Brexit and beyond: where next for Scottish-EU relations - First Minister's speech

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's speech at the European Policy Centre, Brussels.

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Thank you Fabian for setting the scene so well and thank you very much for the invitation to speak to you today and then take part in a discussion and, of course, thank you to all of you for coming along here.

It’s always a real pleasure for me to be here in Brussels, a particular pleasure to be here on a day when Scotland has such a strong and visible presence in this city but despite what the timing might suggest I haven’t come here for the football this evening.

I have just come from France, watching the women’s team play football but of course while I’ll be paying close attention to the result of the football match this evening my purpose in being here today is a bit different.

This evening, just before the match kicks off, I’ll be launching a showcase of theatre, music and dance performances from Scotland which were successful at last year’s Edinburgh fringe. It’s running at five different venues for the next three days - I hope that some of you might get the opportunity to catch parts of it.

Earlier this morning, I met with Michel Barnier and later today will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker. And, as you might expect, Brexit is central to these discussions and will also be a key part of my remarks this morning.

That said I am going to spend less time than you might have anticipated talking about the details of the current position in the UK, although I will be very happy to answer any questions that you have later on.

But that’s partly because I don’t want to fill you all with utter despair. Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s mainly because I don’t want to fill myself with despair!

And, of course, there isn’t yet a coherent or a credible UK government position to speak of.

However, my determination not to focus solely on Brexit this morning is also because I want to spend some time talking about broader issues – in particular about the values of the EU, and how Scotland sees our place in the world, and of course the relationship between those two things.

But before I do that, I will briefly summarise the Scottish Government’s position on Brexit which I’m sure is already well known to all of you.

Scotland voted to remain in the EU in 2016, that vote was overwhelming.

The Scottish Government deeply regrets – that’s probably an understatement - the UK’s vote to leave. We think the best option – for the UK, and certainly the best option for Scotland – is to remain in the European Union.

Despite that we recognised the outcome of the UK-wide vote, and argued for a long time for possible compromise solutions.

In March and April, there was a process of indicative votes in the House of Commons in London. MPs were asked to vote on possible Brexit outcomes and of course nothing got a majority. But the idea then was to assess which options were most likely to command a majority in the UK political arena.

The party I lead, the SNP, as you might expect, voted to revoke Article 50, we also voted to hold a second referendum on EU membership – that reflected our strong preference to remain in the EU. But we also voted for the proposal that - should remaining not prove possible – that the UK should stay in the single market and the customs union.

And that reflected a proposal we made some two years ago. Indeed – although it is not my preferred outcome – that is in many ways the logical compromise solution, given the narrowness of the leave majority across the whole of the UK.

It’s also a compromise that at least has some basis in reality. Michel Barnier, when he spoke here in April, made it clear that the EU could accept a customs union, or a relationship similar to the Norway model – as long, of course, as the UK abandons its self-defeating red lines that make these outcomes impossible.

But I have to say that - even in the couple of months since these indicative votes happened in the House of Commons - the chances of that compromise have all but disappeared. And so increasingly, the likeliest way of avoiding a hard Brexit, or a no-deal Brexit, is for the UK to avoid Brexit altogether.

Now I’m not standing here before you today naively or under any illusions about the difficulty of achieving that outcome. But as somebody who wants to see that outcome and wants to see the UK and Scotland remaining in the EU, nor am I prepared at this stage to give up on that prospect.

Of course that could be achieved - avoiding Brexit – by revoking the article 50 notification – and we have had the judgement, helped along by my colleague Alyn Smith here, of the European Court of Justice which has said that it’s possible for the UK to unilaterally revoke Article 50 as long as it is a definite decision and not simply a play for time.

And that’s an option my party, the Government will support, particularly if that is the only alternative to crashing out in October or any time with no deal. But perhaps the likelier route to avoiding Brexit – particularly if we can persuade the Labour opposition in the House of Commons to endorse this unequivocally – is a second referendum.

That said there is no guarantee that there would be a majority in the UK as a whole for remaining in the EU in a second referendum. And of course there would only be time for that to happen if the EU can be persuaded to agree a further extension to the Article 50 process.

However, it would offer the opportunity for those of us who want to see the UK stay in the EU to make and to win that argument.

Because there’s not very much clear in the UK right now but I think one thing that is clear is that very few people voted for the current position of chaos. And of course the specific details of what Brexit involves weren’t really known in 2016, they are much better known and much better understood now.

So in these circumstances, checking whether people across the UK still want to go ahead with Brexit is the obvious – to my mind - democratic course of action. So that is what my Government will argue for and we will work with others to try to bring that about.

That said, and it may be something I go in to later on in response to questions, I think Fabian is absolutely correct to say that, while the opportunity to avert Brexit may have increased, so too has the risk of a no deal Brexit at the end of October, and that is something that deeply concerns me and my Government.

