Debate on Article 50: February 2017

Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland's Place in Europe, Michael Russell MSP, argues against approving the triggering of Article 50.

Presiding Officer,

As the First Minister has indicated, this afternoon's debate on Article 50 will culminate in, and I quote her, 'one of the most significant votes in the history of the Scottish Parliament since devolution'.

I am sure that I need not remind MSPs that on 23 June last year the people of Scotland voted clearly and decisively to remain in the EU.

That is also how Scottish MPs voted when this issue was debated in the House of Commons last week. Only one of the 59 Scottish MPs defied the wish of the majority in this country, and in every local authority area, and chose to support taking Scotland out of the EU against its will.

Now this debate – in Scotland's own Parliament – gives Scotland's MSPs the opportunity to speak loudly and clearly, to reaffirm the vote that was so conclusive last year and to say to the UK, to Europe and to the world that we oppose the catastrophic hard Brexit now being pursued.

It has never been the case that the Scottish Parliament or any of the devolved legislatures had a veto over Brexit – but this vote is symbolic. It is a key test of whether Scotland's voice is being listened to and whether our wishes can be accommodated within the UK process.

Before she became Prime Minister, Theresa May set out her view of the future of the United Kingdom.

It was one, she said, "in which Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England continue to flourish side-by-side as equal partners.

"Different and proud to be so.

"Outward not inward."

Once she was Prime Minister she promised that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be 'fully engaged' and 'fully involved' in considering – and agreeing – a common UK approach to triggering Article 50 .

The Scottish Government took those promises at face value. We worked long and hard to develop and table, in the formal UK structures, compromise proposals showing how we can keep our place in the single market.

We put those proposals before this chamber and received clear majority support for our approach in that matter.

We have sought to initiate constructive consideration of those proposals with the aim of securing a common UK approach and we still do so.

We have taken part in meeting after meeting at official, ministerial and head of Government level.

Yet so far the UK Government has offered not a single compromise of its own. In fact it has offered nothing – neither formal reaction to our proposals nor a formal rejection of them.

Accordingly what underlies the formal substance of the motion today about a technical measure in a European treaty is actually a debate about democracy itself. It is a debate about how democracy should work in these islands.

It is a debate about the sort of country the United Kingdom is becoming and the sort of country we in Scotland wish to be.

The contrast between those countries is stark, Presiding Officer.

Theresa's May's hard Brexit will lead to a 'hard Britain': a Britain out of the single market, with cutting immigration and enforcing borders prioritised above all else.

Living standards, the economy and how the UK is seen across the world will all play second fiddle to that obsession.

And if Theresa May fails to succeed in her negotiations with the other 27 nations then she will set her country – and our country – on a race to bottom on tax, working conditions, regulation and wages.

She has said so to enthusiastic applause by Nigel Farage. Just let that sink in.

Of course I accept there is a majority for Leave in England and Wales. But I do not accept that there is a majority anywhere in these islands for such a narrow and regressive vision.

There is certainly no such majority in Scotland where the people – by a margin of some 24 percentage points – voted to remain in the European Union.

On 28 June this Parliament voted by a margin of 92 to zero to welcome the overwhelming Remain verdict in the referendum and mandated the Scottish Government to explore options for protecting Scotland's relationship with the EU. Even the leader of the Conservatives waxed eloquent about the need to do so and how important the single market was to us.

The Scottish Government has therefore been clear ever since last June that recognition of the democratic outcome in Scotland must be part of the process of the UK exiting the EU.

That was not a surprise then and should not be a surprise now. It has been obvious that the Scottish Government, with the explicit support of this Parliament, has been pursuing the objective of preserving Scotland's relationship with Europe by rational, constructive and reasonable means.

In July, the First Minister identified our objectives in this work: the economy; solidarity; social protection; democratic interests; and our wider ability to influence the laws and politics that affect us.

With these objectives in mind, we have set up a Standing Council on Europe to give us expert advice. We have engaged with a range of stakeholders and institutions in Scotland, the UK and across Europe. Ministers have engaged with every country of the EU. We have worked tirelessly to develop alternative approaches that would recognise the democratic outcome in Scotland and that across the UK, and meet the objectives set out by the First Minister.

As a result we published, in December, a rational, constructive and reasonable compromise plan.

