The UK is a voluntary union of nations

“I’m going to set out briefly the ongoing regret the Scottish Government feels over Brexit. I will then explain some of the ways in which the Scottish Government will respond to Brexit. And in doing that I will make clear our desire to return to the European parliament as an independent nation, comfortable – as EU members have to be – with the idea that independence, in the modern world, involves recognising and embracing our interdependence.”

On 10th February Scotland’s First Minister gave a speech at the European Policy Centre in Brussels and had talks with Michel Barnier on Scotland’s continuing trade with the EU. It was a speech which Eurnews headlined as Sturgeon talks up Scotland’s place in post-Brexit Europe

In her speech she raised the basic principle behind the EU – that of independent nations working together for a common good, something which appealed to people in Scotland. As did the solidarity the EU offers to smaller member states, and she cited the support the EU gave to Ireland during the first stage of the Brexit process.

The First Minister said Scotland has experience of the practical benefits of EU membership, with EU regulations making our rivers and coasts cleaner; providing means for our universities to collaborate with research partners across the continent; and freedom of movement offering opportunities to people living in Scotland, and encouraging new Scots to contribute to our economy and society. At a time of climate crisis, co-operating with the EU improves our ability to tackle climate change at home, and amplifies our voice in international negotiations.

The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UNFCCC is expected to take place from 9-19 November 2020, in Glasgow.

The COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in November was referred to as “the most important climate summit since the Paris talks of 2015. In fact, given the ever-increasing urgency of the climate crisis I think there’s an argument for saying it is even more important than the Paris talks.” The First Minister emphasised the importance of making the summit a success, saying, “…the Scottish Government will do everything we can to help make that summit a success. That includes working positively and constructively with the UK Government.”

In an age of great trading blocks the EU, the First Minister said, represents our best opportunity to benefit from free trade, without engaging in a race to the bottom. Our businesses benefit from the single market with recent figures showing that over the last 5 years, Scotland’s sales to the EU – which account for more than half our international exports – have grown by more than 4% a year. More than twice as fast as our exports to the rest of the world.

The First Minister went on to outline what steps the Scottish Government would be taking now that the UK was no longer an EU member. She emphasised her government will try to influence UK Government policy, and where possible, to work constructively with the UK Government over COP26 and over future EU trade where her government would, “try to influence negotiations in a way which benefit Scotland, the UK and the EU. In particular, we will stress the value of having as close a trading relationship with the EU as possible.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Michel Barnier, since November 2019 European Commission’s Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom.

The UK Prime Minister insists on having the right to diverge from EU standards, particularly in areas such as social and environmental standards, while the EU basically wants a guarantee that the UK won’t undercut the EU by adopting lower standards. This, the First Minister said, is an issue which matters hugely because the more we diverge from EU standards the less access we will have to the single market. “So the right to diverge will come at a cost – in my view a cost that is too heavy.”

The UK has the ability to opt for higher standards than those required by the EU. However, although the Prime Minister has never given a single concrete example of an area in which divergence could benefit the UK, the only reason for wanting freedom to diverge is if lower standards than the EU are wanted. So there is a danger the UK “will significantly reduce our access to the single market – something which will harm manufacturers and service industries across the country – because it wants the freedom to lower standards relating to health, safety, the environment and workers’ rights.”

The First Minister said the Scottish Government was looking to what it can do with devolved powers, to maintain the closest possible ties with the EU. “We intend to introduce legislation which enables Scotland to keep pace with EU regulatory standards, where we have the power to do so. It is a way in which we can protect the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland, maintain the international reputation of businesses in Scotland, and make it easier, when the time comes, as I believe it will, for Scotland to return to the EU.” With independence, she said, we will then seek to re-establish our EU membership. Scotland’s right to choose was mandated by the people of Scotland, with the UK not a unitary state but a voluntary union of nations. And one of those nations, Scotland, has repeatedly expressed majority support for remaining in the European Union.

“I do not believe it is right that more than five million EU citizens should be removed from the European Union, after 47 years of membership, without even the chance to have their say on the future of their country.”

The First Minister outlined the steps being taken to ensure an independence referendum can be held that is beyond legal challenge, with the result accepted at home and internationally.

  • Electoral Commission being asked to test again the question that would be used in a referendum.
  • Scotland’s elected representatives – MPs, MSPs, council leaders and recent MEPs – invited to establish a new Constitutional Convention, to broaden support for the principle of Scotland’s right to choose.
  • a series of papers – the “New Scotland” papers will be published to provide people with the information needed to make informed choices about Scotland’s future. The papers will include plans for membership of the EU.
Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council (2014 to 2019) and previously prime minister of Poland (2007 to 2014).

The First Minister said her government wanted to want to build on the goodwill towards Scotland referred to by Donald Tusk. saying her government is keen to outline a clear route to re-accession; to show that that it is understood what EU membership requires; and to demonstrate that Scotland has much to offer. “…we will rejoin, not simply as a country with much to gain, but as one which has much to contribute”, as a country which is increasingly focussing on wellbeing, alongside wealth, as a measurement of success.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission.

Scotland has a vision in common with that recently expressed by Ursula von der Leyen – the new EU Commission President, who emphasised the necessity for a Europe fit for the digital age. Scotland is becoming one of the most important tech centres in Europe, said the First Minister. The EU’s desire to see a European Green New Deal is shared by Scotland which has some of the strongest statutory climate change targets in the world and wants to help lead the world into the net-zero carbon age with our efforts enhanced by EU membership. “The Commission’s other priorities also speak of our shared values.”

“In all of these issues, Scotland is a country which can and will make a difference – we will lead by example where we can, but we will also learn from the example of others. But we know we will do this more effectively by working in partnership. I believe very strongly that our sovereignty will be amplified, not diminished, by membership of the EU.”

The First Minister’s speech can be read here and watched, along with interesting answers to questions here.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Margrethe Vestager.

The First Minister also met Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice President of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age, who later tweeted: “Very happy to meet and get to know NicolaSturgeon. Talked about Green Deal and the Cop in Glasgow, dynamics of digitisation and AI – lots of opportunities and common, fundamental values to be preserved!”

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