Scotland, the UK and the EU in the Arctic: Strengthening Partnerships

By Polar Research and Policy Initiative

Dr Dwayne Ryan Menezes and Micheil Page

On Monday, 23 September 2019, the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s first Arctic Policy Framework in Stromness, Orkney. You can read the policy document here. To mark the occasion, Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI) will be publishing articles about Scotland’s Arctic expertise, interests and priorities every day for the next 14 days. Here is the first piece of our #ArcticScotland series.  


While the EU, the UK and Scotland are navigating the complex dynamics of Brexit to understand its implications on the three entities and their present and future interrelationships and interactions, one stage where the question of their future interplay rears its head is the Arctic region where the three have cooperated greatly in the past.

After the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security presented the European Parliament and the Council with their 2012 Joint Communication Developing a European Union Policy Towards the Arctic Region: Progress since 2008 and Next Steps (in which it also noted the UK’s participation in the Northern Periphery Programme), the European Parliament called for “a united EU policy on the Arctic, as well as a coherent strategy and a concretised action plan on the EU’s engagement on the Arctic, with a focus on socio-economic and environmental issues” in 2014.

Two years later, in 2016, the European Commission and the High Representative presented a new Joint Communication – An Integrated European Union Policy for the Arctic – which built on the EU activities and instruments developed since the 2008 Communication The European Union and the Arctic Region. The integrated Arctic policy drew attention to the fact that while three EU member states (Finland, Sweden, Denmark) were full members of the Arctic Council, seven EU member states (including the UK) were observers, and that the UK was one of the EU member states that had issued national Arctic policy frameworks recently. 

Indeed, the UK Government had produced its first Arctic policy framework Adapting to Change in 2013 and went on to issue an updated policy framework Beyond the Ice in 2018. In the latter, issued nearly two years after the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the UK Government outlined the UK’s extensive cooperation with the EU in the Arctic, from the UK’s membership of the European Polar Board and two UK stations’ membership of the European Commission’s INTERACT initiative, to the UK’s participation in the EU-funded ICE-ARC programme and other EU-funded initiatives such as EU-PolarNet, APPLICATE and Blue-Action. It highlighted the UK’s contribution to the EU European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), and its collaboration with the EU (TSG-Noise) and OSPAR (ICG-Noise) in monitoring the effects of noise on the marine environment.

In addition, the UK’s updated Arctic policy framework clarified that leaving the EU “will not diminish our cooperation with EU nations but will enhance the possibility for forging even closer ties with non-EU nations”. It also observed how Scotland shared especially rich economic, social and cultural links with the Arctic region due to its history and geography, and acknowledged Scotland’s commitment to addressing climate change, promoting climate justice, driving the transition to a global low-carbon economy, developing its own Arctic Strategy on devolved matters, and collaborating, along with Northern Ireland, with Euro-Arctic states through the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme.

In recognition of its shared history, geography, opportunities and challenges with several Arctic states, the Scottish Government itself has taken great interest in the Arctic in recent years. In October 2016, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon focused on Scotland’s Arctic interests and priorities in her address at the 2016 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland. In November 2017, the Scottish Government hosted an Arctic Circle Forum in Edinburgh which Sturgeon opened and where Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, announced that the Scottish Government would develop its own Arctic Strategy. In October 2018, Hyslop delivered a speech on Scotland: A New Arctic Strategy at the 2018 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, and in March 2019, she gave yet another at Scotland’s first-ever Arctic Day, hosted in Inverness by the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

In 2018, Scotland also started developing its Arctic Policy Framework, with a progress update presented at the 2019 Arctic Encounter London, hosted by Polar Research and Policy Initiative and the Arctic Encounter Symposium. The final Arctic Policy Framework is now published and was launched by the Scottish Government at the Orkney Research and Innovation Campus in Stromness, Orkney, on Monday, 23 September 2019. The official launch was hosted by the Scottish Government in collaboration with Orkney Islands Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, with Cabinet Secretary, Fiona Hyslop; Leader of Orkney Islands Council, James Stockan; European Manager of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Kateryna McKinnon; Project Manager of UHI’s Centre for Recreation and Tourism Research, Dr Sarah Mair Bellshaw; Director of Polar Research and Policy Initiative, Dr Dwayne Ryan Menezes; and Arctic explorers, David Reid and Dr Richard Smith, among its speakers. 

