Looking North: Britain’s Revitalised Interest in the Northern Areas of Europe

By Duncan Depledge On 6 March British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and his Norwegian counterpart Espen Barth Eide signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) ‘On the Enhancement of Bilateral Defence Co-operation’. The MoU provides a political framework for developing and furthering bilateral cooperation and relations in defence and security matters ‘in order to achieve more cost-efficient, more available and more useable capabilities for Norway and the UK and for the [NATO] Alliance’. This agreement with Norway is the surest sign yet of revitalised British interest in the northern areas of Europe. 

As the UK defence community reflects on a decade of “war on terror”, the long-term effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the implications of substantial cuts to defence capabilities, the British government is faced with issues that cut right to the heart of questions about what kind of international presence the UK should have for the purposes of defence. Frustrated by what appears to be a lack of commitment from European partners [1], anxious about whether the US will continue to support NATO [2], and aware that it simply cannot sustain levels of defence expenditure seen during the Blair years [3], the Coalition government has sought defence assurances in bilateral and multilateral partnerships.

While engagement with the Nordic and Baltic countries has been stepped up, it is the relationship with close ally (and Arctic coastal state) Norway which is showing the most tangible signs of progress. The UK’s defence agreement with Norway comes after similar Memoranda of Understandings struck in the last two years on oil and gas exploration, the development of offshore wind farms, a North Sea power grid, biotechnology and scientific/cultural cooperation in the polar regions.  However, it is the latest MoU on defence co-operation which is perhaps the most significant, confirming that Britain’s relationship with Norway and northern Europe more broadly matters to defence and security policy. 

Renewed attention to the so-called Northern Flank is not just about joint capabilities and interoperability. It is also about the increasing relevance of northern (including Arctic) areas to Britain, both politically and economically, themes reflected in the latest MoU. Since the end of the Cold War, the UK has not been a particularly northward-looking nation, as conflicts and interests in other parts of the world have taken precedence.  However, at least three considerations appear to have inspired a shift in thinking.

The first concerns purely defence collaboration. As Britain contends with on-going uncertainty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, alongside defence cuts, co-operation with Norway and other northern countries addresses security concerns closer to home, offering new possibilities for so-called ‘Smart Defence’. Secondly, as Britain’s economic strength has faltered, the current government has increasingly looked to Nordic countries in particular for routes to the economic prosperity deemed central to UK Grand Strategy.[4]

The third consideration is more long-term. It concerns the strategic significance of sea ice in the Arctic region. The rise in average global temperature which is being driven largely by sustained emissions of greenhouse gases over the past two centuries is forcing considerable changes to take place in the Arctic. The sea ice is melting, both in terms of its extent and its thickness. Sea ice in the summer could disappear almost completely in the coming decade depending on which projections we rely on.[5]Combined with technological development, willing investors and political determination (all of which abounded at the recent
Arctic Frontiersconference in Tromsø, Norway) the opening up of new energy provinces and shipping lanes seems increasingly likely, although not necessarily in the form of a ‘scramble’ as some in the media might imagine.

While the Arctic was not mentioned in the SDSR or the most recent National Security Strategy (NSS), concerns about climate change and resource competition were, and continue to be, indicative of the way in which broader defence and security issues already reach into the region.[6]The potential risks identified in the NSS Risk Register associated with an international crisis, disruption to trade, and concerns about energy could all be relevant in the High North.[7] It is an issue which former Defence Secretary Liam Fox attached a firm importance to, and as this
latest MoU indicates with explicit reference to ‘strategic surveillance and situational awareness in the High North’, part of the rationale for closer defence cooperation between the UK and Norway. As things stand, the Ministry of Defence’s interest in the northern areas ‘has never been greater’, a trend reflected more broadly across Whitehall, especially in the range of issues being actively contemplated.[8]

However, we must not conflate interest with alarm. At present, and we must hope this remains, there are very few problems for the defence community to solve in the Arctic.[9]For the time-being, activities in the North are most likely to be confined to energy development, scientific research and tourism, none of which represents novelty per se. The level of shipping is growing, but from a virtually non-existent base. The attention of the defence community is therefore demanded for other reasons; reasons which now have an added edge to them if Britain is to be a credible partner for her northern allies.

