- 10 Feb 2020
It is always wonderful to be in Brussels, but today it is also quite emotional.
This is the first time I have been here - or indeed anywhere outside Scotland - since the UK left the European Union ten days ago.
Brexit was a sad matter for me, and for many people in Scotland and indeed across the UK. And some of the most affecting moments of the week leading up to Brexit occurred here in Brussels.
For example I was especially struck when I saw footage from the Wednesday, at the last session of the European Parliament to be attended by MEPs from the UK.
The sincerity, grace and goodwill of the speeches from people such as Guy Verhofstadt and Ursula von der Leyen was in itself impressive. But I think for many people – and perhaps particularly for many people in Scotland – the most moving moment of all was at the very end, when MEPs from all parties and all countries stood together to sing Auld Lang Syne.
That scene – one of solidarity and friendship - encapsulated many of the values the Scottish Government and many of the people in Scotland most cherish about the European Union.
And for me – and I suspect for many people in Scotland – hearing Robert Burns’s words in that room at that time had another affect. It reinforced the sense that Scotland has left a place where we belong – that we should still be participating in that chamber, rather than departing it.
On the same day – in fact, at almost exactly the same time - that those scenes were taking place in the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament. Was voting to back a further referendum on Scottish independence.
And I suppose the connections between those two scenes form the basis of my remarks today.
I’m going to set out briefly the ongoing regret the Scottish Government feels over Brexit. I will then explain some of the ways in which the Scottish Government will respond to Brexit. And in doing that I will make clear our desire to return to the European parliament as an independent nation, comfortable – as EU members have to be – with the idea that independence, in the modern world, involves recognising and embracing our interdependence.
As you know very well, 62% of voters in Scotland chose to stay in the EU in 2016. Subsequent opinion polls suggest that pro-EU sentiment has grown since then.
And Scotland’s desire to stay has also been reaffirmed by three subsequent nationwide elections – in December, for example, parties in favour of remaining in the EU, or holding a further referendum, gained almost ¾ of the vote.
So pro-European sentiment has very deep and very strong roots in Scotland.
The basic principle behind the EU – of independent nations working together for a common good – is one which appeals to many people in Scotland.
We also recognise the solidarity the EU offers to smaller member states - people in Scotland have seen, and will I suspect long remember, the support the EU has given to Ireland throughout the first stage of the Brexit process.
In addition, Scotland has day to day experience of the practical benefits of EU membership.
EU regulations have made our rivers and coasts cleaner.
Our universities collaborate with research partners across the continent.
EU freedom of movement has given opportunities to people living in Scotland, and has encouraged new Scots to contribute to our economy and our society. One of our priorities, at present, is to support those EU citizens to stay in Scotland.
And of course our businesses benefit from the single market.
Figures last week demonstrated that over the last 5 years, Scotland’s sales to the EU – which account for more than half our international exports – have grown by more than 4% a year. That’s more than twice as fast as our exports to the rest of the world.
We are leaving the European Union, imperfect that it undoubtedly is, at a time when we have never benefited from it more.
And we are also leaving it – in my view - at a time when we have never needed it more.
In an age when intolerance and bigotry seems to be on the rise, the values of the EU – values of democracy, equality, solidarity, the rule of law and respect for human rights – are more important than ever.
The founding motivation of the EU, as a peace project, is one which is maybe too easily forgotten in the UK. But its importance has struck me regularly in recent years at memorial events for the two world wars – most recently, just a matter of days ago, for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
At a time of climate crisis, co-operating with the EU improves our ability to tackle climate change at home, and amplifies our voice in international negotiations.
And in an age of great trading blocks, the EU represents our best opportunity to benefit from free trade, without engaging in a race to the bottom.
All of this is important. It helps to explain why Scotland regrets Brexit, and why so many of us continue to feel European. But of course the real question, and I’m sure the one you want me to focus on, isn’t what we have lost.
It’s what happens next. What practical steps can Scotland take to mitigate the effects of the UK Government’s actions in bringing about Brexit?
And there are essentially two parts to that answer.
Firstly, for as long as Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, we will try to influence UK Government policy, and where possible, to work constructively with the UK Government.
