Strategy urged for 'High North' opportunities

Speaking in the Queen’s Speech debate on foreign affairs in the House of Commons SNP Westminster leader and Foreign Affairs spokesperson Angus Robertson MP criticised the UK Governments failure to take a serious approach to the economic and military opportunities in the Arctic and “High North” Atlantic.

Mr Robertson said an independent Scotland must capitalise on its proximity to a region which will be the focus of intense competition for mineral and energy resources as the ice cap recedes.

Speaking during the debate, Mr Robertson said:

“While the UK has failed to take a serious approach to the economic and military changes the melting ice cap will bring, Scotland must not.

“The seas north of Scotland are warming at an alarming rate with sea ice in the Arctic melting faster than at any time in the past four decades. During last summer the Northwest Passage was free of ice and this trend is set to continue and become the norm.

“These changes in Scotland’s back yard are significant and are accelerating. Our neighbours are at action-stations. The massive changes impacting on the High North and Arctic will become a significant feature of the years and decades ahead. While the environmental concerns are alarming there are also significant economic opportunities and geo-strategic challenges which must be tackled.

“These include oil, gas and mineral extraction and new international shipping routes. Up to 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves and 10 per cent of oil resources are believed to be located in the Arctic. With the opening of northern shipping lanes, vessels sailing between East Asia and Western Europe could save more than 40 per cent in transportation time and fuel costs by navigating the sea lanes north of Siberia rather than the southern route through the Suez Canal. Rising sea temperatures also mean that there are new fishing grounds.

“Norway, Denmark, Russia, Canada and the United States have all developed specific policy priorities for the High North and Arctic.
Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands consider this a top priority as do nations like Sweden and Finland.

“Given all of these developments, it is extraordinary that the UK Government are not taking this seriously. At last year’s International Maritime Organisation assembly, the UK did not even raise the massive challenges of the northern dimension.

“An additional important consideration relates to regional security, where finely tuned defence priorities provide the capabilities which secure stability and aid the civil power across the massive area which constitutes the High North and Arctic. Our neighbours are scaling up their infrastructural capacities in the region.

“Despite different relations to treaty organisations such as the European Union and Nato, the Nordic and Baltic nations are pushing ahead together as never before. This includes shared basing, training and procurement arrangements. For nations like Norway and Denmark in particular, deployability and reach within the High North and Arctic is a key consideration. This is not the case for the UK.

“Recently, the UK government mapped out its future priorities in a Strategic Defence Review a weighty 75-page report which doesn’t mention the northern dimension once, underlining that it is not an important focus for Whitehall.

“In addition, UK defence cuts to infrastructure and capabilities in Scotland means we will have a diminished ability to directly co-operate with our neighbours. Damaging decisions include the scrapping all fixed-wing Nimrod search and rescue aircraft. Air Force operations are ending from two out of three of the northern airbases.

“There are no appropriate conventional sea-going vessels based in Scotland at all. Current UK defence plans include the withdrawal of specialised amphibious personnel from the east of Scotland while there are no helicopters or transport aircraft. Even a cursory glance at the inventory of our neighbours shows their broader capability across all three services.

“Scotland cannot afford to take this approach. With preparations under way ahead of the independence referendum it is reassuring that these regional developments are influencing the thinking of the SNP Scottish Government.

“In contrast, no UK Prime Minister has made an official visit to our closest North Sea neighbour in 25 years which tells its own story about UK priorities.

“Constitutional developments in Scotland and significant environmental changes offer a real opportunity and imperative to properly engage with our wider geographic region.

“The time has come to rediscover our neighbourhood and the issues, interests, opportunities and challenges we share.”