Lesley Riddoch: Never mind the Balkans, George

Lord Robertson’s post-independence nightmare ignores what Nordic nations have achieved, writes Lesley Riddoch

Nordic prime ministers Jyrki Katainen, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Jens Stoltenberg and Fredrik Reinfeld in Stockholm, in Stockholmlast month. Picture: Getty
Nordic prime ministers Jyrki Katainen, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Jens Stoltenberg and Fredrik Reinfeld in Stockholm, in Stockholmlast month. Picture: Getty

Will Scottish independence lead to the “Balkanisation” of Europe? Former general secretary of Nato, Lord George Robertson, raised the spectre at a recent Royal Society of Edinburgh conference and in a weekend letter to this paper clarified what he meant.

“I cannot see why Scotland’s separatists recoil at the entirely appropriate use of the word separatism, and why the word ‘Balkanisation’ is also too potent for them. The dictionary definition of Balkanise is ‘divide (a region or a body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups’. That seems to say it all. If the break-up of Britain was to become the model for tomorrow’s Europe, then our future will be bleak indeed.”

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By all accounts there was a sharp intake of breath at Robertson’s remarks. “Balkanisation” was coined to describe the break-up of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires more than a century ago and more recently to describe the violent breakdown of the former Yugoslavia.

An anonymous writer drew this Scotland/Balkans parallel in The Economist last year: “Twenty years ago, Yugoslavia was dissolving in blood and the world was gripped by the drama of the siege of Sarajevo. Now Britons are beginning to contemplate the Balkanisation of the United Kingdom. Absurd? Well … that’s what Yugoslavs thought before their own country disintegrated.”

Does anyone seriously think a peaceful referendum process in Scotland is likely to provoke hostility or violent secession here or anywhere else? Perhaps Britain’s skewed economic development and the incredible concentration of wealth and power in the south-east of England are greater sources of mutual suspicion, discontent and “secession” in these isles, as Margaret Cuthbert’s latest Jimmy Reid Foundation report demonstrates. You choose your parallels.

Familiarity with one bloody, post-independence scenario has coloured Robertson’s vision of the future so that hostility seems far more likely than co-operation between small neighbouring states.

If he looked further north, Robertson would see an entirely different scenario, where five Nordic nations are building on the joint work of half a century to create a radically different template for regional co-operation.

The Nordic Council was set up in 1952 – a full generation after Norway and Sweden parted company but just eight short years after Iceland opportunistically seized independence during German occupation of Mother Denmark, and Finland rubbed salt into Nordic wounds by backing the ill-fated German invasion of Russia. No-one would have blamed the Nordic nations for being huffy with one another. They weren’t. Indeed, the Nordic Council of Ministers celebrated the council’s 60th anniversary with a report that calls for a huge increase in cross-border co-operation.

It said: “All of the conditions for a third Nordic golden age are now in place. Major global geopolitical shifts are creating conditions in which it is both easy and desirable to work with your nearest neighbours. The world is becoming less Euro-centric. The US is turning its attention inwards or towards other parts of the world, and Asia – particularly China – is emerging as an increasingly important economic and political centre.

“In addition, the Nordic region itself is becoming less peripheral. The Arctic is in the global spotlight thanks to the lure of natural resources and new shipping routes opened up by climate change. The Nordic region increasingly serves as a link between Europe and Asia, be it for shipping, air or rail traffic. It has become a key part of European energy policy, especially since Germany decided to do away with nuclear power. Economics increasingly dominates political debate, and the Nordic model is attracting considerable international interest as a way of creating the conditions for a flexible and competitive economy combined with adequate welfare provision.

“The Nordic countries consistently top the international rankings for education and training, gender equality, innovation and competitiveness.

“Throughout history, neighbouring states and other major powers have sought to split the region. Now, nobody has anything to gain from stymying the Nordic region. Even Nato and the EU no longer constitute obstacles – in fact, quite the opposite. Within both organisations, the role of regional co-operation is increasing, while the distinctions between members and non-members are declining in importance. There is a growing need for complementary forms of multilateral partnerships and organisations that transcend the limits of the EU and Nato. Both the Baltic and the Arctic regions face challenges that need to be solved through working together at regional level.

“The peoples of the five Nordic nations share culture, values and a sense of affinity. This unique sense of community should not be taken for granted. Maintaining it requires wide-ranging cultural co-operation … to reinforce the popular sense of community.

“Under the current circumstances, the Nordic countries are not in need of a one-size-fits-all … federal state. Rather, it is important to develop new ways of working together at international level, which combine flexible solutions for specific policy areas with the lofty ambitions and democratic transparency of a federal state.”

Forgive the lengthy quote. But why couldn’t a post-independence scenario in Britain be the same? Indeed, why doesn’t Scottish Labour quickly hijack this model of five co-operating social democracies as its own vision for a highly devolved Britain? Why not encourage Scots to be part of the positive, active, optimistic Nordic world view instead of encouraging a fearful backward look at the doom-laden Balkan past?

The five Nordic defence ministers already co-operate on Schengen, joint procurement and military exercises, joint embassies and a joint cyber-defence network. They now plan a Nordic welfare index, joint Nordic climate targets and an international freedom of movement index.

These countries are about to head off into the economic, diplomatic and social stratosphere and we’re left having to consider the bizarre proposition that Berwick might become a post-independence Sarajevo.

Where there’s a will there’s a way. The will to work together in these islands – as devolved or independent nations – depends on mutual respect. The most worrying thing about Robertson’s confident prediction of post-independence apocalypse is the suggestion that any expectation of mutual respect in the UK is naïve.

How can that possibly leave Scotland or England Better Together?

• Nordic Communities report in English at http://www.nordichorizons.org