As it is Scotland that makes the UK the northernmost near-Arctic non-Arctic state and has been most visible in the Arctic international conference arena articulating wide-ranging, yet clearly-defined, capabilities and interests, and as the development of its Arctic Policy has been greatly encouraged and much awaited by its Northern neighbours, its Arctic Policy Framework is likely to receive considerable attention both within and beyond the UK. As Scotland’s Arctic Policy, furthermore, stresses the need for international cooperation with the EU in the Arctic to continue, it is of interest to observe the extent of this cooperation at present before drawing conclusions about how the UK Government could act to integrate and address Scotland’s well laid out concerns and priorities in its  negotiations going forward. 

Scotland’s Ties with the EU

First and foremost, Scotland has long-standing partnerships across the Nordic and North Sea regions through various European Territorial Cooperation (Interreg) programmes. Of particular interest is the Northern Periphery and Arctic (NPA) Programme, an Interreg programme supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), with equivalent funding from non-EU partner countries, in which Scotland cooperates alongside Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Faroe Islands and Greenland. The NPA Programme – encompassing a region characterised by “low population density, low accessibility, low economic diversity, abundant natural resources, and high impact of climate change” – seeks “to generate vibrant, competitive and sustainable communities through transnational cooperation” through four Priority Axes: 

  • Using Innovation to Maintain And Develop Robust And Competitive Communities
  • Promoting Entrepreneurship to Realise the Potential of the Programme Area’s Competitive Advantage
  • Fostering Energy-Secure Communities through Promotion of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency
  • Protecting, Promoting and Developing Cultural and Natural Heritage.

Of interest also is the North Sea Region (NSR) Programme, another Interreg programme – supported by ERDF – facilitating transnational cooperation between 49 regions in seven countries – Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK. The UK regions eligible include North Eastern Scotland, Eastern Scotland and the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, along with various English regions: Tees Valley and Durham; Northumberland and Tyne and Wear; East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire; North Yorkshire; South Yorkshire; West Yorkshire; Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire; Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire; Lincolnshire; East Anglia; Essex; and Kent. Again, there are four Priority Areas in this programme:

  • Thinking Growth: Supporting growth in North Sea Region economies
  • Eco-innovation: Stimulating the green economy
  • Sustainable North Sea Region: Protecting against climate change and preserving the environment
  • Promoting green transport and mobility.

Scotland secured EUR 6.8 million through the NPA Programme and EUR 12.1 million through the North Sea Region Programme in the last five years. These programmes have contributed greatly to resilience and development in northern Scotland, allowing for significant investment in and development of new research opportunities, entrepreneurship and connectivity with more remote parts of the region.  

One of the best examples of the value that emerges from these programmes is the NPA-funded W-Power, a  EUR 1.3-million scheme aimed at supporting and harnessing female entrepreneurship and offering gender-aware and gender-equal business support in sparsely-populated Northern and Arctic communities, and embedded in four work packages:

  1. Improvement of regional business environment
  2. Transnational learning
  3. Gender-sensitive coaching concept
  4. Innovation platform for new pre-start-ups

This represents a valuable contribution to parts of Scotland like the Highlands and Islands – the most sparsely populated region of Scotland, but that is still home to important communities and heritage sites, particularly the main Gaelic-speaking population of Scotland.