That point extends far beyond Brexit negotiations.
As many of you will know, the COP26 Climate Summit is taking place in Glasgow in November.
It is due to be the most important climate summit since the Paris talks of 2015. In fact, given the ever-increasing urgency of the climate crisis I think there’s an argument for saying it is even more important than the Paris talks.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Glasgow summit recently, and about relations between the Scottish and UK Governments.
Let’s be very clear about my approach here.
There is a strong argument for saying that nothing that happens anywhere in the world this year will be more important, than making the Glasgow summit a success.
And so the Scottish Government will do everything we can to help make that summit a success. That includes working positively and constructively with the UK Government.
A similar principle applies to the UK’s negotiations with the EU. We will do what we can to work as closely and as constructively as possible with the UK Government.
In doing so, we will try to influence negotiations in a way which benefit Scotland, the UK and the EU. In particular, we will stress the value of having as close a trading relationship with the EU as possible.
The Prime Minister made a speech about this last week. He insisted on having the right to diverge from EU standards. In areas like social and environmental standards, on the other hand, the EU basically wants a guarantee that the UK will not regress – that the UK won’t undercut the EU by adopting lower standards.
This of course is an issue which matters hugely.
As the EU continually makes clear, the more we diverge from EU standards, the less access we will have to the single market. So the right to diverge will come at a cost – in my view a cost that is too heavy.
In the areas where non-regression applies, the UK has – and will always have – the ability to opt for higher standards than those required by the EU.
So although the Prime Minister never explicitly said this – in fact he never gave a single concrete example of an area in which divergence could benefit the UK - the only possible reason for wanting the freedom to diverge, is if you want to adopt lower standards than the EU.
As things stand, there is a danger that the UK will significantly reduce our access to the single market – something which will harm manufacturers and service industries across the country – because it wants the freedom to lower standards relating to health, safety, the environment and workers’ rights.
The Scottish Government will argue against that approach. We largely support the idea of a level playing field – which removes the possibility of the UK adopting lower standards than the EU. It helps to protect environmental standards and working conditions, and it also makes it easier for Scottish businesses to export to the EU. We will continually make that case as the negotiations proceed.
Now, on past evidence, I must confess that I am not overly optimistic about our chances of success.
And so we are also looking to what we can do with our devolved powers, to maintain the closest possible ties with the EU.
We intend to introduce legislation which enables Scotland to keep pace with EU regulatory standards, where we have the power to do so. It is a way in which we can protect the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland, maintain the international reputation of businesses in Scotland, and make it easier, when the time comes, as I believe it will, for Scotland to return to the EU.
And we will also – and this is the second part of our approach - work towards the most obvious and important step Scotland can take in response to Brexit. We will seek to become independent, and we will then seek to re-establish our EU membership.
The case for us being able to seek independence is clear.
As most of you know, Scotland six years ago had a vote on whether to become an independent country. Opponents of independence said – repeatedly - that voting to remain in the United Kingdom, was the only way for us to stay in the EU. That argument weighed heavily with many voters.
Since then, Scotland has been taken out of the EU against our will.
The UK Government dismissed the Scottish Government’s compromise offer of keeping the whole of the UK inside the Single Market and Customs Union.
And the UK’s overall approach to Brexit has consistently been contrary to Scotland’s views, values and interests.
Strong support for the EU is one of the main reasons that the party I lead did so well in the recent UK election, in which we won 80 per cent of the seats in Scotland.
But we also put front and centre in that election the right of the people of Scotland to choose their own future – between staying in the UK after Brexit, and becoming an independent country.
Since that election, opinion polls in Scotland have shown majority support for independence. And there are large majorities for the principle that it should be for the Scottish Parliament - and not the Westminster Government - to determine whether and when there should be a referendum.
I am a believer in democracy, in the rule of law, in the power of respectful persuasion and deliberation.
That is why I continue to believe that - as we press the case for Scotland’s right to choose – we should agree a process between ourselves and the UK Government for a referendum, in line with the clear mandate given by the people of Scotland.
None of this should be a matter for controversy with the UK Government. The UK is not a unitary state. It is a voluntary union of nations. And one of those nations, Scotland, has expressed majority support - time and time again – for remaining in the European Union.