And of course, from a Scottish perspective, we also need to consider the best way forward if we cannot be successful in persuading the UK not to leave the European Union, or at the very least, not leave the European Union in the most damaging way possible.

Brexit - and everything that flows from it - runs counter to our democratic wishes. It would constrain the choices of Scottish Governments now and into the future and reduce our ability, for a long time to come, to fund public services, support our businesses, tackle poverty, and work with other countries to tackle the big challenges that we face.

In addition the Brexit vote, and the events of the last three years, have caused many of us in Scotland to really question how the UK works as a political entity, and whether the Westminster system of government is the best way to secure the optimum future for Scotland.

After all, the UK is supposed to be a partnership of equal nations but that is not the case, self-evidently that is not the case.

In fact the contrast between the solidarity shown to Ireland by the EU, and the way Scotland has been treated by the UK Government, really does speak volumes.

Far from being an equal partner, the views of the Scottish people, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament have all been ignored.

And instead of prompting a re-think to, amongst other things, accommodate the views of people in Scotland, if the deadlock at Westminster over Brexit is anything to go by – that is going to lead to a worldview that is even more at odds with Scotland’s values and even more damaging to our future.

The other countries in the UK – and this is an obvious point but worth making - will always be Scotland’s closest friends and our closest neighbours – that will always be the case, regardless of our constitutional future. But I think Brexit increasingly demonstrates why Scotland does need the ability to chart a different course for our own future.

Which is why the Scottish Government is making the preparations now to give people in Scotland the choice of becoming an independent country.

And it’s worth adding I think that as we do that, we are absolutely determined to learn the lessons of Brexit.

One of those lessons is to proceed, at home and across Europe, in as consensual a manner as we possibly can.

The fact that, just as on Brexit, people hold passionate views on the issue of Scottish independence - both for and against – shouldn’t stop us trying to find as much common ground as possible. And it should make us all the more determined to foster a debate that is open, frank, respectful and well informed.

The misleading claims that were made in the Brexit referendum, the excessively and needlessly confrontational approach that the UK Government has taken since then has resulted in the mess that the UK now finds itself in.

So as we chart Scotland’s way forward, we must do it differently. That is why, for example, we are learning from Ireland and other countries by establishing a Citizens’ Assembly on Scotland’s future.

The Scottish Government has also made a conscious and deliberate attempt to reach out to other political parties so they can contribute to discussions and decisions about the way forward as well.

In Scotland this year actually we are marking the 20th anniversary of devolution, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. The first speech that was ever made in the new Scottish Parliament, in May 1999, was by Winnie Ewing. At the time she made that speech, she was also of course the mother of the European Parliament, having served there since 1979. In fact, she was known here in Brussels as “Madame Ecosse”.

Winnie expressed the hope that the Scottish Parliament would try to follow the more consensual style of the European parliament and other European parliaments, rather than the more confrontational approach of Westminster. And in our actions now, we are trying to stay true to that advice.

The 20th anniversary of devolution is also relevant to the wider points I want to make about Scotland’s place in the world, and how that relates to the values of the European Union.

It was always envisaged that self-government for Scotland would lead to a stronger Scottish presence overseas. Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister, argued that a new parliament would add “a new dimension” to Scotland’s presence in Europe.

For that reason, Scotland House was established in Brussels in 1999 – and I’m sure you’ll receive invitations to its 20th birthday celebrations shortly.

And in the two decades since then, our role and presence here has grown significantly. This week’s cultural showcase is just one example of that.

That has been mirrored by a stronger European presence in Scotland – both through institutions such as the European Commission office - and the European Parliament Office - and of course through the EU citizens who have made such a valuable contribution to Scotland in recent years.

And it’s important to note that in many ways, even in 1999, the establishment of Scotland House was long overdue. It simply reflected a basic truth that Scotland is, always has been, and always will be a European nation.

But its establishment also recognised a desire – shared by the majority of parties in Scotland and the majority of people in Scotland – to strengthen our ties with Europe.

That desire clearly still exists today. In the Brexit referendum, more than 60% of voters in Scotland voted to remain, there were majorities for remain in every single local authority area of our country.

In last month’s European Parliament elections, there was again an overwhelming majority for remain parties. My own party – which ran on an unequivocally pro-EU platform - won half of the Scottish seats, and our MEPs are here today.

And a point that you possibly may not have picked up in the UK media is that my pro-EU party won a higher percentage share of the vote in Scotland than the Brexit Party did in the UK. So that is a signal of the different attitudes that exist. So I think it’s fair to say that during the referendum Scotland really has been at the forefront of the battle of ideas that is confronting many European countries today.

In these contests, people in Scotland have consistently supported ideals of internationalism, European solidarity and co-operation.