The North Sea Region programme has also enabled Scotland to contribute significantly in regional marine governance in the North Sea Region, described as “one of the busiest areas for shipping and exploitation of natural resources (oil, gas, wind, etc.) in the world, and contain[ing] unique natural reserves”. The rise in the number of shipping vessels in recent years, whether for fisheries or trade, necessitates that the region be closely monitored in order to understand what impacts anthropogenic influence may have. Scotland’s use of funding and partnerships through the programme have enabled it to play an important role in marine stewardship through underwater noise monitoring, understanding anthropogenic and industrial impacts and implications for European Protected Species such as Kemp Ridley Sea Turtle and the Harbour Porpoise, and the sharing of knowledge and technology across this transboundary frontier. 

Marine Scotland plays a key role in Marine Spatial Planning collaboration in the North Sea through participation in the Interreg-NSR project A North Sea Perspective on Shipping, Energy and Environmental Aspects in Maritime Spatial Planning (NorthSEE). The project consortium includes six national authorities – Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and the UK – and seven universities and regional authorities, with the Scottish Government (Marine Scotland) serving as the national authority for the UK. The NorthSEE project aims at facilitating greater transnational coherence in Maritime Spatial Planning and Maritime Spatial Plans and laying the groundwork for sustainable development in relation to environmental protection, shipping and energy. 

The focus on transnational and inter-territorial cooperation – of particular importance to stakeholders in rural and sparsely-populated areas in Scotland – also underlies LEADER Cooperation, a bottom-up, multi-sectoral, partnership-based approach to rural development which encourages and supports rural areas to network with rural areas in other member regions/states and come up with joint actions and share new solutions to common issues they may face. LEADER Cooperation serves as an effective mechanism to promote the development of and wider resource allocation to rural areas. It has been operational since the early-1990s and is implemented by over 2,600 Local Action Groups (LAGs) covering 54% of the population in the EU. In Scotland, the programme is supported by the Scottish Rural Development Programme and co-financed by the European Agricultural Fund for Regional Development (EAFRD). Over the past decade, the LEADER Programme has been extended to urban and coastal areas under the broader name of Community-Led Local Development (CLLD), designated under three additional EU funds:

  1. European Maritime and Fisheries Fund
  2. European Regional Development Fund
  3. European Social Fund

As a state that has a significant fisheries industry that accounts for a majority of trade both locally and internationally, as well as a rising tourism presence in the northernmost parts of Scotland, this programme has enabled a significant amount of development and investment into the Highlands and Islands and other smaller coastal communities in Scotland.

Also noteworthy is the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme – the EU’s funding programme for research and innovation for academic and research institutions. Scottish research and innovation has long been at the forefront in sectors of environmental policy and technological innovation, demonstrating excellence in the fields of glaciology, geomorphology, climate science, ecology, environmental remote sensing, oceanography, marine ecosystems and more, largely assisted in funding by the EU and having close ties to similar research being undertaken in the Working Groups of the Arctic Council. For instance, Scotland – through Marine Scotland Science and Scottish Association for Marine Science – participates in the EU H2020 Programme Blue-Action, a collaborative endeavour that brings together more than 120 experts to understand Arctic weather and climate and the wider effects this has on more distant locations in the Northern Hemisphere; research for the project is undertaken and consolidated around Scotland, Norway and the Faroe Islands (with particular emphasis on the Faroe-Shetland Channel).

Another EU programme in which Scotland participates alongside Euro-Arctic states is Erasmus+, which aims to build partnerships and exchanges between educational and training institutions, youth organisations, local and regional authorities, enterprises and NGOs to boost skills development, employability, innovation and entrepreneurship across Europe. 

As Scotland implements its Arctic Policy, it will be interesting to see how the Scottish Government and the UK Government navigate the complex realities of Brexit to sustain such cooperation with the EU in relation to the Arctic. As seen, even beyond the UK framework, the ties that Scotland already has with the EU, especially when it comes to the Arctic and Nordic regions, are strong and growing. Overall, Scotland’s cooperation with the EU has been valuable for many sectors and communities, as well as for the environment and for research and innovation. It is highly improbable that these connections will be entirely broken, and it is more likely that some form of linkages and cooperation will still be in place, albeit potentially in a different form. At present, while there is still scope for wider integration within or at least alignment with the EU’s formal Arctic policy, the most urgent challenge now is to ensure continued participation in EU programmes post-Brexit, which will be advantageous to Scotland, the UK and the EU. 

