Brexit has already started to hurt Scottish NGOs ... and the most vulnerable suffer

THE UK hasn’t even left the EU yet but there are already serious negative effects rippling across non-governmental organisations.

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First published in The National, 15 November 2017.

The work of those such as Amnesty Scotland, Saferworld and Save the Children has been tremendous in influencing the EU’s agenda and, truth be told, not many folk realise how much Scottish and UK NGOs have benefitted from the EU.

First of all, it’s money. The EU is the world’s largest donor for development, humanitarian and human rights NGOs. Its institutions are more transparent than most – the European Commission regularly consults with NGOs to improve its policies, and the European Parliament invites NGOs at hearings to shape or reshape EU policies worldwide.

NGOs have understood they can win more campaigns if they spend time in Brussels and work with their EU institutions because the EU has, despite its flaws, been a powerful ally to those who want to empower civil society, strengthen its voice on the international stage and mobilise citizens to change policies on a continental rather than national scale.

Scotland has six MEPs who sit in the European Parliament and amend legislation. This means, as your representative, I can raise the points of Scottish NGO’s directly in meetings with EU officials and raise our priorities in the chamber.

Recently, I’ve been forming alliances with my Swedish counterparts to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia due to the war in Yemen – an issue that my constituents have contacted me about.

I hosted Europe’s most important photo exhibition on mass torture in Syria, after teaming up with my Dutch, Italian and French colleagues to urge the international community to stop the bloodshed.

We’ve increased EU support to Malawi, a country that enjoys deep ties to Scotland, thanks to NGOs’ consistent advocacy. All this is only possible because we’re part of the EU. Scotland’s NGOs have a good reputation in Europe – even America wanted to get involved by basing their Mercy Corps in Edinburgh – as do UK NGOs as a whole.

But after Brexit ...

Let’s bring in some red, white and blue reality. The EU will not offer preferential treatment to the UK – it has been flexible enough to accommodate its numerous opt-outs and opt-ins but there are limits to accommodating Britain’s whims if it decides to leave the EU team altogether. So some international NGOs have started to focus on non-UK MEPs for their future advocacy. A letter coming from a soon-to-be third state does not resonate as much. NGOs will need to rely on their EU partners in Denmark or Germany to relay their priorities directly to the ones who ultimately vote on the EU’s policies: the 27 remaining member states and their MEPs.

So one unexpected result of Brexit will be a weaker Scottish and British civil society, regardless of whether the UK Government negotiates a hard or soft divorce, and so contingency planning has been added to the NGOs’ already creaking workload. You know, in addition to all the work they’re doing regarding the migrants’ crisis, climate change, conflicts in the Middle East or Trump’s global gag rule banning US funding for NGOs that support women rights to bodily autonomy, to name but a few. Scottish NGOs will need to increase their level of engagement in Brussels to further cement relationships with their EU partners, preserving their membership in federations and representations whenever possible. Some of the best foreign NGOs such as the Norway Refugee Council have expanded their outreach in Brussels despite Norway rejecting EU membership by a majority of 52 per cent in a referendum in 1994.

Incidentally, I have been told countless times by bonafide Norwegians in Brussels that EU membership would be much better for their country as they would have a direct, rather than indirect influence. Despite contributing to the EU budget, Norway has no voting rights. They get what they’re given. Is that really the best that Scotland can do?

Will the UK negotiate to preserve EU funding to UK and Scottish NGOs after Brexit?

Will the UK fully comply with EU environmental regulations and apply the European Court of Justice rulings after Brexit? Maybe not. Will it have a say in the elaboration of the EU’s guidelines on humanitarian aid and development? Probably not.

Scottish and UK NGOs must push for more transparent Brexit negotiations – the EU has done its part in publishing all its documents online and coming to our European Parliament to answer our questions on a monthly basis.

I do not see this level of scrutiny in Westminster, nor do I see the UK Government involving the Scottish Government, whose population voted overwhelmingly against Brexit in the first place.

This is not “taking back control”. This is losing influence. As always, it will be the most vulnerable who will suffer first, and suffer most.