The first reason is a need to map out detailed knowledge of the changes underway in the Arctic, whether physical, political, social or economic. Contrary to what many people in the UK seem to think, the Arctic is not an empty space relevant only to science and economic interests. There are social, political and legal issues to resolve in the region and as the ice melts, it seems inevitable that more and more actors will wish to be involved. There is consequently a need for experts to find out as much as possible about how such change is likely to pan out and to make future-facing judgements about risk and opportunity.

The second reason is the need for British policy planners to appreciate the significance of the changes taking place and the strategic consequences they will have for the United Kingdom. As the recent SDSR demonstrated, much will still have to change before this becomes instinctive. There is a strategic gap as well as a knowledge gap.[10]If we do not know why the Arctic matters to Britain (i.e., what Britain’s interests are in the region), how can we possibly engage with it in any meaningful, let alone justifiable, way?

The third reason is about having relevance in the region: for Britain and for Britain’s defence partners in the North. It is difficult to see how Britain can make a credible contribution to the defence of the northern areas of Europe without detailed knowledge and awareness of the changes taking place there. Moreover, hard questions need to be asked about whether Britain has the physical capability to be relevant in the northern areas, while at the same time maintaining its commitment to other pressing defence issues.

In light of this, recent moves by the current government to demonstrate increased attention to the northern areas of Europe are being received positively, particularly in Norway. The government’s various initiatives to strengthen cooperation through the Northern Group of Defence Ministers and various MoUs is an important step along the way towards knowing your counterparts, developing joint capabilities and interoperability, and appearing as a credible partner. It is clear that there will be regular contact between the UK Defence Secretary and his opposite numbers in northern Europe over the foreseeable future, and this will be an important part of efforts to retain Britain’s relevance in the northern areas of Europe.

While this latest MoU is laden with intent, how closer cooperation between Britain and Norway is to be implemented remains open and will depend on ‘supplementary arrangements’. As such it is fair to ask whether the MoU will prove to be simply discourse, or made to last? The same question can be asked of Britain’s broader efforts to engage with northern Europe and the Arctic region. Unless concrete arrangements are put in place, the intent is likely to slip away.

In the meantime it is worth echoing the calls for renewed attention to Britain’s ‘backyard’ including those areas lying close to or actually north of the Arctic Circle. The future strategic significance of the Arctic remains unclear and with more pressing concerns in Iran, Somalia and the Indian Ocean, it is to an extent understandable that some will treat it as an unwanted distraction. But it is not and the government should be devoting resources to build knowledge and situational awareness of what is happening on Britain’s northern flank, and to establish firm relationships and diplomatic channels with potential partners. Momentum for this is slowly building through the Northern Group and the multiple MoU’s with Norway. However, these efforts must be sustained through active engagement if Britain is to have a credible presence, and more importantly, future relevance in the northern areas of Europe. 

Duncan Depledge is a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute and a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway (University of London). The article appears in abridged form. It was originally published on 

[1] Clara Marina O’Donnell, ‘EU defence cooperation: undermining British interests’, International Affairs(Vol. 87, No. 2, 2011) pp. 419-433.
[2] François Heisbourg, ‘The defence of Europe: Towards a new transatlantic division of responsibilities’, in All Alone? What US retrenchment means for Europe and NATO, ed. Tomas Valasek, (London: Centre for European Reform, 2012) pp. 27-44. 
[3] Malcolm Chalmers, ‘Keeping our powder dry? UK defence policy beyond Afghanistan’, The RUSI Journal (Vol. 156, No. 1, 2011) pp. 20-28.
[4] Sir David Richards, ‘Annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture 2011’, RUSI, 14 December 2011, http://www.rusi.org/events/past/ref:E4EA01B5272990/
[5] Steve Cole and Patrick Lynch, ‘Arctic Sea Ice Continues Decline, Hits Second-Lowest Level, NASA, 4 October 2011, http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/oct/HQ_11-337_Arctic_Sea_Ice_Decline.html
[6] Duncan Depledge, ‘Arctic Assembly: The Polar Policies of the United Kingdom’ in Knowledges, Resources and Legal Regimes: The New Geopolitics of the Polar Regions, eds. Richard Powell and Klaus Dodds (forthcoming).
[7] Used here to denote the Eurasian side of the Arctic region.
[8] Private interviews with staff at the UK Ministry of Defence, September-December 2011. 
[9] For a recent audit of UK Arctic interests see Duncan Depledge and Klaus Dodds, ‘The UK and the Arctic: The Strategic Gap’, The RUSI Journal (Vol. 156, No. 3, 2011) pp. 72-79..
[10] Depledge and Dodds, op cit.