closely together. This has happened for decades through the Nordic Council of Ministers and Nordic Council, and has recently been widened to include enhanced bilateral and multilateral relations with the Baltic Republics.

Nordic co-operation is broad and embraces areas such as environment, health, energy supply, research, culture, education, IT, research and business advancement. There is a specific Arctic Co-operation Programme which works together with countries in the Arctic Council which was formed in 1998 with the signing of the Ottowa Declaration.

An additional important consideration relates to regional security, where finely tuned defence priorities provide the capabilities which secure stability and aid the civil power across the massive area which constitutes the High North and Arctic. Our neighbours are scaling up their infrastructural capacities in the region.

Despite different relations to treaty organisations such as the European Union and Nato, the Nordic and Baltic nations are pushing ahead together as never before. This includes shared basing, training and procurement arrangements. For nations like Norway and Denmark in particular, deployability and reach within the High North and Arctic is a key consideration. This is not the case for the UK.

Recently, the UK government mapped out its future priorities in a Strategic Defence Review a weighty 75-page report which doesn’t mention the northern dimension once, underlining that it is not an important focus for Whitehall.

In addition, UK defence cuts to infrastructure and capabilities in Scotland means we will have a diminished ability to directly co-operate with our neighbours. Damaging decisions include the scrapping all fixed-wing Nimrod search and rescue aircraft. Air Force operations are ending from two out of three of the northern airbases.

There are no appropriate conventional sea-going vessels based in Scotland at all. Current UK defence plans include the withdrawal of specialised amphibious personnel from Scotland while there are no helicopters or transport aircraft. Even a cursory glance at the inventory of our neighbours shows their broader capability across all three services.

Scotland cannot afford to take this approach. With preparations under way ahead of the independence referendum it is reassuring that these regional developments are influencing the thinking of the SNP Scottish Government. First Minister Alex Salmond has visited Norway on numerous occasions to discuss common issues including the planned electricity inter-connector.

In contrast, no UK Prime Minister has made an official visit to our closest North Sea neighbour in 25 years which tells its own story about UK priorities.

Constitutional developments in Scotland and significant environmental changes offer a real opportunity and imperative to properly engage with our wider geographic region.

Our neighbours to the north and east have already made a good start and work constructively together. We need to join them and play our part. The UK has opted out of a serious approach. We should not.

For centuries, independent Scotland had close diplomatic and trading relations with our regional neighbours. The advent of political union in 1707 diverted domestic attention to the development of the British Empire to the detriment of our links with Scotland’s immediate region.

The time has come to rediscover our neighbourhood and the issues, interests, opportunities and challenges we share.

• Angus Robertson MP is the Westminster SNP Leader, Foreign Affairs and Defence spokesman.