Forget Europe: Scots scout warmer Arctic connections

This article first appeared in a Global Europe op-ed at EURACTIV.

BUDAPEST — Amidst Brexit, Scotland is sporting a newfangled cosmopolitan coat up north. In 2016, Scottish voters decided overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. As if weary from Brexit-induced fatigue, Scotland has shifted its political gaze somewhere else to trump English exceptionalism and, therefore, construct its own trope of actorness globally: the Arctic.

Through its inaugural Arctic policy framework published last autumn, the political leadership in Edinburgh is rightly subverting state-centric assumptions about what cooperation means in the Arctic region and fostering Scotland’s closer engagements within it. Now the Scottish government must translate its sleek rhetoric to concrete actions.

The snag is that Boris Johnson, anointed of late by The Economist as ‘Britain’s imperial prime minister’, has already bulldozed over a second independence referendum bid by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Even as the SNP scored a landslide victory in the last general election, Scotland’s prospects of rejoining the EU as a sovereign state remain illusory at the time of writing. 

Yet these political realities, unsavoury though they might be, should not stop Scotland from fashioning more mutually beneficial ties with its northerly neighbours. After all, Scotland does enjoy devolved powers in such areas as economic development, environment, education, culture, tourism, transport, and fisheries. And as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon once quipped, is the north of Scotland not ‘geographically closer to the Arctic than it is to London’?

In its Arctic Connections paper, Scotland sees itself as a ‘European gateway to the Arctic’.

Mainstream policy debates surrounding Arctic affairs are organised under what a leading political geographer refers to as the code of ‘circumpolarity’. Here, intergovernmentalism reigns supreme: assertive and muscular states claim dominance over the region via the Arctic Council, which is comprised of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US. Indeed, dealing with the sort of ‘flag planting and finger pointing’ often brandished within this statist forum remains a foreign policy prerogative of the UK government. For Scotland, that is just as well, given the octet’s organisational inertia and ineffectiveness, leading some observers to caricature it as a ‘paper polar bear’.

In contrast to the high politics dictating the Arctic Council’s travails, more informal and fluid regional constellations sprawl over the Arctic’s peripheries. Unwedded to the orthodoxy of state-to-state collaborations, such regions are sympathetic to subnational governments and nonstate actors in pursuit of joint solutions to boundary-spanning problems. These include the Arctic Circle, Barents Euro-Arctic Region, Nordic Atlantic Cooperation, and Northern Forum, among others. For example, the Arctic Circle prides itself as an ‘open democratic platform … interested in the development of the Arctic and its consequences for the future of the globe’. Since 2013, it has assembled partnerships with actors as variegated as the Icelandic Government, Google, and Greenpeace.

The polar north, then, offers comfortable space for paradiplomacy, which refers to the external actions of sub-stateentities. Although prominent Arctic academics caution that the ability of subnational actors (including Scotland and Québec) to shape the regulatory environment in the Arctic is marginal, an entirely different perspective emerges at the local level. Nimble subnational actors have proven themselves adept at applying networked governance approaches to collective action problems through pooled resources, programme financing, and pragmatic grassroots initiatives.

These alternative governance modes bode well for the kind of transnationalism envisaged in Scotland’s Arctic policy, which de-emphasises the predominantly interstate and interregional slants preferred by the UK and the EU. Despite their tacit acceptance of the circumpolar view, the British and European engagement strategies seem to have irked some Arctic Council politicians and experts who expressed legitimate concerns about the EU ‘rocking the boat too much’ and major global powers treating the Arctic as ‘another area of contention’

That said, Scotland and its northern interlocutors must promote cooperation in the Arctic based on the principle of global commons, not least because melting ice in the high north will have catastrophic planetary consequences far beyond the Arctic circle. The policy implication for Scotland is clear: champion scientific paradiplomacy. Indeed, Scottish expertise in the management of marine protected areas, blue carbon research, and cutting-edge technologies in oceanography immediately stand out as excellent points of departure.

Hosting the 26th UN climate change summit later this year in Glasgow, Scotland has a rare opportunity to amplify its Arctic advocacy in front of a global audience. Although Scotland’s current Arctic policy framework articulates sensible ideas across different sectors, more work is needed to truly harness its potential. First, the Scottish government must support the development of Arctic studies in Scottish universities in order to foster the next generation of Arctic experts. To this end, Scottish-Arctic university linkages should be encouraged. Second, the Sturgeon government stands to gain from building on its past engagement with the Arctic Circle and working with new partners in the region. Last but not least, the Arctic policy unit housed under the Scottish government’s external affairs directorate should be complemented by a dedicated outreach team tasked to build transnational ties with Arctic regions, subnational governments, epistemic communities, universities, businesses, innovators, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders.

Whether the powers-that-be in Whitehall would subsume these paradiplomatic gigs under that tired Tory imaginary of ‘global Britain’ remains to be seen. For now it is evident how the blinkered braggadocio of Brexit forces Scotland to assert its own pro-planetary and transnational stripes as a ‘good global citizen’, not only in Europe, but vis-à-vis the wider world. Mr Johnson can put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Photo credits: Matt Hardy/Pexels & Scottish Government/Arctic Connections






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