AS the UK pulls away from Europe against the democratic will of the Scottish people, Scotland is seeking new horizons for collaborative opportunities.

One such burgeoning relationship involves a shift of focus from southern dominance to northern reciprocity. The Scottish Government is actively fostering new and existing partnerships with our Nordic cousins, building on deep-rooted historical, cultural, economic, scientific and geographical ties with the Arctic region.

The message is clear and positive: the UK may be withdrawing from its nearest neighbours as it pursues an insular Brexit policy, but Scotland, in contrast, is open for business.

This interest in our northern neighbours will come as no surprise to supporters of an independent Scotland, with certain key policies of the SNP-led government adopted from Scandic models such as the hugely successful Baby Box initiative which originated in Finland.

This focus is not just restricted to government bodies. Writer and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch’s series of films with Phantom Power on the independent countries of Iceland, the Faroes and Norway have been vital in informing and inspiring our future aspirations as a progressive northern nation.

Riddoch argues that Scotland can do far better than the one-size-fits-all approach of the UK.

Have we got the confidence to follow a different path like these progressive Nordic countries? After all, we have much in common with these nations, including a push towards a fairer and more equal society with social justice at the heart of government decision making.

Although Scotland may not be an actual Arctic state, our geographical proximity means we face many of the same challenges and opportunities as these communities, not least in the serious threat from climate change but also in terms of connectivity and cultural heritage for instance.

Our strategic importance as the UK’s most northern nation cannot be underestimated, nor can our leadership on the expansion of renewables and our success in reducing harmful emissions be sidelined by our enforced EU exit.

With this in mind, the Scottish Government has seized the momentum and last autumn, after several years of in-depth and broad consultation work, published its own, distinct prospectus – Arctic Connections: Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework – promoting Scotland as the European gateway to the Arctic.

It was received most positively by our high-north neighbours and was hailed as the gold standard for development of a policy framework for this important area by the Polar Research and Policy Initiative think tank.

Focusing on devolved areas of competence, such as education, the environment, tourism and economic development, the prospectus seeks to build on cooperation, knowledge-exchange and policy partnerships between Scotland and the Arctic, to strengthen existing ties and build new links. In the spirit of collaboration, the Scottish Government has committed to establish an Arctic Unit within the Scottish Government Directive for External Affairs, with plans to create a special fund to promote Scottish-Arctic activities and projects.

Moves like this indicate just how serious Scotland is about exploring our own Arctic identity.

The National: Douglas Chapman at the Russian-Norwegian borderDouglas Chapman at the Russian-Norwegian border

At the start of 2020, the First Minister addressed an audience of business leaders in Oslo and reaffirmed Scotland’s commitment to strengthening our relationship with our sixth-largest trading partner despite our changing bond with Europe. Nicola Sturgeon praised Norway’s leadership on “human rights, equality and ethical investment”, and its ambitious and essential carbon-neutral targets.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon meets Erna Solberg to discuss climate change

In the coming week, MSP Aileen Campbell, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, will be speaking at the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromso, where this year’s theme is The Power of Knowledge, aptly focussing on building new partnerships across nations, generations and ethnic groups.

Back in 2017, I enjoyed attending the first Arctic Circle Forum to be held in Edinburgh and, as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Polar Regions, I went on to secure a debate in Westminster on the appointment of an Arctic Ambassador for the UK, in order to cement the importance of our relationship with the north, and to explore future trade links and collaborations.

Unfortunately, this positive approach was not appreciated by my then-colleague, the Minister for the Polar Regions, Sir Alan Duncan MP, and the ambassadorial role was rejected.

With its focus bound up with Brexit and securing new trade deals across the Atlantic, the UK Government has been slow to recognise the advantages of increasing its northern influence.

Germany and France are active stakeholders in the area, and the European Union has upped the ante on its Arctic strategy, with climate change, protecting the environment and sustainable development their three key areas of concern.

The scale of the Scottish Government’s ambition as a vital Arctic partner is in contrast to the UK Government’s antagonistic negotiation style with Brussels and cautious observer status in their UK-wide policy for the region. Indeed, Scotland was not even consulted or mentioned in the original British policy paper on the Arctic published back in 2013, with only some acknowledgement of our unique shared ties with the area and climate change achievements added to the post-Brexit referendum policy update in 2018.

Westminster does not have a good track record when it comes to ensuring that Scotland’s voice is heard. However, if the UK Government intends to curb our aspirational interest in the Arctic, they may find themselves out in the cold. The dynamism and innovation inherent within our new policy framework has ensured we are firmly in the hearts and minds of our Nordic neighbours.

Nonetheless, Boris Johnson’s damaging version of Brexit poses enormous risks for Scotland’s international partnerships. Alongside Euro-Arctic states, we have benefited greatly from schemes such as Erasmus+ which aims to build exchanges between academic institutions, youth organisations, local and regional authorities and enterprises to boost skills development, employability, innovation and entrepreneurship.

I have questioned the Prime Minister myself on the dangers of scrapping Erasmus with a less than reassuring reply on the matter.

Scotland will never close the door on Europe, but now that Johnson has got his way on Brexit, it is all the more important that we nurture new opportunities and strong ties.

It makes sense to look north in this way and refocus on more inclusive and equal partnerships than our historical ties with the UK allow.

After all, our northernmost islands are closer to Arctic countries than London, with trade to the area accounting for 30% of our foreign export market.

In this “arc of prosperity” that encompasses countries such as Denmark, Norway and Iceland, Scotland can nurture not only our own, unique Nordic identity, but our place at the heart of a progressive global movement based on shared expertise and co-operation. After all, it’s far better to be a valued partner in a new and dynamic land than the poor relation at home.