Nordic Council

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:02 pm on 30th October 2002.

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Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 5:03 pm, 30th October 2002

I first record my thanks to those who contributed to the attainment of the debate, in particular my colleagues Tavish Scott and Irene Oldfather, who cosponsored the motion. I thank also the consuls and Professor David Arter, who showed great forbearance in advising me on the Nordic Council. It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. There is to be a substantial event next month in the Parliament, but the precise anniversary was yesterday and it was celebrated formally in Helsinki.

I will make three specific points. First, I commend the organisation on all that it has achieved for its member states and regions and for what it has achieved internationally. Secondly, I want to see the lessons that we in the nations and regions that constitute the islands of Britain and Ireland can learn. Thirdly, I want to discuss the steps that we can take to ensure that our Government and our Parliament interact with the organisation and its constituent members.

Is it not an absurdity that centuries ago, Scotland's links with the nordic nations were greater than they are now, despite the fact that we live in a global and shrinking world? Many of the nordic states are the closest neighbours to great tracts of our land. In terms of demography, geography and topography, we have more in common with many of them than we have with other nations with which we have either a closer affinity or specific alliances.

The interaction between Scotland and the nordic states was substantial. There is a linguistic similarity between some of their words and words that are used here in the east of Scotland, such as bairn, kirk and flittin, never mind phrases such as gangin oot, all of which have their Scandinavian equivalent. Interaction between our states was significant. The Scottish diaspora was heavily represented, commercially and militarily, especially in Sweden and Norway, and names such as Hamilton and Carnegie were prevalent. Moreover, the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, which is dedicated to William Chalmers of this parish, is one of the principal universities in Sweden.

As Scotland began to look increasingly to London and to trade more with America, our links across the North sea were neglected for points south and west. We have an opportunity to recreate those links, which are based on firm historical foundations. I will return to that issue.

I want to put on record the Scottish Parliament's congratulations to the Nordic Council, which was formed 50 years ago. The Nordic Council brought together nations and regions that had suffered economically, had been ravaged by war and, in some instances, had been occupied. Its five constituent nation states are Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland and it contains representatives from the three devolved Parliaments in Greenland, the Faeroes and Åland.

The Nordic Council is an interparliamentary consultative organ that has advanced at a pace since its inception 50 years ago. In 1954, there was a passport union and, in 1956, reciprocal arrangements for social security were invoked. In 1971, a nordic council of ministers was formed, which was based on the principle of intergovernmentalism. The Nordic Council is not a parliament in that it cannot legislate and is not directly elected, but it has a strong parliamentary character—it has standing committees and cross-national party groupings—and its ability to pass resolutions means that it is a significant agenda setter. It can be argued that the Nordic Council is a precursor of much of what the European Union seeks. The Schengen agreement and the social union replicate what was done in the nordic states many years ago.

The Nordic Council has brought peace, harmony and co-operation to nations that had historical antagonisms, such as Sweden and Denmark. It has allowed a geographical area with significant demographic similarities to develop a common front on social and economic issues of importance. A great deal has been achieved, for which the Nordic Council is to be applauded.

In these islands, we have an opportunity to learn from the members of the Nordic Council. Although we might come at matters from a different perspective in the United Kingdom and Ireland, there are similarities—for example, the existence of distinct Parliaments and regional Assemblies that reflect geographic areas and demographic groups. The circumstances might be different in that everyone in the islands of Britain and Ireland is a citizen of the EU. Nonetheless, I believe that the co-operation and interaction that has been shown across the North sea is something that we can and should learn from.

As a Parliament and as a nation, we must create closer links with our nordic cousins. There are good reasons to do so. I indicated earlier that, geographically, the nordic states are among our most proximate neighbours. Socially and economically, we face considerable common challenges. A falling birth rate is as much of a problem in Sweden as it is in Scotland. Fishing and oil are of great significance, as they are in Norway and elsewhere. On that basis alone, there is merit in coming together to seek co-operation. For the reasons that I have outlined, I ask the minister and the Parliament to seek representation for our Government and our elected members on the Nordic Council.

