I’m writing this week from Dublin, where I’m meeting with the Irish Institute for Inter-national and European Affairs, one of the world’s best think tanks.
First published in The National, 16 August 2016
I’m over here to reach out to our friends and colleagues across the EU to compare notes on what Brexit means for us all, and see where we can work together.
The Brexit vote has huge implications for Ireland, and we will need to make sure that we work with our friends to try and find some sort of solution to the mess we’re all in.
The Leave campaign across the UK was notable for its selfishness, at the blithe assurance that Dear Old Blighty would be able to demand better deals because the UK is somehow popular. That misplaced arrogance has riled everyone, everywhere, and the implications are only now starting to sink in. The significance of the vote goes way beyond our shores.
In Ireland, our nearest neighbour, there are real implications of Brexit. How will Irish nationals in the UK be treated? How will Irish goods being transshipped through the UK be dealt with? Crucially, what about the North? The Brexit vote in Northern Ireland is pretty stark, with the Leave/Remain constituency votes almost exactly along the Nationalist/Unionist split. The Stormont government is similarly divided, with Sinn Fein firmly in the Remain side and the Democratic Unionist Party firmly Leave.
There is a land border across the island of Ireland, which without the EU underpinning the rights of citizens has been thrown into sharp relief. The Northern Ireland UK Minister, James Brokenshire, has promised there will be no hard border between North and South. I don’t see how that can be achieved.
But there is also a plurality of issues across the UK. A majority of Northern Ireland voted to remain; likewise, Gibraltar voted massively to remain and the issue of their border with Spain is existential. Without freedom of movement across the border I’m not sure Gibraltar would be viable in its current form, so a solution must be found. Scotland, by contrast, has a united and competent administration with the support of Parliament behind it. What works, or doesn’t work, for Gibraltar or Northern Ireland, needs to work for us as well.
So after our leader met with Theresa May we were promised a “UK approach” to Brexit, and that’s helpful, but it is also a virtue out of necessity. May also knows that she doesn’t have a strong hand. We are, all of us, trying to find solutions to this but we also have other options. And we’ll work with our friends and allies to make sure that the UK does take account of the bigger picture, in the open, for the people we all serve to see what works best.
That means doing what we’re doing. Nicola’s trip to Berlin last week was exactly what we will continue doing: speaking directly, acting like the competent, credible administration we are, doing what’s best for Scotland, and the wider world.
I’ve spent the last 12 years in the European Parliament doing just that. I win my votes, by and large. Working with people on the areas where we can work together, being vocal, approachable, professional. The last few months have blown every door across Europe open to us; Scotland is the good news story the EU needs.
We do of course need to be careful, measured and responsible. Things are tense, and there are a lot of nervous people out there who want reassurance that their representatives are getting on with the job, not politicking. And indeed we are. Scotland’s future EU status, whatever it is, will be decided as much in Dublin, Copenhagen or Bratislava as in London or Brussels. We need to go and explain what’s happening in Scotland. That’s why I’ve put myself forward for Depute.
Derek Bateman in his blog gave a compliment I’m very proud of: that I “exude the kind of confidence he expects from a European insider representing an independent member state rather than a devolved region”. We already look the part, and by acting the part we look and sound like an aspiring member state that, in the words of Jean Claude Juncker, “has won a right to be heard”. I’m in Dublin speaking not on behalf of a chippy region but of one of Europe’s oldest states, a constructive partner to be taken seriously.
At Westminster we’ll always be the awkward squad and we can’t speak to the world via a Palace by the Thames. The good news is we don’t need to. I can go anywhere and all the doors are open.