As we in Scotland consider our future, I hope, and believe, that is being acknowledged and welcomed here in Brussels and across the EU.  

One reason for the choices that we’ve recently made in Scotland is perhaps the fact that we are used to multiple identities. It’s not something that’s unique to Scotland, but it is certainly commonplace in Scotland.

I was struck by a point that President Juncker made about this in last year’s State of the European Union address. He said “We should never forget that the patriotism of the 21st century is twofold: both European and national, with one not excluding the other.”

I endorse that sentiment but I would also point out that for many people in Scotland - and I’m sure, across Europe - patriotism can be even more multifaceted. We can be Scottish and British and European. We can be Scottish and Polish – or Italian, or Pakistani, and much else besides – and European.

And so it shouldn’t be surprising that belief in Scottish independence - which is about self-government, not about ethnicity - goes hand in hand with a strong belief in internationalism and interdependence. National identity is not, and never should be, an exclusive concept.

For that reason, the basic values of the EU are ones we identify with. We like the idea of independent countries co-operating for the common good. The commitments that heads of government made last month - defending one Europe, staying united, looking for joint solutions, promoting fairness, protecting democracy and the rule of law – these are ones that the Scottish Government endorse and we want to continue to contribute to.

In fact, for all its imperfections – and let’s face it all governments and all organisations are imperfect – there is an idealism to the EU project which appeals very strongly to us in Scotland.

It is, at its heart, a peace project. We have been reminded of that even more strongly than ever in the last week as we commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day. But the EU also exemplifies the international consensus and cooperation which will be needed to meet the current major challenges that the world faces.

The climate crisis – the defining challenge of our generation - is perhaps the most obvious example.

Scotland already collaborates with our European partners on marine renewables, low-carbon buildings, low emissions vehicles. And of course in major negotiations like those in the run-up to the Paris Agreement, being part of the EU helps to amplify the voice of member countries.

Scotland will play a leading role in tackling climate change in any circumstances. But we know that we will act more effectively as part of the EU, and the EU will act more effectively with Scotland’s contribution.

There are many other examples, too. They exemplify the fact that - while Scotland benefits greatly from EU membership - we also have much to contribute through our universities, scientists, our companies, our creative artists, and our natural resources.

Adapting to an ageing population is one where we already partner in the European innovation Partnership on Active and healthy ageing.

Harnessing new technology and artificial intelligence is another area where we have much to contribute as well as much to learn.

And although the examples I’ve mentioned deliver practical benefits to people across Europe, they also all come back to values of fairness and solidarity. They reflect the fact that the EU is about more than trade and commerce – it is also concerned with the wellbeing of its citizens, as well as the wealth of its member states.

And therefore makes a systematic effort to balance growth with sustainability and with a concern for equality. It sees free trade as a march to the top rather than a race to the bottom.

Now there is a great deal of work to be done of course to ensure that these principles are always translated into reality. But they are principles that are worth standing up for.

The importance of that is coming into greater focus in the EU. President Trump was in London last week, and his visit of course prompted discussions about a possible trade deal between the UK and the USA. Many of those discussions focused attention on the possibility that the US could seek changes to food our environmental standards, or that its private companies would gain greater access to the National Health Service.

And it was impossible to listen to those discussions without reflecting again on all that the UK is in danger of losing.

In a world of great trading blocks, the EU is our best means of expanding free trade while preserving social protections.

In an age where the voices of protectionism and intolerance often seem to be getting louder, the EU amplifies our own support for openness, diversity and human rights.

And at a time when the rules-based international order is being threatened, the EU exemplifies the value of co-operation and solidarity.

So just to conclude before we get round to our discussions, I mentioned the D-Day commemorations a bit earlier. The EU’s immense contribution to post-war peace, reconciliation and human rights was of course recognised in 2012 when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In his acceptance speech for the prize, Herman van Rompuy – who of course was then the European council president – expressed the hope that future generations - in whatever language they choose - will say that “I am proud to be European.”

And those words express the hope and expectation I have for future generations in Scotland. I believe that we too will be proud to be European. And I hope that our European identity will continue to find expression in our membership of the European Union.

Because of that, the Scottish Government will exert a positive influence - whenever we can – in the wider debate about UK membership. But in the spirit of international co-operation and solidarity, we also desire the option of taking our own place in Europe.

We want not simply to benefit from free movement and free trade – although we do - we also want to contribute Scotland’s ideas and talents to Europe’s shared challenges, and to uphold and exemplify our shared values.

In the 20 years since devolution, our contribution has already grown significantly. For all the current challenges we face, my hope - and my belief - is that it will grow further in the years to come.

We look forward to working with our friends across Europe to make that happen.

Thank you so much for listening this morning and I look forward to the discussion we’re about to have.


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