There are specific sub-regional authorities within the Nordic Council. The Nordic Atlantic Co-operation—formerly the West Nordic Council—which comprises Iceland, Greenland, the Faeroes and Norway, exists under the Nordic Council's umbrella. In view of Scotland's location and our common problems with and interests in oil and fishing—which were addressed earlier today—we should seek representation in that organisation.

I am told by those in the know that the door is open. I hope that the Government and the Parliament will seek to step through that door. Membership of the sub-body and the principal organisation should be the method by which we begin to restore the historic links that we have allowed to lapse.

I congratulate the Nordic Council on achieving its 50th anniversary, but I hope that, in future, we will be able to do so not as bystanders, but as participants, uniting and co-operating with representatives of our near geographic neighbours and sharing common problems and a common purpose. We should acknowledge that our common interests are served by looking east and north, as well as south. We cannot change our geography, but we can change how we act and interact with our common partners in the North sea area.

Photo of Irene Oldfather Irene Oldfather Labour 5:10 pm, 30th October 2002

I thank Kenny MacAskill for securing the debate. I am pleased that, today and next month, the Parliament will have the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the Nordic Council's 50 th anniversary. I am aware of the Presiding Officers' work to develop relations with the council and the Executive's work to promote relations with Sweden. I join colleagues in welcoming those initiatives and I look forward to the seminar and the visit next month to advance further relations between the Parliament and the Nordic Council.

The debate and the work of the Parliament and my committee—the European Committee—show that Europe's newest and youngest Parliament is forward and outward looking. As a new Parliament, we have much to learn from the experience of others, but we also have much to contribute to a modern and vibrant Europe. We have much in common with nordic countries, not least our maritime heritage.

Kenny MacAskill spoke about co-operation. I will mention a project of interregional co-operation between my area—North Ayrshire—and children in Helsinki. With the help of Scottish Opera and funding from Europe, the project involved the commissioning of an opera called "Turn of the Tide", which is based on our joint maritime heritage and culture. The work was most professional and was performed by primary school children from Helsinki and from Irvine. Performances took place in Helsinki and in the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine.

The opera not only charted the history of conflict and co-operation between our seafaring nations and allowed children to enhance their language and performance skills, but allowed very ordinary children from very ordinary backgrounds to broaden their horizons, build their self-esteem and understand at first hand and at an early age the meaning of co-operation with partners in Europe. Members will agree that our children are our future, so it is appropriate to involve them in such projects. The Scottish Parliament information centre's briefing says that educational links are important to the Nordic Council's work and I fully endorse that.

Kenny MacAskill spoke about a commitment to finding common solutions to common problems and to sharing an understanding of where we have come from and where we want to go together in a peaceful and prosperous Europe. Those are the foundations of the European project. With its new Parliament, Scotland is well placed to be not only an observer of that stage and that future, but a participant. I look forward to welcoming to the Parliament in November our nordic colleagues. I am happy to celebrate the anniversary with the Parliament.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 5:13 pm, 30th October 2002

I echo Irene Oldfather's congratulations to Kenny MacAskill on bringing the issue to the Parliament's attention and I echo his congratulations to the Nordic Council on its 50th anniversary. I, too, look forward to the event in November, not least because the Norwegian fisheries minister is due to be present. John Farquhar and I met him in August when we visited Bergen with some colleagues to see salmon farming. The fact that the Norwegian fisheries minister will be in Edinburgh in November is timely, to put it mildly, given current events.

It is important to acknowledge—I am sure that the minister will touch on it—that the recess featured the successful Scotland in Sweden event, in which not only the Government but the Parliament played an important role. That is an illustration of the development of the links that Kenny MacAskill was right to talk about and to push for more of.

It is arguable that my constituency, given its geography, has a slightly different perspective on the issue from that of other parts of Scotland. Shetland has an historic link with our Norwegian and other Scandinavian neighbours. After all, for many years it was ruled from Norway and latterly Denmark. Indeed, some people might argue that Shetland continues to be technically on loan to Scotland. During the height of the 1980s campaign against the proposed massive expansion of the Douneray nuclear plant, the declaration of Wyre was signed by many Orcadians and Shetlanders. The declaration was sent to the Queen of Denmark, with a request to take back Shetland and Orkney, as that would aid the campaign.

