Alyn delivered a keynote to to the European Small Islands Network AGM which was held in Mull on September 21st.
See his full speech below:
Thank you, ladies, gentlemen, I’m privileged to be here with you today and thrilled to see you all in Scotland from all parts of the European compass. Ceud mille failte! A hundred thousand welcomes, as we say in these parts in our other language!
It is fitting that there are as many local representatives present as there are, local councillors from Argyll and Bute council, Cabinet Secretary in our national government and local Member of Parliament Mike Russell, along with Highlands, and indeed Islands, Member Mike MacKenzie. We’re proud to have you here on Mull, in Scotland, hosting a meeting which I think exemplifies what the idea of Europe is all about. The European Small Islands Network really is the EU in action – sharing experience and ideas, pooling talent, because we’re all from hugely different places, islands especially have strong and proud identities, but often the issues we face, like us, have more in common than not and we can learn from each other.
You do of course join us at a fascinating, exciting, energising time in Scotland’s history. We’re on a constitutional journey that is putting the people back in charge of our own futures. We re-established our national Parliament in 1999, barely 13 years ago - after a brief hiatus of 292 years from its adjournment! – and Scottish politics has grown ever since. We’re committed to a referendum on independence for Scotland in 2014 where the people will make a choice.
That national conversation is energising the people of Scotland about what sort of country we want to be and our place in the world. But big as that is, its having a more profound effect than that. Independence doesn’t stop in Edinburgh, independence is about doing government, doing democracy differently, about putting the people, and communities, back in control of their own lives.
I’ve been lucky enough to be a Member of the European Parliament for 8 years, sitting alongside other deputies from the Algarve to the Arctic circle, vastly different places but sharing common challenges, and working together to learn from each other and beat them together.
I’ve seen how different places organise themselves very differently, the idea that the EU is one size fits all is a delusion, one size can’t fit all! The EU is a common framework that allows us all space to organise ourselves in the way that will best match our needs. And the whole point to independence is that we can have an energising discussion about precisely that - where decisions should best be taken. And we in the SNP are keen on that dialogue, keen on that debate. If independence is about putting the people of Scotland back in charge of their lives, then that logic applies just as much to Mull, The Western Isles, Shetland or Arran or whatever group works best.
Island communities are not short of ideas, of an independent spirit and resilience that I often wish other communities had too. My view is that we can, and should, create a new country where communities have as much autonomy as they want, within a strong Scottish state within a wider European framework. I’m relaxed - I’m enthusiastic! – about that discussion because we’re one nation, while any part of the nation may want more autonomy than it has presently, there is an equilibrium in such matters and I’m confident that the bonds that unite us all as Scots are strong in every sense.
And there’s no shortage of models to choose from, or invent our own. The Faroes, the Aland islands, the Azores, the Greek municipality island groups, there are lots of ideas to choose from, and if that discussion is about what will work best, then we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
There’s a lot of time – not enough but still a lot - spent in Brussels and other capitals wondering about how we can help our island communities. Maybe if we gave islands the powers they need to help themselves we’d see the talent and enthusiasm unleashed to all our benefit. Fostering a culture of independence is about more than nationhood, it’s about putting communities back in charge, and what is a nation after all but a big community?
But the wider backdrop is going through, as you know, something of an evolution as well. The financial crisis has brought us to, I believe, a pivotal point in the evolution of the EU. Everything we think we know is up for grabs. We have not seen the end of the crisis, but I do believe we’ve sent he beginning of the solution. In order to have the strong common currency the EU was promised, we need to see a far stronger common framework, with teeth, than we had hitherto. That raises genuine thorny questions about sovereignty, accountability and control at a time when the EU is, let’s face it, hardly loved.
We’re going to see an unprecedented wrangle over the EU budget, of crucial relevance to islands in terms of CAP spend, cohesion policy, transport infrastructure grants, research funding and interreg style partnerships. We all like those programmes, but our member state chancellors are going to fight as never before to keep their budget contributions down. I believe all EU budgets are under unprecedented strain. What the Commision has proposed will I suspect be a long way off what the member states are prepared to pay for.
So it is all the more important you have a loud and clear voice in Brussels. You’re not without allies. The ESIN, as well as organisations like the CPMR, the Islands Pact too, are all useful for a to formulate a view and create a common message. Your MEPs are I hope being useful to you in promoting that message. If they’re not, call them to account.
Within the Parliament, we have created the Article 174 Intergroup. Article 174 of course being the first time island, mountainous and sparsely populated areas were given a specific status within the EU treaties, because the issues caused by those geographic factors are often similar in their policy and budget implications. The intergroup brings together the best part of a couple of hundred MEPs from all points of the compass, geographically and politically. I’m flattered to see from the programme I’m being billed as President of the Intergroup but I am in fact the Vice President, our President is Polish conservative Boguslav Sonik. The intergroup, like all intergroups, meets infrequently, but can best be described as a network of supporters, a caucus within the Parliament. I’d like to see us be more active, especially I’d like to see us get away from a focus on cohesion policy and constantly looking for more money for islands, when, while I’m sure you’d not say no, certainly most of the issues I think are holding us back are actually more about state aid rules, transport, agriculture and fisheries policies.
So budgets are under pressure, cohesion policy, fisheries policy, agriculture policy and transport policy are all under major review. Procurement policy likewise is going to be comprehensively rewritten, sadly we’re seeing no such appetite to reform state aids, but perhaps in the next mandate. Timescales, we hope to have all the legislation on all programmes through Parliament by the end of this year, and the new programmes ready to commence in 2014 or thereabouts. The timetable will slip, I’m quite sure, given events in the financial markets, but I’m pretty confident the Parliament is on track, the real scope for delay will be in the Council where the Member State governments will fall out over money.
But one policy that I think showed real promise and truly hasn’t delivered is the Integrated Maritime Policy. Unique among Commission policy priorities, it attempts to recognise that policies might look distinct on a Commission organigramme but actually overlap in the real world. Fisheries, Energy, environmental protection, transport all overlap on islands, and it is important we view them together. I applaud the Commission for trying at least. We saw a Commission progress report on the 11th of this month, and I’m afraid, the verdict is pretty much the same as every school report card I ever had – could do better. The impact of different EU rules is often contradictory, and the different parts of the Commission are still not talking together with any meaningful outcomes.
I want to see Article 174 status given teeth, make it mean something – derogations from state aids, additional status akin to Less Favoured Area status in the Common Agricultural Policy, special dispensation from the Common Fisheries Policy, priority in the TENs networks. Giving Article 174 areas a genuinely beneficial status in EU policy terms would, without necessarily costing a penny, remove a lot of obstacles that are holding you back. I’m plugging away at that, but the Commission, and the Member states, aren’t keen. You need to be more vocal, help me to help you. You’re not without allies, make some demands of us, as well as Scotland’s referendum, a European election is coming up in 2014, you’ll find us all unusually receptive!
Because, seriously, there’s nothing wrong with our islands that won’t be put right by what’s right with our islands. But if the EU funds, and rules and framework isn’t fitting, then make it fit. Tell us what to do, tell us indeed what not to do! I’ll be here all day to work with you, listen to your experience, I believe I’m chairing the wrap up session later today and I want a list of action points. I’m delighted to welcome you to Scotland, and look forward to working with you today and in the future towards our common goal.