A plan to keep the UK as a whole in the single market, and if that is not possible, for Scotland to retain its place. Proposals that envisaged a major increase in devolved powers.

Those ideas have been well received as important and serious, part of a paper which makes practical proposals – complex perhaps, but what is not at the moment? – to accommodate these various objectives.

On 17 January this Parliament – by a margin of 86 to 36 – welcomed the options set out in the paper and agreed that we should seek to keep Scotland in the single market.

What has been the UK Government's reaction? So far we have had no signs of serious engagement with our proposals or recognition of the referendum outcome in Scotland or the votes taken in this national Parliament.

On the same day as our debate, and just two days before we presented our proposals formally to the Joint Ministerial Committee in London, the Prime Minister stood up at Lancaster House and set out – without any prior discussion or notification – the UK Government's objectives for negotiations with the European Union.

On the central issue of membership of – not access to – the single market, she announced that she had unilaterally decided that the UK must leave the largest integrated market on the planet, carefully constructed over many years. Apparently not to do so would not constitute leaving the EU at all, which will come as a surprise to a number of countries in the European Economic Area (EEA).

There was no acknowledgement of the possibility of a differentiated solution for Scotland.

Instead there was a threat, repeated in the UK Government's white paper last week, to walk away, dragging us on her coat tails, without any deal, regardless of the disastrous consequence of such an approach for us and for the whole of the UK.

So this attitude of the UK Government needs to change and we have said so directly to the them.

Three days before the latest white paper was published the Prime Minister agreed with the First Minister, and the First Ministers of the other devolved administrations, that work to find a common UK position on triggering Article 50 needed to be intensified.

That process is meant to be commencing tomorrow at the Joint Ministerial Committee in London, though we have had, as ever, great difficulty in discovering what the UK Government wishes to table and indeed even what the agenda will be.

So this morning I wrote to David Davis, my opposite number, asking him to ensure that the agenda had, at the very top, consideration of the so called 'Article 50 letter' (that is the formal document which will be sent to the EU to notify that the UK intends to leave and to commence negotiations), and in particular the agenda must address the way in which that letter will make mention of the devolved administrations and their requirements including that of differentiation.

I also made clear that arrangements must be made to complete work on those issues before any Article 50 letter is signed off by the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has indicated that she intends to send that letter before the end of March. Some have speculated that it may be sent as early as the second week of March.

Incredible as it must seem to most in Scotland, the Scottish Government does not know the proposed date of submission; has never seen a paper about its contents, let alone an early draft; and has not been given any information about how the UK Government intends to seek our involvement in its production.

The promise of a 'UK Agreement' on its content looks therefore that it may have been an empty one. But we will go on asking the UK Government to honour it right up until the last moment.

The Scottish Government needs to see clear evidence from the UK government that they are taking seriously the views of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and of course the diversity of opinion in England too.

Some things are vital if we are to protect Scotland's position at this time. We must, for example, be able to find a way to preserve the free movement of people. We must have the powers to comply with European Free Trade Agreement / EEA rules which means we must increase devolved competencies and we must have guaranteed to us the further devolution of those matters which lie within devolved competence but which are presently decided upon in Brussels.

The Scottish Parliament of whatever hue has always been willing to share and to work with London, Cardiff and Belfast. But we do so in devolved competencies on the basis of powers exercised close to the people and informed by them. The attitude of Theresa May is now one which reverses that basic tenet of devolution. It will not be allowed to prevail.

Accordingly Presiding Officer, as there is no evidence of progress on any of the compromises we have sought, and indeed as there is growing evidence of an actual attempt to reserve more and more powers to the UK Government whilst ignoring this Parliament, this Government and the votes of the people of Scotland we can do no other than recommend that the Parliament does not give approval to the triggering of Article 50.

The Westminster Bill in fact gives the Prime Minister unprecedented and untrammelled power in these matters. No Prime Minster should be given that.

The clock is ticking as the time to trigger Article 50 approaches. There is still time for the UK Government to recognise democracy in these islands, the existence and importance of the devolved settlement, the actual votes of this Parliament and the clear voice of the people of this country.

But that time is running out. Consequently voting today to reject the triggering of Article 50 is a good way – in fact it is now the only way – to remind the Prime Minister of that fact, of her promises, and of the disastrous consequences of the path she seems set on.

I commend my motion to the Chamber.



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