The historic links have led to more recent ties, including those that were forged in the second world war when the Shetland bus was manned by Norwegians who were living in exile in Shetland. The "bus" maintained vital supply lines to the west coast of Norway and the Norwegian resistance who were fighting the occupying German army.

Other Norwegian servicemen were based in Shetland. Their legacy is a generation of Norwegian men who married Shetland women and settled on one or other side of the North sea. Many old memories were stirred and new links forged when the restored Shetland bus vessel the Hitra sailed over to its wartime base in Scalloway. For the modern generation of Norwegians who visit my constituency in some numbers, a visit to the Scalloway Museum is part of their itinerary.

As Kenny MacAskill rightly said, the Nordic Council has nurtured two of the main areas of nordic co-operation—culture and the environment. Both areas have strong relevance to Shetland. Our island culture has many roots in its nordic past. That is best personified in the modern age by Up-Helly-Aa, a festival that is a century old but that looks back to our Viking past. It is also possible to hear the echo of Norwegian, Scandinavian and Scottish music in the distinctive Shetland fiddle music of today. Most if not all Shetland place names echo their Norse origin.

Shetland's environment depends on the North sea, which we share with our nordic neighbours as well as with our Orcadian and Scottish neighbours. I have already mentioned the declaration of Wyre. It was natural that Shetland should turn to the nordic nations when we were faced by a threat to our environment from the Dounreay plant. Those nations feel as strongly as we do on that subject.

The Shetland campaigning group NENIG—the Northern European Nuclear Information Group—took its campaign against the Dounreay expansion to the Nordic Council and won its support. As the importance of the environment increases, further co-operation can only be a welcome factor, as Kenny MacAskill mentioned.

I look forward to seeing Scotland as a whole build better relations with the Nordic Council, working together on our common interests, particularly those relating to culture and the environment. No remarks about Scandinavia are complete without the excellent illustration of what I have been saying that was made by Jo Grimond. When, on his election, he was asked by The Times of London for the name of his nearest railway station, he replied "Bergen".

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 5:18 pm, 30th October 2002

When the Vikings popped across to Scotland for a bit of burning, pillage and rape, our history and, I suppose, some of our genes intermingled. Indeed, large parts of Scotland—the Western Isles, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland—were until relatively recently Scandinavian. Many of our place names retain their Scandinavian origins.

The process was two-way. People need only go to Stockholm and look at the names of the noble families in the Riddarholmskyrkan to see that many of them originate from the Scots generals who fought for Gustavus Adolphus. Indeed, it is possible to this day to see there the colours and trophies of the Scots regiments.

Go to Piikiö in Finland, where as early as 1580 a Scot—one William Reid—called on the house of a bailiff with 14 armed Scottish horsemen. Go to Copenhagen or Bergen and see the houses of the Scots merchants. Go to Iceland or the Faeroes and see where the Celtic monks settled the land. Go to Mariehamn in Åland and see the ships that Scots built to ply the Baltic trade.

History has a habit of repeating itself. As Europe's centre of gravity moves to the north-east, so too do our links with the nordic countries. The long-established presence and activity of their consulates in Scotland is proof that they value us and our input on common issues such as fishing, energy, the environment and our shared peripherality.

I will make only three brief points. First, although conflict within the nordic countries is unthinkable today, that situation was not always so. There were wars between the Scandinavian countries and, as late as 1920, Finland and Sweden very nearly went to war over the status of the Åland islands. Today, Åland is demilitarised, as is Spitzbergen. I wonder whether there is a model here that the British-Irish Council could consider in relation to Northern Ireland, where the conscious removal of all weaponry along nordic lines might become a political goal.

