European foreign and security policy: the view from Scotland

Scotland Europe Initiative
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European foreign and security policy: the view from Scotland

December 7 2023, by Juliet Kaarbo and John Edward

Juliet Kaarbo and John Edward of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs examine the role of Scotland within the UK’s relations with Europe – and its own relations as a substate with the EU and beyond.

The constitutional questions over Scotland’s, and the United Kingdom’s, role in European co-operation, do not negate the fact that the external policies and actions of the EU will continue to be of importance and influence for every part of the EU’s only former member state. Scotland – whether the Scottish Government, the public and private sectors, and the population – all remain influenced by, and act upon, the UK-EU relationship.

When the Scottish Government looks at evolving UK-EU cooperation on foreign and security areas, it will, in many ways, have similar goals as the UK, and other devolved nations. Scotland, as any substate part of the UK, has the para-diplomatic goal of making international relationships work for it. Primarily, external relations of any substate actor are usually targeted in the economic domain: attracting businesses to the region; promoting goods and services produced in the region; attracting skilled workers, as well as tourists.

Along these lines, the Scottish Government has identified several areas of relations with the EU that are important specifically to Scotland, including: trade, investment, and innovation; the interests of EU and EEA citizens in Scotland (estimated to be 250,000); Nordic/Baltic Policy. Europe is singled out in the mission statement of the Scottish Government’s External Affairs Directorate. In addition to general responsibilities of enhancing international relations, being a good global citizen, and influencing migration policies, the Directorate specifically identifies protecting Scotland’s place and interests in Europe.

Scotland has economic and population-related interests regarding the EU and as with any engaged partner it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw a stark line between economics, on the one hand, and foreign and security policies, on the other. Foreign and security relations directly affect matters that are devolved competencies – health, education, migration, environment – as well as broader business and economic concerns.

Scotland also has direct interests in more specific aspects of the foreign and security relationship with the EU as this relationship affects Scottish defence and security in both a geopolitical and an economic respect. This is especially true for issues of energy and climate security and, given its geographical location, High North security including off-shore infrastructure, growing activities undertaken in the Arctic by China and Russia and other actors, and capabilities in space-related industries.

There are also  broader issues of international conflict and cooperation that affect Scotland (Scottish Parliament legislation has to be aligned with international treaties and conventions), including war, cybersecurity, human rights, international development, etc.) The Scottish Government has operated its own modest International Development Fund for over a decade. Scotland’s security and values are interconnected with such global concerns, like most all nations and regions. All of the devolved nations of the UK have interests in the UK-EU relationship, including foreign and security matters, which remain reserved powers.

The UK lacks institutionalised or regularised mechanisms for substates to have input to, or be consulted on, foreign and security policy so it is difficult for Scotland to feed into UK-EU cooperation at any direct level. It can, of course, affect UK relations with the EU by establishing its own relations with the EU, with EU members states, or EU sub-state regions – as it has done via Scotland House in Brussels since before devolution. In this way, it is affecting some intergovernmental relationships on its own in a manner typical of sub-state diplomacy where multiple layers of relationships occur.

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The picture is further complicated by more overt domestic politics. The Scottish Government is concerned about relations with the EU not just because of shared interests. Their salience is connected both to identity politics (envisioning Scotland as a nation – and ideally a state – with a close connection to European affairs); and as a legacy of the Brexit referendum (seeing it pulled out of the EU despite the vote outcome in Scotland). 

The Scottish Government’s stated goal remains independence and the wish to return to the EU independently (as laid out in a position paper in November 2023). This political question, and the uncertainties related to it, affect not only relations and possible coordination between Scotland and the UK, but also may affect the EU’s orientation, both towards Scotland and to the UK.

In summary, it is not possible to draw a stark line between foreign and security policy on one hand and economic and devolved matters on the other. Scotland inevitably has interests in all aspects of EU-UK relations, interests that do not necessarily line up well with the devolved vs. reserved division of competences in the current constitutional settlement. Likewise, those interests do not align any more completely with the politics of Europe which have evolved differentially for the Scottish and UK governments since 2014 and 2016.

Juliet Kaarbo was a speaker and John Edward a discussant at the Scotland Europe Initiative workshop on foreign and security policy, the ninth in the series. Juliet is Professor of International Relations with a Chair in Foreign Policy at the University of Edinburgh as well as founding co-director of Edinburgh’s Centre for Security Research. John is the first Head of Operations since the launch of the SCGA and a former CEO of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools as well as former Head of the European Parliament’s office in Scotland.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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Scotland-Europe Initiative

This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

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