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Scotland has many friends in Europe now

I’LL start this week's column with an apology that I have been tardy in writing lately, but I have a good excuse! I’m pleased to report that your SNP European Team is settling in well to Brussels and making friends across the borders of country, party, and political group. We’ve had a blisteringly successful week.

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First published in The National, 15 June 2019

On a personal note, I’m thrilled to have been elected President of the European Free Alliance Group in the European Parliament, and thank you to everyone who has congratulated me so far! EFA is a political grouping of progressive nationalist and regionalist parties including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Catalan ERC.

As regular National readers will know, MEPs work in groupings to maximise their power and influence along ideological rather than country lines, so the socialists tend to work in the S&D (European Socialists), centrists join Verhofstadt’s ALDE, and the conservative groups plump for the largest group, the EPP.

Not the UK Conservatives, you understand, because David Cameron decided to withdraw from the EPP back in 2009. David Cameron weakening his own political party and the UK’s global standing in a short-term move to stave off some hardline Eurosceptic backbenchers? Who would have thought it?

EFA has paired with the Greens (consisting of Green MEPs from all over the EU) and are likely to make up the fourth largest bloc in the Parliament. This means I’m also First Vice-President of the group, which sends a strong message about Scotland’s place in the EU.

The vote was unanimous, and so by electing a Scot from a vocal pro-Remain party as First VP, we’re showing that not only is Scotland a European nation that wants to play its part in the EU, but also that this is welcomed and valued by the EU27. While I daresay I have friends and wellwishers in the group, I can’t see that my personal charm alone would have swung the vote! The EU is by no means hostile to Scotland, and in fact we’ve got a fair amount of sympathy from MEPs and EU officials who are looking at the Westminster shambles, looking at the clear, calm and professional attitude of the Scottish Government, and then looking back to Westminster.

I’ve more or less written off the Westminster Tories, including the ones representing Scotland, since you can pretty much guarantee they’ll fall in behind the party line, no matter how much of a kicking a no-deal Brexit will give to Scotland and the UK as a whole. There’s a strange momentum in Westminster right now, where despite everyone acknowledging a no-deal Brexit will be A Bad Thing (a far cry from the unicorns and rainbows vision of the 2016 EU Referendum campaign), the Brexit boulder is rumbling forward, and now the aim is to get it over the line at any cost.

Remember when “sovereignty” was the watchword? We were voting Brexit to restore sovereignty to our hallowed Westminster Parliament? Aye... Boris Johnson has now reportedly refused to rule out suspending Parliament to force through a no-deal, and MPs voted 309-298 against a Labour motion to block a no-deal Brexit. That included eight Labour MPs, by the way. (All 35 SNP MPs voted in favour of the motion.) That palace on the Thames is crumbling as quickly as the institution it hosts, but Westminster is calling the shots on Brexit and we’re still no closer to clarity, despite those two years in the Article 50 timetable, plus the six-month extension that appears to be being squandered on the Tory leadership contest. The EU, to give it its due, has been remarkably gentle with the UK so far, appearing to be adopting Hanlon’s Razor as its maxim – “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, or in this case, that which is adequately explained by rank incompetence.

So while there is sympathy there, the EU has to deal with the UK as the member state, not Scotland, and its hands are tied.

That’s why it’s so interesting to see the reception given to Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, this week. The First Minister was over in Brussels, ostensibly to launch a showcase of Arts performances from Scotland that had a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe. Along the way, the European Policy Centre, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier all somehow found time in their schedules for meetings with the First Minister. Well-publicised meetings.

I’ve had folk point out, kindly, that I keep repeating “Scotland voted to Remain” but there’s a reason for that. We can’t let Brexit become an inevitability and we should assuredly not accept a UK perspective rather than Scottish one. We can’t just give up. While Westminster is up against the seemingly-unstoppable neurotic juggernaut of the Conservative Party, sensible voices feeling isolated and the priority appearing to be “who can woo the ERG best”, Scotland is still putting up a fight. We voted to return four pro-Remain MEPs out of six MEP seats – including an unprecedented three SNP MEPs.

Our First Minister is out there meeting with the big cheeses. There’s still an active grassroots that’s been making last stand after last stand.

Look at the UK right now and ask yourself if this is what you want. If we go down, we go down fighting, but right now it’s all to play for.