The Scottish Government’s international footprint

Reading Time: 5 minutes

On Friday 26 August 2022, the First Minister opened the Scottish Government’s latest international office in Copenhagen.  This new office brings the number of Scottish Government international offices to nine (including London).

Opening the Copenhagen office and reflecting on Scotland’s links with the Nordic countries, the First Minister said:

“To this day, we have much in common with similar population sizes, dynamic cities, and large rural communities. We are nations of innovators that share the same ambition to accelerate decarbonisation, and we continue to work closely to exchange expertise on renewable energy technologies and sustainable economic development.

This office will support that ambition and build on the strong ties that already exist between us by promoting investment, trade and economic opportunities to benefit people and businesses across our countries.”

This blog looks at the Scottish Government’s stated purpose for its international presence, how much the international offices cost and how other sub-states are represented internationally.

International relations as a reserved matter

Schedule 5 Section 7 (1) of the Scotland Act 1998 reserves foreign affairs and international relations, but throughout the history of devolution, successive Scottish Governments have ensured an international presence and pursued a form of international engagement. This approach dates back to the first Scottish administration which established an office in Brussels in 1999. In August 2021, SPICe published a subject profile analysing the Scottish Government’s international affairs policies

The Scottish Government’s international offices

Following the UK’s departure from the EU, the Scottish Government sought to further develop its international footprint, opening new offices in London (the Scottish Government classes this as an international office), Berlin, Paris and now Copenhagen. These offices complemented the Scottish Government’s existing offices in Brussels, Dublin, Beijing, Ottawa and Washington DC. 

The opening of the Copenhagen Office reflects a commitment by both the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party in their Shared Policy Programme to open an office in the Nordic region.  A further office in Warsaw (to represent Scottish interests in Central Europe) is also expected to open before the end of the Parliamentary Session having also been a commitment in the Shared Policy Programme. 

Purpose of the offices

According to the Scottish Government, the purpose of the international offices is: 

“to promote Scottish interests overseas and strengthen our relationships with countries and continents.” 

In the case of the London office, in addition to supporting the pursuit of economic and business benefits for companies, a key purpose for the office is to:

“provides a platform to allow us to improve the range and depth of engagement with the UK Government, the diplomatic community and other stakeholders based in the city.”

In August 2019, the Scottish Government published its strategic objectives for the international offices for 2019-2020.  According to the introduction to the document: 

“These offices deliver and support our activity, agencies and public and private partners in key locations outside Scotland, building on established expertise. The network provides a focus for Scottish partners needing presence in a country, capital or continent and play a critical role in supporting international collaboration which delivers economic benefits and helps address societal and global challenges. 

The scale, scope and focus of this activity varies depending on the specific opportunities in a particular location. However, as a whole, the network will make connections in the development of policy priorities for us to exchange good practice.  

Specifically the network is tasked with: 

  • improving Scotland’s international profile 
  • attracting investment to Scotland 
  • helping businesses to trade internationally 
  • promoting and securing Scottish research and innovation capability, partnerships and funding 
  • protecting and enhancing Scotland’s interests in the EU and beyond” 

The Scottish Government has not published an update on these strategic objectives but it did refer to the role of its international offices in its refreshed Scotland’s Global Affairs Framework published in May 2022:

“Our network of overseas offices is vital to promoting Scotland’s international profile, and protecting and enhancing Scotland’s interests in the EU and beyond. We will continue to invest in international relationships, enhance our communications activity, and unlock new economic and trading opportunities.”

Cost of the offices

The budget for the operation of the Scottish Government’s international offices in 2022-23 is £9.13 million.  The agreed budget for each office is shown in the table below.

The international offices budget of £9.13 million comes from the External Affairs budget, which is worth a total of £33.4 million in 2022-23. 

Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee scrutiny

During its inquiry into the Scottish Government’s International Work, the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee heard evidence that the Scottish Government’s approach to its international footprint was positive.  For example, the British Council told the Committee that it would welcome more international offices around the world to spread Scotland’s presence.  However, a number of witnesses, including the Scottish Arts and Humanities Alliance and the Royal Society of Edinburgh suggested that there was a need for a clear strategy for the offices, along with the adoption of some key performance indicators to measure and evaluate their outcomes.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture told the Committee that international offices:

“attract investment, broaden our horizons, and create domestic opportunities and benefits for people in Scotland, and they do so at a very marginal cost in the context of the Scottish Government’s budget.”

Considering the evidence received, the Committee recommended:

“That the Scottish Government provides a detailed justification for any new international offices, including why those locations were chosen and also how they fit with the international offices’ own strategic objectives, and in turn the revised International Framework, the National Performance Framework, and Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation.”

The Committee also recommended that the Scottish Government publish an annual report to set out the contribution of the international offices. 

In response to the Committee’s report, the  Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture wrote that:

“I support the idea of an annual report and the Committee’s recommendation echoes work which is being undertaken by my officials. All the Scottish Government’s international offices measure their activities, output and successes to inform the focus, prioritisation and rationale for their work.”

The Cabinet Secretary also indicated that the Scottish Government always undertakes preparatory work “to assess the rationale for locating a new Scottish Government office or for focusing on a specific country or location.”

Comparison with other sub-states’ overseas presence

The Scottish Government’s approach of running international offices is not unusual as a number of other sub-state governments also have an overseas network. 

In comparison to other sub-state governments, Scotland’s nine international offices is comparatively few.  For example, the Quebec Government has a network of 34 government offices that are located in 19 countries.  These include general delegations in:

  • Brussels
  • Dakar
  • London
  • Los Angeles
  • Mexico City
  • Munich
  • New York City
  • Paris
  • Tokyo.

The general delegations engage across all policy areas devolved to Quebec including the economy, education, culture and immigration.

Further smaller delegations focused only on the economy, education and culture are present in four further cities in the United States and in Rome in Italy.  A further 13 small offices are located across the world including in Beijing, Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore and Washington DC.

Bavaria’s Government has 28 offices in 25 countries which include three offices in China and two offices in the United States.   

Finally, Catalonia has government offices in nine countries including a delegation to the European Union in Brussels, a delegation in the United Kingdom and two offices in the United States in New York and Washington DC. 


The Scottish Government’s international footprint has slowly expanded since the opening of the first office (in Brussels) in 1999.  The nine offices now cost £9.13 million per year, with an office in Warsaw expected to open before the end of this Parliamentary session. 

However, the Parliament’s Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee has called for more information from the Scottish Government about the operation of the offices and the outputs they achieve.  Scrutinising the performance of the offices will continue to be of interest to the Committee during Session 6. 

Iain McIver, SPICe Research