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College of Europe Alumni Speech, European parliament

"Ladies and gentlemen, or perhaps cheres collegues as I should say, I'm truly delighted to host the College of Europe Alumni network here in Europe's Parliament this evening, as an Ancien myself I've many happy memories of my time at the College and I'm delighted to see the College, and the network, going from strength to strength.  I was Promotion Ramon Llull, the first year to be based full time at the Natolin campus of the College in Warsaw, 1995/96, a truly inspiring time to be there.  The Berlin wall not long fallen, the ramifications of post Communist transition happening all around us on a daily basis.  An exhilarating, exciting time to be there and be alive.

And then when I was elected to this house in 2004, my delight to see two of my old Natolin Professors here as colleagues, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski sitting to my political right in the EPP group, and the dear dear man, and much missed Bronislaw Geremek more towards my seat in the ALDE group.  Also at home, to see so many friends and colleagues from countries we were brought up to believe were enemies not just coming to work in Scotland but living and staying and using the EU status to enrich our and their lives.  Just up the road from my house in Edinburgh, my favourite Polish deli.  The newest member of my Edinburgh team, Ania Lewandowska, proudly Polish, proudly Scottish too.  Again, an exciting time to be part of the ever constantly evolving European project.

So we in the European Parliament, we in Brussels, understand that constitutional change happens.  By my reckoning, and it is a significant point, just under half of my MEP colleagues not just lived through the independence of their countries but often played a leading role in it.

So tonight's discussion is on our own energising discussion in Scotland, a good news story about faith in democracy and how power should be shared in our interconnected world.  It's also about the curious goings on in the rest of the island archipelago we call the UK, I was tempted to call tonight's talk "Who's separatist now?"

I'll touch on:

  • Where Scotland's come in recent years, what drives us and where it might be going; and
  • Our present and future relationships with the EU.
  • To the extent anyone can, explain a few things about the UK and the dynamics of that discussion.
  • I'll also of course leave plenty time for questions and comments, you be frank with me I'll be frank with you!

Where Scotland's come from

All Scots have long memories, and a better grasp of our history than most, and it is crucial to understand the historical context of what's going on because it explains a lot of what is happening and shoots down a number of misconceptions I've come across here in Brussels over the years.

The first thing to understand in your own head is that we're not separatists trying to break away.  We're Scotland, the clue's in the name.  We're not some upstart region, we're one of Europe's oldest nations.  Scotland was founded in 843, and has been independent for longer than we've been part of the UK. Our borders, the land ones at least, haven't changed in hundreds of years, largely because we're a peninsula and a series of islands, but our physical and psychological borders are distinct and have been for a lot longer than many European countries have existed.  At 5.5 million people, we've a bigger population than 11 current member states.

In international law too, we are sui generis.  Our Parliament, for a variety of reasons, voluntarily wound itself up in 1707 by the Treaty of Union, note, Treaty (given it was an international agreement between two states), as did the English Parliament, merging the countries along with Wales to form the new state, Great Britain, with a new Parliament, albeit looking and sounding rather like the old English one. This followed the Union of the Crowns a hundred or so years earlier, when James VI of Scotland became also James I of England and decamped to London.

The Treaty of Union guaranteed a number of things: the independence of Scotland's education and legal systems; the church; and other institutions. Three hundred years later they remain distinct. The Vatican has always recognised Scotland's independence in ecclesiastical matters, we have our own Cardinal.  Nobody in Scotland with any sense of history talks about independence as a new thing, we talk about powers coming back.

That, truly, does distinguish us from pretty much every independence movement worldwide, and especially in Europe. The closest parallel, albeit certainly not a direct one, really is central and eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This might seem an abstruse point but it really is fundamental in my experience talking to other Europeans.

Scotland was represented, in various ways, at Westminster, as we still are, but there was always a degree of discontent with that, led largely by my party but also others in civil society.  Fast forward to 1999, and our national Parliament was reestablished in Edinburgh. It is a limited Parliament, but responsible for real stuff with legislative capacity. Holyrood deals with all aspects of education, health, justice, local government, the environment, agriculture and fisheries and others.  On these issues, we've been functionally independent ever since.  Areas which remain 'reserved' to Westminster are Defence, International relations, and all significant powers over the economy, chiefly fiscal and macroeconomic powers.

Holyrood operates to a different democracy to Westminster. I think a better one. Holyrood is elected by a variant of PR. Coalition, co-operation, is built into the system, with a coalition, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, governing for the first two terms, then a minority SNP administration from 2007 until 2011 when, by virtue of an electorally perfect storm, we won an absolute majority.

We're committed to a referendum on independence, and this will happen on 18 September 2014.

All Scottish parties have accepted that change is going to happen, and is desirable. We disagree on what degree of change, but all parties accept the people of Scotland have the right to make this choice, and are committed to respect the outcome - again, a crucial difference to pretty much every European independence movement.

The UK and Scottish governments have signed the Edinburgh Agreement, which, again, and crucially, commits both governments to respect and implement the outcome of the vote, as well as removing such constitutional ambiguity, given the different constitutional traditions of the two countries, as there was. This was necessary, and is significant - more necessary than many realise.

So there's two scenarios: yes, or no.

If no, then much as I'll be heartbroken, we're democrats, we continue as we are, governing what Holyrood governs and promoting the case for more powers.