Secondly, no nordic country has lost any sense of identity within the wider union. Although there has been a passport union since 1974, a common labour market and a common convention on social security, diversity—the spark of life—still exists within that unity. Indeed, John Farquhar Munro, who is introducing proposals on Gaelic, might remember that all small linguistic groups in the nordic union can address the union in their own language, be it Faeroese, Inuit or even Saami. Furthermore, if we asked any Norwegian whether he would like to roll back history to before 1905 and become a Swedish citizen again, we would get a very dusty answer.

Thirdly, the nordic union has been most successful when it has dealt with business from the bottom up and when politicians have encouraged trade unions, professional organisations, teachers and health workers to co-operate across frontiers. It has also been successful where practical programmes such as Nordjob, Nordpraktik and Nordplus have been introduced.

I give the chamber an example from my own experience with the International Red Cross. When disaster or war strikes, the first in the field are always the nordics. In work where there is so much unnecessary duplication, their Red Cross societies work to common procurement standards and plans—one has responsibility for the field hospital, another for emergency supplies, another for accommodation and so on. That is only plain common sense. We the Scots, the English, the Welsh, the Manxmen and the Channel islanders could do much the same if we also invested in new institutional architecture that is based on our respective strengths.

The words of Michael Collins are appropriate both to the nordic union and to a future expanded council of the isles. He said:

"Free association on all matters should naturally be the common concern of nations living so closely together".

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 5:22 pm, 30th October 2002

I congratulate Kenny MacAskill on securing the debate and I, too, offer my congratulations to the Nordic Council on its anniversary.

My experience of nordic matters was limited until my late teens to the Swedish expression "Jag älskar dig". It means "I love you", which is quite useful. I worked later for some months during a winter in the Faeroes and it was that experience that came to mind when I was firming up my opinion of the link between Shetland, Orkney and the Faeroes. One could see that the populations and their actions were closely related.

It is alleged that the name of my home town of Tain comes from the Viking for meeting place—althing or thingwald, which also links to Dingwall. As one goes further north from Tain, through the east coast of Sutherland and into the county of Caithness, one will see Highland areas of Scotland that are very nordic. History runs all the way through it. One thinks of the Orkneyinga saga, the earls of Orkney and Caithness and even of a little farm near Dornoch called Cyderhall, which is a corruption of the Norse for Sigurd's Howe, referring to Earl Sigurd the Powerful. Almost every place name in Caithness comes from Viking or nordic languages.

I have always found it fascinating that there is a sharp line boundary to the nordic area of Caithness. After driving from the village of Reay towards Bettyhill along the north coast and just into Sutherland, one can see that two cultures are right up against each other—the dialect changes in a short space of time. One can still see in the print of the map that influence, about which George Reid talked so eloquently.

Everyone from Caithness would endorse completely what Kenny MacAskill said. We see a strong community of interest with the nordic regions. We also see vast opportunities for tourism and culture. When those are linked to the environmental interest, one can achieve a great deal.

We used to have a successful festival in Caithness—I am sure that John Farquhar Munro, Tavish Scott and Peter Peacock will remember the northlands festival. Great parties of children came to it from Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Faeroes and Iceland. The festival represented a linking of hands across the ocean. Sadly, that festival has fallen away but, by engaging across the sunlit northern seas as Kenny MacAskill suggests, we could breathe new life into what happened in the past. In that way, we could kick-start the culture of the north.

George Reid suggested that the idea of diversity is in no way impaired by people linking together. He is absolutely right. Diversity, like the facets of a diamond, is one of the great attractions of the world. As we become fed up with a homogenised and boring culture where all we have are Big Macs, we seek out something better and different. I commend the motion to the chamber.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 5:26 pm, 30th October 2002

I am pleased to support and endorse the motion proposed by Kenny MacAskill, particularly where it concerns the development of closer political ties with the Nordic Council and between the Scottish Executive and the nordic council of ministers.

Geographically, Scotland is on the periphery of the European Union. In nordic terms—taking into account Iceland and the Faroe islands—it is pretty central.

I admit that I had never visited the Orkney or Shetland islands before I became a Highlands and Islands list member, although I am sure the minister had. I have enjoyed the privilege of visiting the northern isles to discover that so much of the culture, the language, the traditions, even the law, is more nordic than Scottish. Others have mentioned the pronunciations, the place names, the street names, the accents and the dialect.

On my most recent visit to Shetland, we attended a concert by the Shetland Fiddlers. I thought I would recognise all the tunes—no way, they were quite different. I also saw some Shetland dancing and I expected to see the dancers in tartan, but there was none. The traditional clothes, the stories we were told and the history were more different than I had appreciated.

We talked to the enterprising Shetland Council, which has a share in the Smyrill line ferries that sail from Denmark, Shetland and the Faroe islands to Iceland. The route cuts out all the parts of Scotland with which I was more familiar.

Probably the most striking difference is in udal law. When some ladies came to me—Jim Wallace knows the ladies to whom I refer—to say that they own properties but do not have title deeds, I said, "I'll sort that one out." Then I realised that udal law is the law of the ancient Scandinavian empire. Just as we hold on dearly to our Scots law, equally, people in Orkney and Shetland want to hold on to their udal law. That was a learning experience for me, as I had not even heard of udal law until then. There has been a recent change in the law and proof of ownership must be established by next April. I hope that talks with the Nordic Council will help us to ensure that people without title deeds in Orkney and Shetland will establish the ownership of their properties.

I use those examples to highlight the diversity of culture in Scotland. The northern isles often have more in common with nordic countries than we realise. One of the greatest successes I have heard of since becoming a member of the Scottish Parliament—Dorothy-Grace Elder, my colleague on the Health and Community Care Committee will acknowledge this—is a public health project in North Karelia in Finland. During the past three and a half years, I have stated that I would like to visit Finland to learn about its excellent practice in public health. We are never too big to learn from other people. That is one example of an area in which Scotland could learn a great deal from the nordic regions.

I am pleased to join in the congratulations on the 50th anniversary of the Nordic Council.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 30th October 2002

Most of the issues that I wanted to raise have been covered, but I would like to emphasise one point. I hope that we can get actively involved in the Nordic Council, rather than just talk to the other members politely. Within the European Union, there is an opportunity to make a collective northern European voice heard. The centre of gravity of the European Union is 400 or 500 miles south of here. We could have useful allies in the nordic countries, so I hope we can get proper membership and collaboration with them.

The nordic countries talk our sort of language with regard to democracy and attitude to life. They even share our serious drink problem, so we have a lot in common. They could help us not to be peripheral, but to get to the heart of and have great influence in Europe. I hope that when Estonia and Latvia join the European Union, they can also be involved more in the nordic union. Perhaps we may even entice some of the German Länder that touch the Baltic. There was a great civilisation in that area. First, of course, there were the Vikings, but then there was the Hanseatic league, which had a tremendous effect and conducted very rich trading all the way round the Baltic. People from Helsinki are to benefit a lot from Scottish culture. In addition to the story that Irene Oldfather told us, about the opera, the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra is having a 40th anniversary tour next year, starting in Helsinki and then going on to Estonia, Latvia and Russia.

I hope that, politically, we can make a real union with the nordic countries. I endorse George Reid's well-expressed points about the history. The more we can do to persuade our young people that history did not start with the birth of Princess Diana or David Beckham, the better. We have huge connections with the nordic countries. Scottish children all learn about the Vikings, because primary schools always have projects where they draw the helmets with the horns, which some pundits believe the Vikings did not actually have. We were closely involved with those countries. As George Reid said, we made a lot of contributions to them, and they have also made a contribution to us. There are considerable companies that started in Scandinavia and which now work in Scotland. I hope that we can develop good historical teaching, develop our culture and unite with those people, who are our cousins.

I welcome this debate and the idea of joining the Nordic Council. It would give us the opportunity to flex our muscles a bit in foreign affairs without interfering with the sovereignty of nations and all that rubbish that we are meant to believe in.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 5:34 pm, 30th October 2002

It is important that, as a new Parliament and a new democracy, we do our utmost to learn from other countries. We are going through a learning process in running our own country, so we should look to the nordic countries. I congratulate Kenny MacAskill on securing this timely and interesting debate.

