Scotland's First Minister: We're closer to the Arctic than London

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First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon addresses the audience at Arctic Circle with Iceland’s former president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, moderating.

On Friday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon delivered a speech in an unlikely venue: the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. The event, the largest annual gathering on Arctic affairs, attracts delegations from the eight Arctic states of the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. But each year since Arctic Circle’s inception in 2013, officials from countries south of the Arctic have also used the assembly as a platform to position themselves as “near-Arctic” states. Or in Scotland’s case, the “nearest-Arctic state,” as Sturgeon proclaimed, to laughs from the audience.

“I’m going to claim that prize today for Scotland because the north of Scotland is closer to the Arctic than it is to London,” declared Sturgeon, famous for her role in pushing for Scottish independence during the referendum in 2015. “That explains why we increasingly want to build closer collaborations with our Arctic neighbors.”

Those Arctic neighbors seem to stretch far and wide. She described, “Scotland’s ties with Iceland are mirrored in our connections to many Arctic states today: Ancestral ties to Canada, and trading ties to Korea and Japan.” Notably, she placed the Asian states of Korea and Japan directly in the category of “Arctic states.” Since both South Korea and Japan have made showy presentations at Arctic Circle about their polar interests in recent years, perhaps all the posturing does pay off.

The Scottish First Minister also tried to shore up her country’s Arctic credentials by drawing on historical connections. She described, “Scotland and Iceland share ties that go back centuries. The early history of the Orkney Islands was chronicled in the Icelandic sagas more than 800 years ago.” More recently, she described, “In 1874, the national anthem of Iceland was composed in Edinburgh. Scotland also gave Iceland another anthem: your football supporters’ Viking chant.” Football proved a recurring theme in her speech and one that sat well with the Icelanders in the crowd, fresh off a last-minute victory the night before in a World Cup qualifier against Finland.

“Scotland may not quite geographically be part of Arctic Circle, but in our heritage, culture, policy approach, and weather, there is much that we share,” she noted, as heavy rain pummeled down outside. Sturgeon drew attention to how Nordic social policy has inspired Scotland. She referenced her government’s plans to imitate Finland’s practice of giving a baby box to new parents stocked with items needed to provide an infant with a decent start in life.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon meets with journalists at a press roundtable at Arctic Circle in Reykjavik, Iceland.
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon meets with journalists at a press roundtable at Arctic Circle in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Sturgeon also emphasized the shared interests of Scotland and the Arctic states in green energy. Scotland has the largest planned tidal stream project anywhere in the world, while the world’s largest floating wind farm is also being developed by Norwegian company Statoil off Scotland’s North Sea coast. “Scotland’s North Sea can sometimes seem peripheral to rest of world, but I think it’s wonderful that they’re now at cutting edge of renewable energy,” she remarked. The rumors currently circulating suggesting that industrial espionage and burglary may be responsible for the development of an ocean wave generator off the coast of China that closely resembles a Scottish prototype built years before underscore the country’s expertise in the sector.

Sturgeon called energy efficiency a “national infrastructure priority” and spoke of “big opportunities in areas such as renewable heat and developing a circular economy” – ideas that likely resonated with members of the Nordic Council in the audience, an intergovernmental forum that has similar goals.

Can Scotland pull a “Reverse Greenland”?

The issue on everybody’s minds, of course, was Brexit. Sturgeon avoided directly mentioning the loaded word during her speech. She instead said,

“We welcome the EU’s practical benefits. For all its imperfections, we also admire the principal behind it – and this gathering here today: We like the idea of independent countries working together for a common good. And we believe that on some issues – and climate change is a perfect issue – 28 independent nations working together can have a bigger impact than 1 alone ever can. People in Scotland voted clearly, by 62% to 38%, to stay in the EU. We are looking for a way to retain our EU membership and benefits.”

The positive parallels she drew between the EU and the Arctic Circle confirmed her dedication to multilateralism and dialogue. At a time when many of the world’s countries seem to be retreating into isolationism, the Arctic defiantly remains a region of international cooperation. Russia and the West continue to work together to tackle issues like pollution, search and rescue, and polar shipping, while unlikely partnerships have formed between countries like Iceland and China.

Unsurprisingly, in both the question and answer session and press round table that followed Sturgeon’s speech, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union dominated questions about Scotland’s Arctic strategy. The First Minister’s stance seemed to have softened since September, when she launched a second referendum on Scottish independence as a consequence of Brexit. At Arctic Circle, she offered, “I’ve been very clear since the referendum took place. My overriding objective is to find ways to protect Scotland’s interests in light of the vote. Make no mistake, those interests are very much at risk. Research, jobs, investment, trade with Europe and the wider world. There is a real and present danger to being removed from the EU and in particular the single market. We are seeking to work with the UK government to square the circle and allow the rest of the UK minus Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London to exit the EU.”

Greenland Foreign Minister Vittus Qujaukitsoq asked about the possibility of Scotland pulling a so-called “Reverse Greenland.” She quipped that the topic has become fodder for discussion in the “pubs and clubs of Scotland.” It may be hard to believe that many Scottish know about this quirk of history, when Greenland voted to withdraw from the EU in 1982 after the Kingdom of Denmark, of which it is a member, joined in 1973. But the historical precedent is still relevant. A “reverse Greenland” would entail Scotland remaining in the European Union while England leaves. “Reverse Greenland would not necessarily work,” Sturgeon cautioned. “There are obvious differences. Britain is obviously the larger part. It may be that none of these options work and we have to consider becoming independent again.”

If Sturgeon’s speech at Arctic Circle is any indication, an independent Scotland might very well attempt to strengthen its ties with other Arctic states. When asked in a media round table to explain the sudden entrance of Scotland into Arctic affairs, she said, “I wouldn’t say it’s sudden. We’ve always seen shared interests – you don’t have to spend very long to see that the issues are very relevant.” She cited climate change and energy as two issues on which it “makes sense for us to collaborate.”

Responding to a question about whether Scotland’s independent foray into Arctic affairs would affect Britain’s past attempts to position itself as an Arctic nation, as it did with much pomp and circumstance at Arctic Circle in 2014, Sturgeon answered, “The UK has been proactive when it comes to Arctic relations, but simply put, our Arctic neighbors are closer than London. When we come here, the perspective shifts. We’re no longer the periphery – we’re the gateway to Europe.”

The Scottish First Minister made one final attempt to distinguish her country from an England that is turning inward, sealing its borders, and perhaps even seeking to leave the EU single market as it veers towards “hard Brexit” under Prime Minister Theresa May. Sturgeon stressed, “Scotland’s a small country and has always been outward looking. We’ve spread ourselves over the globe,” she stressed. Now, it may be northward looking, too.

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