Scotland on the international stage

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As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe will publish twenty “20 year” blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of 2019.  Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs. This blog examines how the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive and then Scottish Government have engaged internationally over the last twenty years.

The Scottish Parliament’s international focus

Standing Orders

Did you know that when the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999 one of its mandatory committees was the European Committee?  Despite EU and international affairs being reserved under Schedule V of the Scotland Act, the Parliament’s Standing Orders set out that there should be a parliamentary committee responsible for the Scottish Parliament’s engagement with European Union legislation.

The Parliament’s approach was developed because whilst relations with the European Union are reserved, Schedule V of the Scotland Act also states that the Scottish Parliament is responsible for ensuring Scotland implements and observes EU legislation in devolved areas.

European Committee

As a result, on 23 June 1999, the new Parliament’s European Committee met for the first time and elected Hugh Henry MSP as its first Convener.  The Committee’s work in the early years focused on EU policy initiatives of importance to Scotland such as structural funding (a favourite for future European Committees too) along with EU fisheries policy and EU environmental policy.

The European Committee in Session 1 lodged two notable parliamentary firsts:

  • The first Westminster MPs to appear before a Scottish Parliament Committee – Angus Robertson MP (Scottish National Party) and Richard Spring MP (Conservative and Unionist Party) on 22 October 2001.
  • The first UK Minister to appear before a Scottish Parliament Committee when Peter Hain MP, UK Minister for Europe gave evidence on 5 November 2001.

Both evidence sessions informed the Committee’s inquiry into “Governance in the European Union and the Future of Europe”.  The Committee’s inquiry work has often reverted back to considering the EU’s constitutional framework and the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Over the years, the Committee’s remit and role has evolved.  From initially focusing on EU legislative proposals and the operations of the Scottish Government’s European Union Office in Brussels, External Relations was added to the Committee’s title in 2003.  This coincided with the increased international focus of the Scottish Executive which was to publish its first International Strategy in September 2004.  This strategy was the focus of the flagship enquiry undertaken by the European and External Relations Committee in Session 2 into the Promotion of Scotland Worldwide: the Strategy, Policy and Activities of the Scottish Executive.  This inquiry began in September 2003 with the final report published nearly 18 months later.

The European Committee has also considered the big constitutional issues of the last five years.  First it undertook an inquiry and published a report examining the Scottish Government’s proposals for an independent Scotland: membership of the European Union. More recently, after the Brexit referendum the European Committee quickly launched its The EU referendum and its implications for Scotland inquiry.

The Scottish Parliament’s International Relations Office

Another aspect of the Parliament’s international focus has been the work of the International Relations Office (IRO) which supports the Presiding Officer, and the two Deputies, in their role representing the Scottish Parliament at home and abroad. The office also supports the Scottish Parliament in the development and implementation of its International Strategy and links with other parliaments and overseas organisations. Its aim is to enhance the profile and reputation of the Scottish Parliament, exchange knowledge and ideas, and develop relationships with others.

Other parliaments, governments and organisations around the world often want to meet representatives of the Scottish Parliament and discuss issues of mutual interest. Since 1999, the IRO has played host, on average, to around 100 visits per year from UK based Ambassadors, High Commissioners and other diplomatic representatives as well as Speakers, Deputy Speakers, committees and individual Members (and officials) of other parliaments. The level of interest in the Scottish Parliament and its practices and procedures has remained at a consistently high level over the five parliamentary Sessions and shows no sign of abating. There is more information on our international work in the Parliament’s annual report or through the IRO twitter feed and international activity webpage.

The large number of ‘inward’ visits to the Scottish Parliament is by no means the only engagement the Parliament has with our international partners. Through our agreed membership of five MSPs we participate in the bi-annual plenary sessions of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly as well as its three subject committees (European Affairs; the Economy and Environmental and Social Issues). All MSPs are also members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Scotland Branch and participate and engage in plenary, regional conferences, seminars, visits and exchanges of delegations which promote parliamentary democracy and co-operation with other networks and organisations dedicated to good governance.

How the Scottish Government’s international focus has developed

The Scottish Government’s development of its international focus over the twenty years of devolution has had a knock-on effect for the work of the Scottish Parliament given its scrutiny function.

International relations and foreign affairs are reserved competences.  However, the Scottish Government has developed a role over the 20 years of devolution in engaging internationally. This international engagement has focused on engaging with overseas partners in devolved policy areas.  This has included engagement with the EU institutions on policies devolved to the Scottish Parliament and for which the Scottish Government is responsible for ensuring that EU legislation is properly transposed into Scots law.    The engagement, which began with the opening of the Scottish Executive’s EU Office in Brussels in 1999, has extended with the Scottish Government now having an international presence in Washington DC, Toronto and Beijing with new Hubs also recently opened in London, Dublin, Paris and Berlin.

The government’s international focus set out in a raft of strategy documents has consistently been about growing Scotland’s economy, engaging in appropriate policy areas and developing Scotland’s international profile.

European relations

In terms of European relations, in the early days of devolution, the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition’s European Strategy sought to place Scotland as one of the EU’s leading regions and develop co-operation agreements with other sub-state EU regions such as Catalonia, Tuscany, North-Rhine Westphalia and Bavaria.  First Minister Jack McConnell’s government took a leading role in the Regions with Legislative Power (REGLEG) group.  This engagement led to the First Minister holding the REGLEG presidency from November 2003 – November 2004.  According to the European Strategy at the time:

“The First Minister’s presidency (from November 2003 – November 2004) provides an important opportunity for Scotland to play a key role on the EU stage. It will allow us to build allies for Scotland’s interests among the leading legislative regions of the EU. Our REGLEG activity is principally about advancing Scotland’s position as a major legislative region in Europe. Our REGLEG role complements and reinforces the UK position. We will build on the Presidency to consolidate the position of the legislative regions in the follow-up to the IGC, through a proactive REGLEG programme.”

