Since Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party won another term in the Scottish Parliament elections in the spring, landing an additional seat, with increased share of the votes along the way, there has been a steady increase in diplomatic reach.
From a revolving door of foreign diplomats eager to connect with officials from both Edinburgh and London; to Ms Sturgeon holding talks with world leaders and climate change activists at the COP26 summit in Glasgow (some naysayers know her as “Elsie McSelfie” for her love of social media images), it is clear that there is a new focus on external relations before another planned referendum on independence.
The man who heads Scotland’s foreign affairs charge is the cabinet’s foreign secretary, Angus Robertson, the country’s de facto foreign minister. The veteran politician, a former Vienna-based foreign correspondent, is one of Nicola Sturgeon’s most loyal lieutenants and returned to front-line politics in the May elections.
“The Scottish government is very interested in the rest of the world understanding what is happening with Scotland and where we are, that we are open for business and that we are working hard to recover from COVID,” says Robertson in an interview with Euronews.
“And for those governments that are particularly interested in the future of Scotland, the future of the UK, they want to know what is happening in relation to the upcoming independence referendum.”
New independence referendum scheduled for 2023
Although most opinion polls still show that the majority of Scots are against independence and in favor of remaining part of the UK, the Scottish government’s plans for a new referendum in 2023 hope to be based on a trend that, According to Robertson, it shows a shift in the underlying numbers toward more support for independence, compared to the failed 2014 vote.
“When the option for Scotland is a pro-European EU member state, an independent Scotland or a Boris Johnson Little Brexit Britain, I think people will vote yes [to independence],” he says.
“We have a myriad of reasons why it is important to have good external relations and we hope to improve them when we become a sovereign state.”
Still, the “perfect storm” of continued national electoral success; a relatively weak political opposition in Holyrood; the damaging impact of Brexit on Scottish businesses; The scandal-prone government of Boris Johnson in Westminster; And the perception that Nicola Sturgeon has handled the COVID pandemic reasonably competently has not brought the large surge in support for independence that the SNP would have expected.
Robertson says the Scottish government has yet to pass legislation to prepare for the referendum and somehow get the UK government to agree to hold it, before moving on to substantive discussion to convince more people that independence is the answer. correct for Scotland.
He says the detailed debate on independence will help convince many of the estimated 20% of previous undecided or “no” voters who are open to the idea of independence to switch to the “yes” camp.
Enhanced presence in Copenhagen, opening of a new mission in Warsaw
Before stepping into the political and legal minefield of another independence referendum, the Scottish government is pushing ahead with its own foreign affairs plans for Europe.
Although in the strictest sense, matters of pure “foreign policy” are reserved for Westminster, there are many areas in which the Scots can operate more openly with international partners.
The Scotland House network, with offices in London, Dublin, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Washington, Ottawa and Beijing, brings together business development, education and cultural initiatives under one roof. It was first established by a Scottish government led by the Conservatives and has since been backed by successive administrations in Edinburgh.
As part of a new coalition partnership with the Greens, the Scottish government will upgrade its current business office in Copenhagen to the full status of Scotland House and establish a new Scotland House presence in Warsaw.
“There are things we want to learn and there are certainly things we can contribute and help our neighbors and friends in Northern Europe as well,” says Angus Robertson, citing green energy technology and transition as an area of particular interest. .
“We have ties that are very historic throughout the region and we have many reasons why it is important to work together now,” he adds.
“I think people are very pleased that Scotland is a proactive partner and that we have an excellent dialogue with friends and neighbors internationally, this is how diplomacy works. it is based on person-to-person relationships. “
Europe’s changing view of Scotland
Nicola Sturgeon’s diplomatic efforts have not gone unnoticed in European capitals, especially after the 2016 Brexit referendum, when a majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU.
A resounding electoral victory, with figures that would make politicians of any European democracy envy, and culminating in a guaranteed performance during COP26 in her hometown, crowned an outstanding year for the Scottish leader in international eyes.
“I think it is a strategy that is very well thought out, that this is the way to do it. This is the way to appear as a leader, to go on the world stage as much as possible, to create a sense that we are a nation, we are alone and we do not want to identify with this clown Boris Johnson. ”Says Professor Marlene Wind, director of the Center for European Policy at the University of Copenhagen.
Professor Wind says that Brexit “absolutely” changed the perception of Scotland by EU leaders, even if he doesn’t see any of them defending independence in public.
“I think behind the scenes there is a feeling that Brexit has really changed things when it comes to a country. [Scotland] who voted stay, who voted very, very confidently to stay in Europe ”, he adds.
But Professor Wind makes a note of caution when it comes to the planning and timing of another independence referendum, especially without overwhelming public enthusiasm.
“It is also very important not to push too hard because they already had a chance for independence, and you can’t keep having referendums where you lose.”
Scotland taking a broader approach to international affairs
Beyond the two new Scotland House outposts set to open in 2022, the Scottish government has also worked to develop engagement strategies tailored to bilateral relations with the US, China, Canada, India and Pakistan.
This year a joint review of relations between Ireland and Scotland was carried out in cooperation with the Irish government, the first of its kind; and an Arctic policy that considers Scotland’s role in the Upper North as a close neighbor to the Arctic.
A prominent role at COP26 was the icing on the cake.
“You are showing your country to the world on the most important issue,” says Stephen Gethins, a former Member of Parliament for the Scottish National Party and now a professor at St. Andrew’s University.
“Who better to show that than the leader of the country? And even more so when Boris Johnson and the UK have a very poor international profile at the moment, ”he says.
Gethins, whose book “Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World” was published earlier this year, argues that the UK would be more effective internationally if it “played the whole team” and included the Scottish government in discussions. policy, especially when agreements on issues such as climate change must be implemented and delivered by decentralized administrations.
“In many ways the UK is particularly centralized in terms of foreign policy,” he says, citing Denmark’s formal agreements with the Faroe Islands and Greenland as an example where semi-autonomous regions have a wide margin in international relations.
In the UK, he says, there is a “great deal of ambiguity” when it comes to foreign policy matters.
“And if there is ambiguity, there is opportunity.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism