Nordic Council

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:03 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.