EXACTLY 40 years ago, Simone Veil was elected as the first female president of the European Parliament and set out her vision for a fairer and more united Europe.” With those words the first ever female President of the European Commission began her case to MEPs on Tuesday. Ursula von der Leyen went on to promise to ensure that there will be full gender equality within her College of Commissioners. This is a vital and welcome step. The EU must lead by example as the Scottish Government has already done.
First published in The National, 18 July 2019
Later that night, SNP MEPs voted in favour of her candidacy and were instrumental in contributing to her majority. There is a lot to get through explaining how we got here, and in the last few weeks I’ve tried, both in these columns, and with some wee #AlynExplains videos on Twitter to do so. Essentially, where I am lukewarm at the horsetrading amongst the member states that led Von der Leyen to be before us, I was warm enough to her candidacy.
She is not directly democratically elected by the people of Europe but neither is the head civil servant of the Scottish Government. But she was assuredly elected by a democratic vote of the MEPs on behalf of the people of Europe. Anyone talking about “unelected bureaucrats” is lying to you. Having dealt with how we got here, though, we come to the question of why we support her?
Firstly, and most importantly she gets Scotland, the UK and Brexit and she will be a bright, articulate and personable ally in fighting to keep us in the EU. In her hearing at our political group she said quite clearly in response to my questioning “the door is open to you, because we want you in”.
Welcome, clear words given the stramash emanating from Westminster. It is worth stressing though that while she gets Scotland and pronounced herself a fan of Nicola Sturgeon, she said those words in relation to the UK, not an independent Scotland, as that is another discussion. Let us not gild the lily.
Considering that stopping Brexit dominates everything we do (I really wish it didn’t but I have to work with the hand I’ve been dealt) that alone is worth our support. She stands ready to offer an extension to the negotiating period, something we are going to need however we are to proceed. The Tories have wasted the summer which means any solution avoiding a crash out makes an extension essential.
She also last week to me made clear that the UK could change its mind entirely. In the times we face ahead we are going to need friends like these.
In terms of policy, though, the next commission is offering some genuinely progressive policies.
I want to see real action on climate change, and the people of Europe demonstrated they do too in the European Parliament elections. She is promising a two-step approach to reduce CO2 emissions by 2030 by 50%, if not 55%. She is also going to bring forward a Green Deal for Europe within 100 days of taking up office and put forward the first ever European Climate Law which will set the 2050 target into law.
Such commitments could go further, but they are a welcome start, and the tone is particularly reassuring. She is also in favour of giving the European Parliament a right of initiative, in that we will be able to initiate legislative proposals, a small but significant step. She has also promised to look at taxes, and this will be something we will need to look at closely.
But where I am clear I want tax policy set in Scotland, we cannot have multinational companies, particularly the various tech giants, not paying their fair share of taxes at a national level because they can use financial sleight of hand to move profits and losses around the world.
At an EU level we can not only legislate to protect an entire continent but we can also use our combined might to push for wider international deals that ensure companies pay their way. The devil will be in the detail but there’s an ambition there we can all sign up to.
The European Pillar of Social Rights has long been a project that needs to be fully implemented, she has promised to do so. Alongside taking action to improve labour conditions across the continent, I hope that the next commission will make a real difference.
Do I have concerns? Yes, I am troubled that three of my Catalan colleagues have not taken up their seats and this was something I raised with her before the whole parliament. I hope she will act as a mediator. Whether or not she steps up to the plate remains to be seen.
Overall though this is good news for Europe and for Scotland. We face uncertain times ahead but whether we are in Europe or out, independent or still in the Union, we will need allies who will have our back and push a progressive agenda for our continent.
This week, Ursula von der Leyen promised to do so. MEPs, hopefully including those from Scotland, will over the next five years hold her to that.
For now though let me end as she did: es lebe Europa, vive l’Europe, long live Europe! With a Scotland at the heart of it.