The league tables that sometimes appear in the Financial Times showing the quality of life or the standard of living in countries across the world show that Norway comes top and that Sweden and Denmark come within the next four or five places. That tells us something that we in Scotland should learn from. The nordic countries do many things very well, although we are hoping that they do not do too well with their joint bid for Euro 2008, because we want to beat them.

Until recently, Scotland's salmon farming industry was largely owned by the Norwegians. The Dutch have now bought a fair chunk of it, but we should learn. How did Norway end up owning Scotland's salmon farming industry? It runs its salmon farming industry much better than Scotland does and we should learn from that.

Norway is one of the top maritime nations in the world. It has a population of only about 5 million, but I think that it has the second largest tonnage of merchant shipping on the planet. That shows its clout in that sphere. It is also Europe's other major oil producer and Scotland has many links with it through the oil industry. Recently, I was privileged to be part of an all-party group that went to the offshore northern seas exhibition in Stavanger, where I spoke to officials from the Norwegian oil sector. We met officials from Statoil, which is the state-owned oil company in Norway. It is clear that it has got its act together. Again, we should learn from what it has done and what it is achieving. A £55 billion oil fund has been built up for future generations of Norwegians. Perhaps we should have learned to do that a long time ago in this country.

Norway and Scotland have many sea fisheries links. Next week, talks will begin between the European Union and Norway over the future of white fish stocks in the North sea. Believe it or not, quotas are decided by those talks and not by the rest of the EU. Scotland will not be there, but Norway will, despite the fact that it is not a member of the EU.

Consider the renewable energy industry in Denmark. Scotland is the best-placed country in Europe to develop a renewable energy industry, but Denmark has developed such an industry and owns all the technology. We should learn how it did so, find out what we can do and work closely with it to develop our sector. Recently, Finland has stolen much of Scotland's timber market and paper industry. It is making inroads and we should work closely with it in that sphere. I should not admit this, but my first two cars were Volvos, which is a reminder that Sweden still has its car manufacturing industry.

Many academics in Scotland are experts on nordic rural policy and land ownership patterns, which are pertinent to what we are discussing. In recent decades, we have failed to learn what we should have learned from what has happened in the nordic countries.

When I was a student, I went to Denmark to do my dissertation on managing sovereignty in the EU. I wanted to find out how small nations do so and found that the Danish, like their counterparts in Sweden and Finland, are comfortable as members of the EU. They feel that they have real influence. Such influence was demonstrated when Denmark brought Europe to a halt with its vote on the Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s. Through speaking to politicians, civil servants and others in Denmark, I found an enormous affection for Scotland. Such people want to see Scotland play a greater role in Europe.

As enlargement takes place, the Europe of the future will be a Europe of many circles. People will work together on common agendas. It makes sense for Scotland to join the nordic countries. We have more in common with such countries than with many others. Last week, the Danish presidency announced that the nordic countries will come together after the next EU Council to discuss Europe. Would not it make sense for Scotland at least to listen, go along and engage in dialogue with those countries about what is happening, so that we can learn about agendas that affect that part of Europe?

A couple of months ago, the President of the Norwegian Parliament visited the Scottish Parliament and I had the privilege of meeting him. The idea of a cross-party group on the nordic countries was discussed and the Norwegian parliamentarians would certainly support it. I hope that we can progress more joint initiatives, such as the seminar in a few weeks' time, which will be interesting, and an all-party group.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 5:38 pm, 30th October 2002

Like other members who have spoken, I have personal connections with and considerable affection for the nordic countries. I visited Iceland once when I was a teenager and spent a large part of that time surveying the Vatnajökull glacier, which I gather has shrunk considerably since then. I have visited Norway, where I have been on holiday, climbed and been on business, and I have visited Sweden and Finland.

Donald Gorrie mentioned trying to forge closer relationships with the nordic countries as part of our partnership in the EU. We should emphasise things that we have in common, such as peripherality, poor climate and distance from markets. I visited Finland as minister with responsibility for education to look at educational links and to find out how we could apply distance learning in Scotland.