I do not believe it is right that more than five million EU citizens should be removed from the European Union, after 47 years of membership, without even the chance to have their say on the future of their country.
That is why we are taking the steps required to ensure that an independence referendum can be held that is beyond legal challenge - so that the result is accepted and embraced both at home and internationally.
We are asking the Electoral Commission, the independent body that oversees elections in the UK, to test again the question used in 2014 – the question that would be used in a referendum.
We are inviting Scotland’s elected representatives – MPs, MSPs, council leaders and recent MEPs – to establish a new Constitutional Convention, to broaden support for the principle of Scotland’s right to choose.
And we will publish a series of papers – the “New Scotland” papers – giving people the information they need to make informed choices about Scotland’s future.
Those papers will include our plans for membership of the EU. I know – and some of the comments made by Donald Tusk last week confirmed this – that there is goodwill towards Scotland.
We want to build on that goodwill. We are keen to outline a clear route to re-accession; to show that that we understand what EU membership requires; and to demonstrate that we have much to offer.
Some of that should be relatively straightforward.
Scotland already complies with the European Union’s acquis – its body of laws, obligations and rights. As I have said, we are passing legislation to ensure that that continues to be the case where practically possible.
We welcome free movement, because we know how much we benefit from it.
And I hope that our overall approach as a constructive friend and partner to the EU is not in doubt.
Of course Brexit has changed the context of the choice we intend to offer the people of Scotland, compared with the 2014 referendum. But fundamentally there is a choice – do we in Scotland believe it is better for our future, or not, to be part of the world’s largest trading block and the shared values, and benefits of European Union membership?
Ultimately, when – and I believe that it is a when – Scotland gains independence, I believe that the case for us joining the EU will be an overwhelming one.
That view is shared by many very distinguished experts. In fact Fabian [Zuleeg, EPC Chief Executive], you wrote a paper about Scotland and the EU last summer which put the basic issue well – you said that for Europe, “rejecting a country that wants to be in the EU, accepts all conditions, is willing to go through the appropriate processes and follows European principles...should be inconceivable.”
Apart from anything else, we will rejoin, not simply as a country with much to gain, but as one which has much to contribute.
That is made clear by the strategy document we published two weeks ago, setting out Scotland’s perspective on the key policy priorities for the EU set out by Ursula von der Leyen – the new Commission President.
Her support for an economy that works for everyone finds direct echoes in Scotland – a country which is increasingly focussing on wellbeing, alongside wealth, as a measurement of success.
Her emphasis on a Europe fit for the digital age is one we strongly support – Scotland is becoming one of the most important tech centres in Europe.
Her desire for a Green New Deal is one we share – Scotland has some of the strongest statutory climate change targets in the world. We want to help lead the world into the net-zero carbon age – and we know our efforts are enhanced by membership of the EU.
The Commission’s other priorities also speak of our shared values.
In all of these issues, Scotland is a country which can and will make a difference – we will lead by example where we can, but we will also learn from the example of others. But we know we will do this more effectively by working in partnership. I believe very strongly that our sovereignty will be amplified, not diminished, by membership of the EU.
I began by reflecting on the last appearance – for now – of Scottish MEPs in the European parliament. When the old Scottish parliament had its last sitting in 1707, proceedings were closed by the speaker, Lord Seafield. He said “There’s the end of an auld sang”.
Those remarks found a curious echo in the scenes at the European parliament two weeks ago.
The singing of auld lang syne marked the end of something which – although maybe not that old - has been very precious to many people in Scotland.
But our task now is turn that end into a beginning, to find our voice as an independent nation, and to take our place on the European and the world stage.
When we do that, we will speak up, together with our friends in Europe and around the world, for democracy, equality and human rights. We will contribute hugely to tackling challenges such as the climate crisis. And we will work in partnership to enhance the well-being of people in Scotland, across Europe and around the world.
For all of those reasons, and many more, I look forward to the day when Scotland returns where we belong - to EU membership with a place in our own right in the Council and the European Parliament.
As an independent nation, we will embrace international co-operation.
And then we can sing of solidarity and friendship - not out of sorrow, but with optimism and hope for the future.