Looking North: Britain's revitalised interest in the northern areas of Europe

A recent defence Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and Norway underscores renewed British strategic interest in the north. Such alliances are crucial in the face of the Arctic region gaining further geopolitical relevance.

By Duncan Depledge, Research Analyst, RUSI

9 March 2012 - 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. It follows the Bilateral and Global Partnership signed by the Prime Ministers of Norway and the UK in January 2011, focusing on the need to strengthen co-operation and interoperability 'in order to achieve more cost-efficient, more available and more useable capabilities for Norway and the UK and for the [NATO] Alliance'.

Britain looks North

The agreement with Norway is the surest sign yet of revitalised British interest in the northern areas of Europe. It follows two years of intensified dialogue between the UK and its northern European allies. After substantial cuts and reforms outlined in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Coalition government has sought defence assurances in bilateral and multilateral partnerships.

Of these, the bilateral relationship with France has attracted the most attention. However, only a week after signing the Defence Cooperation Treaty with France, Britain was publicly pushing its defence relationship with Nordic and Baltic countries, as well as Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. Speaking at the first meeting of the Northern Group of Defence Ministers on 10 November, 2010, the then-Secretary for Defence, Liam Fox declared:

'We cannot forget that geographically the United Kingdom is a northern European country. Let me be clear, this is not about carving out spheres of influence; this is about working together on mutual interests. For too long Britain has looked in every direction except its own backyard'[1]

The launch of the Northern Group was part of a broader drive to deepen bilateral and multilateral relations with Britain's northerly neighbours. Further progress was made in January 2011 when, the Prime Minister, David Cameron spoke of Britain's broader interests in the North; specifically about an alliance of common interests (including economic growth, the environment and well-being) stretching across northern Europe.[2]  Geography clearly matters to the Coalition government.      

While engagement with the Nordic and Baltic countries has been stepped up, it is the relationship with close ally 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 cooperation in the polar regions. 

Yet 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, signalling willingness from the UK to commit to its interests in the region.  Moreover, the MoU provides the basis for a second pillar of defence cooperation; the first being of course cooperation with France, with both pillars rooted in the continued relevance of NATO and the transatlantic partnership with the US. It is indicative of the degree of trust which the current government has in its northern European allies, and more broadly in NATO; a level of trust which, as Clara O'Donnell observes, appears to be lacking when it comes to many EU partners as a result of their repeated failure to meet defence commitments.[3]

Mutual Interests

Renewed attention to its northern 'backyard' is not just about joint capabilities and interoperability. It is also about the increasing relevance of the northern 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 have inspired a shift in thinking. The first concerns purely defence collaboration. While the UK contends with ongoing 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, economic priorities are closely aligned in this region. The current government has also looked to Nordic countries for routes to economic prosperity, thereby achieving another aim of UK Grand Strategy.

Securing the Arctic

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.[4] Combined with technological development, willing investors and political determination (all of which abounded at the recent Arctic Frontiers conference 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.[5] 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[6]. 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.[7]

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.[8] 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 eight states with territory in the Arctic, five of which, through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), are looking to establish further sovereign rights based on exclusive economic zones and extended continental shelves, which in some cases reach all the way to the North Pole. Roughly 4 million people inhabit the region, with a further half a billion living along or close to its borders.  As the ice melts, it seems inevitable that the region will be increasingly part of global economic, political and legal systems, and there is a need for experts to find out as much as possible about how such change is likely to pan out and make future-facing judgements about risk and opportunity.

The second reason is the need for British policy planners to appreciate the significance ofthe 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.[9] 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. RUSI's Dr Lee Willett noted recently that 'there is no public evidence that the UK has designed or is designing its six new Type 45 Daring-class destroyers, two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carries and its next generation ASW frigate (the Type 26 Global Combat Ship) specifically with [Arctic] capability parameters in mind'.[10] Defence analyst Paul Beaver has expressed similar concerns, noting that cuts to the Royal Navy and the maritime patrol capabilities of the Royal Air Force have not gone unnoticed in the High North, and will affect the current government's aspirations to be relevant in the region.[11]

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. Britain will continue to participate in joint exercises (such as the Norwegian-led Exercise Cold Response (taking place between 12-21 March)  and the government's various initiatives to strengthen cooperation through the Northern Group 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.

Simply discourse or made to last?

While the latest Defence Memorandum of Understanding is laden with intent, how closer cooperation 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. Unless concrete arrangements are put in place, the intent is likely to slip away.

Members of the policy elite in Oslo remember their concerns as to whether the departure of Liam Fox, largely seen as the chief instigator of closer defence cooperation in Northern Europe, would end the British commitment to the north.[12] It seems his successor Philip Hammond has allayed these fears. What remains to be seen is whether Britain's revitalised interest in the North will become instinctive in such a way as has not been seen since the end of the Cold War.

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.  

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

[1] 'Defence Secretary launches new forum of northern European countries', Defence News, 10 November 2010, http://bit.ly/agvbxw  

[2] 'Cameron calls for northern European alliance', BBC News Online, 20 January 2011, http://bbc.in/h0nEwn

[3] Clara Marina O'Donnell, 'EU defence cooperation: undermining British interests', International Affairs (Vol. 87, No. 2, 2011) pp. 419-433.

[4] 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

[5] 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).

[6] Used here to denote the Eurasian side of the Arctic region.

[7] Private interviews with staff at the UK Ministry of Defence, September-December 2011. 

[8] 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..

[9] Depledge and Dodds, op cit.

[10] Lee Willett, 'Afterword: A United Kingdom perspective on the role of navies in delivering Arctic security' in Arctic Security in an Age of Climate Change, ed. James Kraska (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) p. 290.

[11] Paul Beaver, 'The New Frontier', The World Today (Aug-Sept 2011) pp.24-25.

[12] Private interviews carried out in Oslo, Norway (2012).


Duncan Depledge

Associate Fellow

View profile


Explore our related content