If Scotland were to go independent in the next few years what kind of foreign policy might it pursue and how might it best establish a new diplomatic service?
Given the rapidity of change in global affairs (the rise of China, a more assertive Russia, the impact of Trump, the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change,migration…), flexibility should be a key principle. Larger countries and groupings will continue to dominate the world stage but smaller nations such as Norway and New Zealand have shown they can also play an influential role.
Scotland will surely be willing to continue to play the role of good global citizen, building on what everyone hopes will be a successful COP 26 conference in Glasgow later this year. There is a long-standing, strong consensus in Scotland for supporting multilateral cooperation, free trade, conflict prevention, human rights and the rule of law.
Nations of course cannot escape their history or geography and in Scotland’s case this means that there is unlikely to be a sudden break with its three centuries of union with England, its closest neighbour and only land border.
But an independent Scotland will surely wish to chart its own course in foreign policy and one of its top priorities will be to join the EU. This will immediately show the world that it is heading in a different direction from the rest of the UK.
Scotland will also seek membership of other international organisations from the UN and IMF to the OECD and NATO. It will surely seek closer ties with its historic Nordic and Baltic partners. Whether or not Scotland retains the nuclear facility at Faslane will be a major discussion point for any new government in Edinburgh. Apart from the nuclear question, Scotland will also have to decide on the role and structure of its armed forces.
Europe or bust
But it is the EU that will dominate the landscape. The government in London has made clear that it does not wish to work with the EU on its common foreign and security policy (CFSP) and there are already indications that it may wish to diverge in other important policy areas. Given the increasing interplay between domestic and foreign policy (trade, climate change, migration), Edinburgh will have to pay close attention to how EU-UK relations develop as well as the evolution of the CFSP.
As an EU member, Scotland will be obliged to support that CFSP. Established three decades ago under the MaastrichtTreaty, and despite the difficulties of achieving consensus among the 27 member states, the EU has gradually developed common positions on dealing with China,Russia, Iran, the Middle East and many other thematic issues from climate change to disarmament.
But each member state is still free to conduct its own foreign policy and hence it is worth reflecting on the experience of other small states in the EU such as Denmark, Finland, Slovakia and Ireland. While staunch EU supporters, they have nevertheless managed to carve out their own separate identities in foreign policy. Two are members of NATO and two are not, reflecting different historical and geographic experiences.
All are outward looking, taking pride in their support for the UN, development assistance, and climate change. All have produced top notch officials serving ininternational institutions. Ireland alone has produced two of the most senior officials in the European Commission in the past decade. All are good at networking and leveraging their relations with regional bodies such as the Nordic Council and the Visegrad group or, as with Ireland, maximising its special relationship with the US.
Scotland should thus learn from similar-sized states and seek to establish its own niche areas of expertise. By hosting COP 26 in November, Scotland has the perfect stage to showcase its continued commitment to climate change mitigation, the circular economy and sustainable energy. It already has a good record. In 2019, Scotland became the first country to declare a climate emergency and subsequently amended its national climate change target to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. The Scottish Government was one of the first to set out a Circular Economy Strategy in 2016. With top-class academic centres working on sustainable energy, and resource use, it could build on this record with investments that will support net-zero and climate resilient employment, such as jobs related to carbon recycling, hydrogen technology, “green” builders and architects.
Conflict prevention is another area where Scotland could build on the experience gained in 2016 when it hosted a UN conference involving women from several Middle Eastern countries. Cultural diplomacy, with strong assets in tourism, sport, education and music, should also be further developed to help improve Scotland’s global brand. There will be other areas that should emerge from a broader national discussion on how Scotland should seek to develop niche capabilities in foreign policy.
A new diplomatic service
Scotland could also learn from a number of countries how to establish adiplomatic service. While the Baltic states essentially had to start from scratch, Slovakia and the Czech Republic had to divide the assets of former Czechoslovakia as did Slovenia and Croatia as regards the former Yugoslavia. In Scotland’s case, there would need to be a division of the UK’s diplomatic assets which could lead in some cases to co-location with England, co-location with the EU delegation or, the most expensive option, an independent property.
An increasing number of member states do co-locate with EU delegations around the world as it saves money and sends a clear signal about cooperation. Scotland will also have an opportunity to send officials to work in the EU’s external action service (EEAS) which has some 3,000 permanent and seconded staff in Brussels and over 150 delegations around the world.
By way of comparison, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia and Ireland each has between 60 and 70 diplomatic missions around the world plus an average of 25 consulate generals/trade missions. The UK has over 200 missions and employs some 14,000 staff of which 70% are locally engaged. No doubt many current UK diplomats of Scottish origin would seek to help establish a Scottish diplomatic service but it would also require hundreds of new home-grown officials.
An independent Scotland may be some years away but it is not too early to start thinking about these issues and developing the required expertise. There is little coverage of global affairs or EU foreign policy in the media, think tanks or inacademia. A little seed money from public or private sponsors could go a long way to remedy these defects.
Scotland should also develop its own niche areas of expertise, starting with the gamut of environmental issues related to climate change. Indeed, the aim for the coming years should be: ‘Scotland – the Green Capital of Europe.’
Further reading: Anthony Salamone, The Global Blueprint, Edinburgh Merchants; Colin Imrie, Independent Scottish foreign policy, Sceptical Scot; Daniel Kenealy, Scotland and the CFSP, SCER; Kirsty Hughes, Scotland’s European/International Policies, SCER