The Future of Scotland’s Partnerships

As the northernmost near-Arctic non-Arctic state, the UK is currently the northernmost EU state with Arctic interests, apart from Finland, Sweden and the Kingdom of Denmark (though Greenland is not a member of the EU) that are also member states of the Arctic Council. As the northernmost region/country within the UK, it is principally from Scotland that the UK derives that strategic advantage. Furthermore, as Finland and Sweden do not have direct access to the Arctic Ocean, save through Norway or Russia, and Greenland is not a part of the EU, the Scottish ports in Shetland and Orkney are currently the northernmost ports in the EU with direct maritime access to the North Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Scotland’s strategic importance is also evident in sectors ranging from fisheries and shipping to energy and tourism, and it is deservedly seen as the European Gateway to the Arctic. Within any UK Arctic Policy or EU Arctic Policy, hence, it only makes sense for the UK and the EU to ensure that Scotland’s voice is duly considered, Scotland’s capabilities and expertise duly recognised, Scotland’s economic and environmental priorities duly acknowledged, and Scotland’s interests duly represented and advanced.

The EU’s Arctic Strategy, for instance, outlines three priorities, to all of which Scotland has repeatedly pledged its commitment – and demonstrated leadership:

  1. Climate Change and the Arctic Environment
  2. Sustainable Development in the Arctic
  3. International Cooperation in Arctic Matters

The same holds true for the priorities of the UK’s Arctic Policy Framework. In this sense, Scotland’s Arctic Policy is perfectly reconcilable with both UK and EU Arctic Policies, and it differs only in the sense that it focuses more on Scotland’s Arctic capabilities, opportunities, challenges, concerns, interests and priorities.  

Scotland has already stepped up scientific engagement within the Arctic region in recent years through partnerships with Arctic and Nordic institutions and the EU, and it has already carved a role for itself as a significant proponent for action on climate change – highlighted by reductions in its emissions well beyond its initial 2020 targets. The ambition has not stopped or slowed, as the Scottish government has laid out bold policy commitments to reducing emissions and supporting innovation to aid the transition to a low-carbon economy. It is certain that, through its Arctic and Nordic partnerships, as well as its Arctic Policy, Scotland will be able to continue to develop its international cooperation with Arctic states. 

Moreover, with the Scottish Government articulating Scotland’s Arctic interests and priorities through its Arctic Policy Framework, produced not in a top-down and heavy-handed fashion, but in a bottom-up and democratic fashion that involved substantial stakeholder engagement and the preparation of a mapping exercise to which different stakeholders could contribute, Scotland’s official interests and priorities will no longer be a matter of speculation, conjecture or presumption. As a policy framework itself, while it will be the Scottish Government’s official position statement per se, it will also be much more representative of the full breadth of its purported constituents’ interests and expertise – and likely to be much more co-owned by them – than policies and strategies that may not have involved the same degree of openness, engagement and consultation. In this sense, Scotland has set the gold standard for the development of an Arctic policy framework.

Irrespective of what the final outcome of the relationship between the UK and the EU will be, it will be important for Scotland’s and the UK’s close cooperation with the EU in Arctic research and cooperation to continue, and the Scottish Government and the UK Government should make every effort to ensure that Scotland’s interests and priorities are at the heart of all negotiations. The UK Government’s commitment that leaving the EU “will not diminish our cooperation with EU nations but will enhance the possibility for forging even closer ties with non-EU nations” is stated clearly in the updated UK Arctic Policy Framework, and the UK Government would do well to pay heed to it and to ensure that Scottish stakeholders – research institutions, for instance – are able to benefit from transnational schemes of cooperation within the EU – such as the NPA, NSR, LEADER, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ programmes – and beyond long into the future, irrespective of if, when and how the UK leaves the EU.

