Smith Addresses International Kurdish Conference

19 November 2010
Speaking at the 7th International Conference on the EU, Turkey and the Kurds, Scottish MEP Alyn Smith called for the EU to take a more active role in facilitating the rights of the Kurdish people.

This conference, which took place over the course of two days, brought together speakers from across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Together they sought to obtain a clear vision for future democratic initiatives within Turkey. A major part of this was seeking to address the problems faced by the large Kurdish population within Turkey.

Alyn Smith's full speech is transcribed below.

Dank u wel Mevrouw de Voorzitter, though I’m afraid that my Dutch does not suffice for me to make the rest of the presentation in Dutch so I’ll switch to English!

I’m delighted to be here and do thank the organizers for my invite, to support a just and viable peace in Kurdistan. I’m struck, listening to previous speeches of experience in South Africa, Northern Ireland and indeed in Kurdistan itself that I’m conscious that we in Scotland have been blessed in our politics. We have, in modern times at least, been able to manage a constitutional debate, and a constitutional process, without bloodshed, and I can only marvel at the courage and fortitude of previous speakers and their experiences.

But one of the key strengths of the European Union, this family of states and nations of ours, is that we are all different, but we’re often facing common issues, and by learning from each other and sharing ideas, and even criticizing failures of our friends and colleagues, we can all advance.

Scottish politics, like everyone else’s, are a product of our history. Scotland has the oldest national flag in Europe, our borders have not changed in 450 years – and there are not many countries can say that! – and we have, even now, distinct legal, educational, even religious traditions. The members of our sovereign parliament in 1707 voted, voluntarily, to enter into a Treaty of Union with England and Wales to form Great Britain. That was supposed to end constitutional debate, and it was, to an extent, until in 1999, after much dialogue, engagement and a Constitutional Convention which brought together all shades of Scottish opinion, our ancient Parliament was reconvened, as a legislative assembly with some limited economic powers, but a sub-state Parliament answerable to the UK parliament in Westminster. We have 129 members, MSPs, elected by a proportionate system, and in 2007 my party, the National Party, won power, as a minority administration, and have been in power since.

And it is worth a brief explanation of my party, and our philosophy, because it underpins my thoughts today. We are proudly nationalist, but nationalism means many things to many people, and as we’ve heard already, is all too easily misrepresented, usually deliberately by people with an anti-democratic agenda. As I say, we’re nationalist, we want to see an independent Scotland, and we want that independent Scotland to be a member state of the EU, playing a full and rich part in working with our neighbours and our friends. But we’re left of centre social-democrats, sitting in the Green Group in this Parliament, civic nationalists, our quest for independence is based on our traditions, and our aspirations for a better future which we believe we can achieve with a more direct government that better fits our needs and hopes. We reject any concept of ethnicity, religion, background or creed, our only criterion to being Scottish is “Do you live here?” and if you do you are, we’ve little interest in where you’re from, it is where we can take our country together. Being Scottish is, to quote one of our great poets, an accent of the mind, and if you share our country and share our values, you’re in.

And it is that egalitarian respect that I apply to this issue, and indeed others.  In exactly the same way as I do not support a united Ireland, a British Northern Ireland or indeed an independent Northern Ireland, I support the right of the people of Northern Ireland to choose their future.  In the same way I would not be so arrogant as to suggest to the people of Kurdistan, or indeed Turkey, what is good for you, but I emphatically support and encourage your right to make that decision for yourselves.

And, crucially, as a consequence of that, I oppose, and will criticize and will work against, any organisation which would seek to limit or suppress that right. And it is quite clear that the state of Turkey has a case to answer.  Further than that, given those rights are being undermined and suppressed those of us who can are under a positive duty to intercede and to advocate change. I can only agree with previous speakers, the EU as a whole has been far too passive in encouraging meaningful dialogue. We must recognise that the different member states do indeed have often very different views on the issue, but we can be too softly, softly and I would like to see far more proactive engagement in encouraging change.

And what that change is will be, following our philosophy, up to you. But the EU is not short of examples and ideas on constitutional innovation.

And here I make my key point: membership of the EU, by virtue of providing a common framework that is bigger than individual states, does not set states in stone but facilitates, both actively and passively, internal constitutional reform, where the people will it.

Scotland is not the only country making constitutional progress. In the state of Spain we have seen in recent decades massive changes in Cataluñya and the Basque Country, and other autonomous communities, in Belgium we have seen a federal system invented to better reflect the needs of the Flemish and Wallonian peoples, and even in the UK, we have seen the peoples of Wales and Northern Ireland reclaim power from the centre.

All different, but all examples of my central point, that the EU makes change easier by externalizing guarantees of peace, legal rights and prosperity. And where the people desire changes to how they are governed, externalizing that debate can very often make the process a more rational and constructive one.  Where the people will it, and where not, then the existing structures must, one presumes, have the support and confidence of their populations.

And any state that seeks to be part of that family of nations, as a pre-condition of entry, accepts that process and must be willing to contemplate a degree of change.

So that’s why I voted to commence talks in earnest with Turkey to accede to the Union, and that is a genuine offer. I do not believe in talks for the sake of it, if Turkey meets our standards then Turkey should be able to join, I’m in favour of a wider EU, and if Scotland is a community of the mind then the EU is a community of values, and if you share our values you are welcome.

But where I voted to start talks, I would assuredly vote no to membership today. Turkey has made progress, and deserves some praise, but remains a long way away, not least in recognizing and respecting the legitimate, and long-frustrated, rights of the Kurdish people. It is quite clear that there is a tragically insufficient architecture of government to respond to the needs of the people, and the EU is under a positive duty to facilitate that reform.

So having given you a brief tour of different models of devolution, and hopefully outlined what I believe to be a key driver in that process, I’ll wind up by promising you that while the people in charge of your constitutional future should be you, there is no shortage of ideas and experience for you to draw upon, and within this Parliament there is no shortage of advocates and allies as you seek to build a just and lasting peace. Thank you.