The approach to European relations was to change following the election of the SNP Government in 2007.  Agreements with other sub-state regions were discontinued and the by now renamed Scottish Government sought to develop Scotland’s reputation and profile on the international stage.

Scotland on the world stage

From the lead up to the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish Government has sought to present Scotland on the world stage and to pursue policy issues wider than just seeking to boost economic growth.  For example, the current First Minister addressed the United Nations on gender equality and the role of women in peacekeeping and she also addressed the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn in November 2017.

The Scottish Government has also sought to develop links with countries with similar interests.  For example, developing links with the Nordic countries as set out in its Nordic Baltic Policy Statement and the developing relationship with Ireland.

Dr Daniel Kenealy from the University of Edinburgh recently set out how sub-national governments develop their external relations policies:

“The external relations of sub-national governments might be divided into two broad categories.  On the one hand are long-established activities such as trade, export and investment promotion, as well as the promotion of culture and heritage.  On the other hand are activities that more closely resemble conventional ‘foreign policy’ or ‘diplomacy’, such as taking positions on international political issues or seeking to form international partnerships to advance a policy agenda.”

In the twenty years of devolution, Scottish Executives and Governments have moved more towards the second of these approaches to international engagement whilst at the same time continuing to focus on the priorities of trade, exports and investment promotion.

North American relations

Over the last twenty years Scotland’s relationship with the United States and then Canada has been founded on the Scotland Week and Tartan Day celebrations on the other side of the Atlantic.  The Scotland Week celebrations date back to the mid-1980s and take place in the first week of April (to coincide with the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath) each year.  The Scotland Week celebrations have also extended to Canada.  According to Scotland is Now:

“Scotland Week is a brilliant chance for people to reconnect with their heritage. In equal measure, the event is also a fantastic opportunity for people to find out why Scotland is such a special place in the world to live, work, study and invest.

For the past two decades, the Scottish Government, Scottish Development International, VisitScotland and many other organisations have staged events, working together to create a uniquely-Scottish experience for everyone taking part.”

Scotland Week has also provided both the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament with a hook to attach their respective political engagement in North America.

International development

One area which all Scottish Executives and Governments have consistently pursued is the Scottish international development policy and fund.  When, in March 2005, the First Minister Jack McConnell launched a new International Development Policy he was clear that it was within the locus of the Scottish Government and Parliament:

“Although international development is a reserved issue under the Scotland Act, it is open to the Scottish Executive to play a role within the international community, where the work is complimentary to the work of DfID and other UK agencies, and is considered to be “assisting Ministers of the Crown in relation to foreign affairs”.

Focused predominantly on Malawi and with an initial annual budget of £3 million, the programme has developed through successive governments and now has a budget of £10 million per annum for projects in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  In this area of international policy, there has generally been political consensus.


The Scottish Government’s international policy approach and the Scottish Parliament’s response to that has been dominated by Brexit since the EU referendum in 2016.

Shortly after the referendum, the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee commissioned research on:

The Committee also produced a report summarising the initial evidence it received from Scottish stakeholders immediately after the Brexit vote.  These reports provided a good source of evidence to inform the Scottish Parliament’s debate about the delivery of Brexit.

The Scottish Government published five Scotland’s Place in Europe papers which set out the Government’s view on Brexit.  The first of these policy papers, published in December 2016 proposed that if the UK was to leave the EU, it should remain in the Single Market by way of EFTA-EEA membership and should also remain in the Customs Union.

Whilst the UK Government has regularly pledged to consult with the Devolved Administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff, Scottish and Welsh Government Ministers have regularly suggested including when appearing before Scottish Parliament Committees that the Brexit process has largely been London driven with minimal consultation on the UK’s approach to the negotiations.

Given that international relations are reserved, perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.  But once the UK has left the EU, more and more of the international agreements (including the future relationship with the EU and trade agreements such as that with the United States) will need to be negotiated.  These negotiations, and the consequences of the agreements will almost certainly encroach on devolved policy areas.  As such, it has been suggested that the devolution settlement which was developed when the UK was a member of the EU, will no longer be fit for purpose after Brexit.  Arguably this case is best exemplified by the way in which the UK’s approach to international affairs will change as a result of Brexit whilst remaining a reserved competence.

Looking forward

The last twenty years has seen an evolution in the external activities of the Scottish Executive and then Scottish Government and the consequent scrutiny role of the Scottish Parliament.  From initially tipping its toes in the waters of international affairs, successive Scottish Executives and Governments have developed the administration’s approach with more and more international activity taking place.

Evidence provided to the Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee’s inquiry into External Affairs suggests Scottish stakeholders support the Scottish Government’s efforts in external affairs.

Whilst the changes that will be brought about because of Brexit are not yet known, it is possible that one outcome of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union will be that future Scottish Governments may seek to further develop Scotland’s international role and its participation on the international stage.  Respondents to the European Committee’s inquiry suggested that Brexit means Scotland will need to work much harder on its engagement at European and international level.

The Scottish Government’s future engagement may involve attempts to mitigate the effects of Brexit – both economically and reputationally.  However, as the UK leaves the EU, Brexit may actually serve to limit Scotland’s access to international organisations – for example the UK’s relations with the EU will become exclusively a foreign policy concern with no direct role for the Scottish Government or Parliament.  As a result, this may present a challenge to the Scottish Government’s ability to engage successfully at international level.

The Scottish Government’s increasing focus on issues such as climate change and human rights may signal a shift to conducting an external relations policy based on policy priorities rather than geographic focus.

Iain McIver, SPICe Research