The UK Government would do well to read carefully Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework and to make sure that the UK’s own foreign policy reflects the significantly greater importance assigned to the Arctic and Nordic regions in Scotland’s external affairs. Without an elevation of the Arctic in the UK’s foreign policy and, thus, an alignment between the UK Government and the Scottish Government in this regard, the UK Government would have only itself to blame if the UK appeared less of an “ever closer union” than the EU. The one area where Scotland and the UK are most clearly aligned is their commitment to climate leadership, which is welcome in the light of the recent announcement that the UK is to host COP26 in Glasgow in 2020. The UK Government ought to involve the Scottish Government at every stage of the planning and – in reflection of Scotland’s priorities – ensure that the Arctic receives the attention it is due. The UK and the EU, likewise, must ensure that cooperation in the Arctic can continue unhindered following Brexit for this is of greatest benefit to all parties, the EU, the UK and Scotland. 

As for Scotland, it must be congratulated for bringing about a welcome shift from the platitude-rich, detail-poor statements such policy frameworks tend to be. Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework – rich in detail and firm in commitments – is a breath of fresh air in this respect. It would do the Framework a disservice if it were to be reduced merely to a reaction against Brexit or construed solely through the lens of Scottish independence. The Policy Framework is much more than that: it is a historic document that provides a snapshot of Scotland’s past and present links with the Arctic, while enshrining its priorities and commitments for the future, and one’s hope is that the current Scottish government, and every successive Scottish Government, builds on – rather than undermines or forgets – the strong foundations that this first Framework has provided. As stated earlier, Scotland has set the gold standard when it comes to Arctic policy development.

On Monday, 23 September 2019, the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s first Arctic Policy Framework in Stromness, Orkney. You can read the policy document here. To mark the occasion, Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI) will be publishing articles about Scotland’s Arctic expertise, interests and priorities every day for the next 14 days. Here is the first piece of our #ArcticScotland series.  

Dr Dwayne Ryan Menezes is the Founder and Managing Director of Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI), a London-based international think-tank dedicated to Arctic, Nordic, North Atlantic, North Pacific and Antarctic affairs. He is also the Founder and Managing Director of Human Security Centre and Commonwealth Policy Development Centre, and Founder and Chairman of the Advisory Board at Think-Film Impact Production. Over his academic career, Menezes read Imperial and Commonwealth History at the LSE and the University of Cambridge, graduating from the latter with a PhD in History. Subsequently, he held visiting or postdoctoral fellowships at research centres at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and London. At present, he is an Honorary Fellow at the UCL Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London and an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Over his policy career, Menezes has served as Head of the Secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen in the UK Parliament (2015–present); Consultant to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth (2014–2016); Principal Consultant to the European Parliament Intergroup on the Freedom of Religion or Belief (2015–2016) and Research Associate to a UN Special Rapporteur (2013–2014). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Arts.
Micheil Page is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is currently reading an MSc in Global Energy and Climate Policy at SOAS, University of London, specialising in Arctic governance and policy. He also holds a BA in Development Studies and Geography, also from SOAS, where his focus was on sustainable development. During his time at SOAS, Micheil has been actively engaged in multiple environmental projects. He is Co-Director of UniSolar, the UK’s first student-led community energy enterprise, which in 2016 successfully crowdfunded for the installation of solar panels on the roof of SOAS and now focuses on expanding into projects at other universities across the UK. Micheil also served as the Student Union’s Environment Officer, where he focused on promoting awareness of various environmental issues and reducing the use of single-use plastic water bottles across the university. Micheil also works in the Energy and Climate Division of Agora. His interests and publications have focused on the various intricacies of British environmental policy, from coal to sustainable ocean management.
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