I also spent part of my life living and working in Orkney, where I was married. Anybody who has been to a wedding ceremony in Orkney or Shetland will know that a large part of the celebrations after the wedding ceremony have links to the Scandinavian countries.

I am delighted, at a personal level and on behalf of the Scottish Executive, to congratulate the Nordic Council on reaching its 50-year milestone. I know that this will be hard for the Parliament to believe, but it is a milestone that I share with the Nordic Council—1952 was clearly a very good year.

We are also pleased to recognise the achievements of the Nordic Council in terms of the social, political, cultural and economic co-operation within its region.

The Scottish Executive is sure that we can learn from on-going co-operation with the Nordic Council, including in areas referred to in its founding principles:

"to maintain and develop co-operation on legislation, culture, and in the socio-economic area, and on issues related to public transportation and environmental protection".

The participants in the Nordic Council have adopted arrangements that best suit their circumstances, just as the Parliament can be assured that the regions and nations of the islands of Britain and Ireland are already co-operating in many fields in ways that suit our particular circumstances. That co-operation is facilitated by the creation of the British-Irish Council following the Good Friday agreement.

Strand three of the Good Friday agreement clearly states:

"the BIC will exchange information, discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on co-operation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of the relevant Administrations".

That is similar to the founding principles of the Nordic Council that I mentioned. We have already agreed to co-operate with our partners in the British-Irish Council on a range of issues.

I will now return to the Nordic Council and its relations with the Scottish Executive on its 50th anniversary. Among the strategic objectives set by nordic ministers for the next few years is co-operation with neighbouring countries and regions. That includes Scotland, as it has in the past. We in the Executive are delighted to have co-operated extensively with nordic countries in recent years.

The nordic-Scottish action plan, drawn up following a meeting between senior officials from Scotland and the nordic countries in March 2001, represents a commitment to continued co-operation with the nordic countries. I attended part of that meeting as a minister to demonstrate our support for that co-operation.

We are involved with nordic countries in projects as diverse as the long-standing agreement on health with Finland, to which Mary Scanlon referred, and the development of the northern periphery programme, on which Scotland leads.

Under the INTERREG programme of the EU, two programmes promote co-operation with nordic countries: the North sea programme and the northern periphery programme. The North sea programme includes, among others, the East of Scotland European Consortium and representatives from Norway, Denmark and Sweden. It begins to address some of the questions that Richard Lochhead raised about the fisheries partnership across the North sea. The lead organisation for that is Aberdeenshire Council and partners include Denmark and Sweden.

The northern periphery programme includes, among others, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and, to some extent, Iceland. As I said, Scotland leads on that programme.

Examples of co-operation include interactive and innovative road management of low traffic volume roads through a technical information exchange across the northern periphery. That project proposes a three-year transnational technical collaboration across the northern periphery. The project will deal directly with roads and transport issues raised by the unique combinations of remoteness, climate, ground conditions, low traffic volumes and long distances to markets. In that context, the lead organisation is the Highland Council and partners are in Sweden, Finland and Norway.

Members will be aware—many have mentioned it—of the nordic seminar that will be held in the chamber next month. The seminar is a good example of the kind of co-operation that is called for by Kenny MacAskill in the motion. It has been arranged between the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Parliament, the Nordic Council and the nordic council of ministers. It will also include contributions from Scottish local authorities, non-governmental organisations and the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. The themes of the seminar include cultural co-operation of the sort to which Jamie Stone and many others have referred; improving public service delivery; sustainable development; and looking at developing regional co-operation between the nordic countries and the regions, nations and islands of the British isles.

The motion recognises the Nordic Council on reaching its 50th anniversary. The Scottish Executive is happy to confirm that we value our links with our nordic neighbours on the council's 50th anniversary and that we intend to continue to develop closer ties with the Nordic Council and nordic council of ministers.

We will also continue to work with our partners in the rest of the UK and in the British-Irish Council through a model that is most appropriate for our citizens. As always, we will keep an open mind to any lessons that we might learn from the experiences of our neighbours in the Nordic Council. I am sure that there are lessons that we can learn from it.

Meeting closed at 17:44.