Scotland's future relationship with EU: ministerial statement

Minister for UK Negotiations for Scotland's Place in Europe, Michael Russell, delivers a speech to Scottish Parliament.

Thank you Presiding Officer.

And let me also start by thanking the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee (CTEERC) for tabling the reports we are considering today and for its work which has, and I am sure will, contribute much to the wider consideration in our country of the implications of the EU referendum.

There is a sense in which those implications cannot yet be fully understood and of course won't be for a long time.

Nonetheless the implications of the UK's rush towards, and achievement of, the hardest of Brexits will eventually emerge. The damage that will be done will not be completely visible on the day after the UK leaves the EU, but bit by bit its effect will be felt. Indeed some of it is beginning to be felt already, with increased prices and greater economic uncertainty.

What our job is, in this chamber, is to find ways to mitigate such damage and – if possible – to avoid as much of it as we can. It is the belief of the Scottish Government that that can only now be done by allowing the Scottish people to make an informed choice as to the future they prefer.

This debate is very timely. It will give the Scottish Parliament a chance to reflect on key issues which are covered in the report and inform the wider public of the issues at stake. In the outset we broadly welcome the reports and their conclusions.

Let me first of all, Presiding Officer, address some of those conclusions.

The overarching findings from the reports highlight a number of common themes including the economic, social, constitutional and legal implications and challenges that we will face when taken out of the European Union.

The Committee reports recognise a number of key benefits of European Union membership:

  1. They recognise the importance of the single market and that Scotland has benefited from increasing trade opportunities during the 43 years of membership;
  2. They recognise that European Union membership and access has been of vital importance to Scotland's economy;
  3. They recognise that migration is key to addressing Scotland's demographic challenges, and the need to guarantee the rights of European Union citizens resident in the UK and recognise the importance of retaining freedom of movement; and
  4. They recognise that a bespoke solution that reflects Scotland's majority vote to remain in the single market is required for Scotland.

In short, Presiding Officer, the Committee comes to many of the same conclusions that we did in our own paper, 'Scotland's Place in Europe'.

I particularly welcome the Committee's recognition of the importance of membership of – not merely access to – the single market, and that a differentiated approach is required for Scotland.

Of course our paper, 'Scotland's Place in Europe', went further. It recommended continuing membership of the single market for the UK as a whole, pointing out the benefits of such membership. But that option was rejected by the Prime Minister 48 hours before the Scottish suggestions were discussed in the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC).

And that contempt for effective process, Presiding Officer, has been the pattern over the last few months. Even now, on this day, we have no idea of the timing, substance or format of the Article 50 letter.

The JMC European Negotiations (EN) agenda is meant to be set and shaped by officials from all the administrations but there have been endless delays, papers have been provided late, and discussion of key strategic choices have been left off the agenda and work plan, which we thought we had all said should appear.

The JMC EN terms of reference set the aim of agreeing a UK approach to, and objectives for, both the Article 50 negotiations and 'oversight' of those negotiations, to ensure that – so far as is possible in any negotiation – the outcomes agreed by all four administrations were achieved. Those terms of reference themselves were painstakingly negotiated, and based on the Prime Minister's own commitment to agreeing a UK approach set out when she came to Scotland and met the First Minister on 15 July. Yet the Prime Minster now refers to the purpose of the committee as merely being for the devolved administrations to 'make representation' to the UK Government, and behaves accordingly.

The ministers from devolved administrations travel long distances to attend, as the meetings are always held in London. UK Government ministers attend to listen to the devolved administrations, but have no insights of any substance to offer themselves.

The JMC process barely discussed,, let alone agreed, the UK approach to Article 50 and the subsequent negotiations. Matters raised by me have been taken away for consideration – but not answered. It is clearly the UK Government alone who are agreeing the approach and there should be no pretence about that.

But of course the Chamber does not just have to take my word. As my Welsh colleague, Mark Drakeford, pointed out in his evidence to the House of Commons Department for Exiting the European Union (DEXU) Committee: 'St Fagans Community Council, in my constituency, would be better organised than most JMC meetings have been'. And he added a sentiment I entirely agreed with, namely: 'There is a need for greater effort to go into the basic running of this very important forum'.

All this has bedeviled genuine attempts to get constructive progress.

As has the growing insistence of the UK Government that the campaign promise of repatriation of all relevant powers after Brexit was not a promise at all. Instead a new concept of the 'UK single market' has been invented to give justification for anti-devolution, a power grab which is shamefully being supported by the Conservative members of this Parliament, against the interests of their constituents and democracy.

Yet we have kept trying. Even now we are prepared to continue to discuss areas of mutual concern and Brexit issues of vital importance to Scotland.

But we must also prepare ourselves for the future. We can have little if any confidence in the ability of the UK Government to secure a deal that works for us. That deal – a compromise deal involving single market membership for Scotland and an increase in devolved powers – has been on offer from us for the past three months, but has produced no formal response. So the First Minister has rightly determined that we must provide a clear plan for the next two years.

And she has done that by ensuring that the people of Scotland will get to choose between the Brexit deal, as negotiated by the UK, and independence, on a prospectus that will be brought forward by the Scottish Government.

As the First Minister also made clear at her press conference on Monday, we remain open to a substantive and positive response to our paper and our proposals. But it is very hard to see that coming forward.

And indeed the opposite is happening. Last Thursday the Prime Minister's spokesperson ruled out any devolved responsibility for migration within hours of David Davis – with whom I have no issues in terms of his personal commitment to progress – indicating in the House that this might still be possible. Moreover that was done while a high level civil service negotiation group was still in existence, trying to identify a way forward. And later that day the JMC that has been long diaried for tomorrow was put off without an alternative date being offered and without any contact between Ministers. I do not know when we will next have contact on Brexit with UK Ministers, though I should make it clear we want that contact to continue, and on many issues – such as the Great Repeal Bill – it will be essential.

Leaving the EU will be profoundly damaging to our economy, our society and our reputation in the world. The people of Scotland did not vote for that damage and have the right to reject it and choose a different future.

This Government has a mandate from its manifesto for that approach. Each of us on this side of the Chamber told our electorate that we believed that:

"The Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum... if there is significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014 such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will."

There is quite a contrast between that clear statement which is now being honoured – and which is underpinned by the fact that we are sitting here as an elected Government – and that of the Conservatives in 2015, whose manifesto said, 'Yes to the single market'.

So on mandates let's be crystal clear: we are honouring one, they are breaking one.

Accordingly we now have a plan in place which will move to the next stage on Tuesday and Wednesday when this Scottish Parliament will be asked to approve a request for a Section 30 order.

Presiding Officer, those who believe in the 19th century concept of an untrammeled, sovereign, very British Parliament refusing to accept the help of those who contribute to our wellbeing because they come from elsewhere, reluctant to encourage our young people from every background to live and learn in other places, refusing to accept judgments of courts outside our shores and looking backwards with longing to the days of Empire – for those people the very idea of devolution is a threat to that sovereignty and to their myth-ridden nostalgic world view.

Presiding Officer, they want power concentrated at Westminster – they believe that is the only place from which power should be exercised. I do not believe that. I believe there is a choice to be made. A choice for the Scottish people.



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