If yes, then we start eighteen months of negotiations with the UK, and in parallel to that, the EU and other international organisations, with our new status in international and European law taking effect simultaneously.


Relations with the European Union

Again, it is worth remembering where we're coming from. The EU is not a necessary inconvenience - a foreign-accented infringement on our sovereignty - it is a framework within which we can shine. We are a left-of-centre party in the European social democratic tradition. We are a pro-European party, not uncritical but a constructive partner interested in helping the EU reform from within, not carping from the sidelines or dancing around by the exit door.

We believe that Scotland will be a better nation as an independent nation, a more intimate and effective democracy of 5.5 million, setting our own priorities and representing those priorities ourselves.  We believe in the European Union and in the pursuit of a peaceful and prosperous Europe. We are internationalist in outlook and intent on Scotland playing a full role in the international arena. Smaller countries "do" multilateralism, and promote and respect the international rule of law - because we lack the delusion of exceptionalism that we can get away without it. It was Jean Monet who said "the world is full of small nations, only some have had the luck to realise it".

So membership of the EU is, for me and for the SNP, part of our DNA. Independence in Europe has been our aim for decades.  Of course, we'll have other options, I've spent a lot of time looking at them - I'm a member of the Delegation for Relations with Switzerland, Iceland and Norway and have been since 2004, and the idea that EFTA or EEA membership is a realistic, desirable or even easily achievable aim just doesn't reflect the facts. The overwhelming balance of convenience, all round, is that we undertake our own transition, from being a region of the EU to a member state in our own right.

But how to get there?

The one thing that no-one can do is see the future.  The argument we've had in Scotland over the legal case for Scotland’s EU membership or exclusion has looked at times like a game of table tennis as claim and counterclaim were paddled back and forward across the net without ever finding an absolute legal case.

We all know that there is no such case, the Treaties are silent.  Neither for, nor against. The articles of the treaties have plenty to say on all kinds of different aspects of the EU and of its functions and procedures but they have nothing to say, nothing at all, on Scotland’s position nor on anything similar to Scotland’s position.

There are no rules for what Scotland is about to do – no rules in terms of continued EU membership. There is no route map; there is no owner’s manual, no handbook to guide a nation through this. There is no direct precedent: this is all going to be done for the first time when Scotland does it.

The treaties are silent but Europe will speak, and Europe will act in the classic fashion that has become the hallmark of European politics and diplomacy over the last thirty years. Just as a solution was found for Germany on re-unification and a solution found for Greenland on moving to OCT status, a solution will be found for Scotland.

My party has always said that there will be negotiations on Scotland’s membership, but they're points of detail, not principle. I am equally certain that they will be overcome in an atmosphere of goodwill, pragmatism and common sense.

Scotland has 80% of EU oil and gas reserves; with vast renewable resources; our world class universities, financial services, an educated prosperous population with a European outlook.  We're already part of the EU, 100% aquis compliant.

The proposition that we would have to somehow leave actually begs more questions than the proposition that we remain within.

All the logic, all the balance of utility, on all sides, points to continued EU status for Scotland. The alternatives are even more bothersome from a Brussels perspective than from ours!

And... speaking of leaving the EU!

I can't help but contrast Scotland, where all parties are pro-EU regardless of our views on Scotland's constitutional future, with dear old Blighty and the rise of UKIP, a UK Prime Minister dancing to Nigel Farage's tune!

The biggest boosts UKIP has received in recent years have been gifts from the Tories. The Prime Minister promised a referendum on UK relations with the EU:

  • at some point in 2017
  • after an election he has not won
  • on a treaty renegotiation he has not secured
  • over problems with the status quo he has neither identified nor articulated

This was supposed to be some red meat to throw to the euro sceptics, but it only fed the beast, as well as losing friends and influence here.

Likewise, UK government ministers just two weeks ago flirted publicly with the notion of suspending UK membership of the European Convention of Human Rights, ostensibly over the case of one individual. That our member state government can even float such a boneheaded notion really does worry me and I fear for UK politics.

Here's a prediction.  UKIP is going to win the European elections in England.  UKIP is the end result of a brilliantly self fulfilling flaw in the UK establishment’s attitude to the EU. For decades we, and I use the "we" advisedly, have had a grudging, reluctant attitude, coupled with a cottage industry in daft anti EU stories. Remember the EU wants to ban bagpipes? Rat poison?  Dare I even mention olive oil?

All stories that have been put about in recent years by people who are only now realising what they’ve created. None of them came to anything of course but left an accumulated toxic residue in the minds of the UK public that the EU’s just a bit rubbish.


Also, too often domestic politicians still talk about ‘going to Europe’ when, surely, we’re already there, or present EU laws not as a common endeavour we agreed with our friends and neighbours but bothersome hassle emanating from another place.

So UKIP is reaping what the Tories have sown, and the European elections in May next year are their big issue. They’ll have wall to wall coverage in the UK media, and I predicted long since they’ll win in England because yes, given their numbers they will be subject to a greater degree of scrutiny, but when it comes to the European election Nigel Farage will hardly be off our screens.

There are two countries here, taking two increasingly divergent attitudes to how we should best interact with the wider world.

Each nation, of course, has the right to make its own choice, and I look forward to Scotland making ours in September 2014, where we can choose to set our own priorities and represent ourselves to the wider world, or decide to let others continue to speak for us. I think we could do better than we are right now, but that is an evolving, democratic, energising discussion.  It fits right into Europe's story.