Scotland has benefited from membership of the European Union for decades, and I believe – as I have for all my political life – that EU membership was and remains the best option for Scotland. Now, however, that membership and those benefits are under direct and severe threat as a result of a situation not of our making, and not supported by Scottish voters. As a nation, working with others, we must find the right way to counter that threat and secure the best possible deal in the coming negotiations both in Europe and within these islands.
The First Minister has been clear that we will explore all options to protect Scotland’s vital interests. An independence referendum must be included in those options but it is not our starting point.
The First Minister set out during the summer what those vital interest are – democracy, economic prosperity (which is, we believe, largely contingent on continued membership of the single market), social protection, solidarity, and influence. They are not just our starting point for discussion – they must underpin any agreement that emerges.
In my new post, as Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe, my first task has been to press the UK Government for urgent clarification on how they are going to deliver on the Prime Minister’s commitment to full involvement for Scotland in the process around Article 50 and negotiations with the EU. Not only did she assure the First Minister of that commitment when they met in July, but just last weekend she said in an interview that Scotland would be “fully involved’ and “ fully engaged”. That has to be the case, and that imperative was echoed on Friday by the First Minister of Wales who said that “Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast must be at the negotiating table.”
We disagree fundamentally with the decision to leave the EU – and Scotland did not vote to leave. But we have an interest not just in making that point but also in trying to get the UK into the most sensible and beneficial position we can. That needs us to be at the table. It needs the discussions to start now.
In those discussions one of the first priorities must be to protect Scotland’s place in the single market, which is a structure for fair and equal trade that benefits all sectors of the Scottish economy. It is much more than simply a place to buy and sell, and without it our workers would be less well protected and our companies far less able to export and set up across the continent. Free movement of labour is at the heart of the single market and Scotland is not full up – we benefit from that free movement and of course many Scots continue to use it to live and work in Europe.
Both the Remain campaign and the Leave campaign made the case, pre-referendum, that voting to leave the EU did not automatically mean exiting the single market. They had to do that of course, because it is clear that absence from the single market, or even limited involvement would inflict deep and long term damage to our economy and society.
But I will be doing more than talking. I will be listening to communities and sectoral bodies across the country. I want to find out how exiting the EU will affect them. Of course, some people believe it could be beneficial and I will listen to them too. Both sides of the argument are important and both will need to produce the evidence that proves those cases. Then we can all weigh it carefully and embed the views of Scotland into our negotiating position and activities. We must also try and ensure they form part of the overall UK strategy as well.
Lots of groups and people have been in touch with me and other Scottish Government Ministers already. They have been keen to stress the need to support our world class research in our world class universities. They have argued strongly for employment rights. They have outlined the way in which the financial sector in Edinburgh needs direct European access. They have drawn attention to the environmental progress that has been secured by European collaboration and they have demonstrated how much they depend on European resources to build infrastructure, run profitable farms, expand food and drink industries and invest in the countryside.
This all adds up to something more than just pounds and pence. Being part of Europe is about our values and our principles. It is about trying to secure an ever improving society that respects human rights, protects basic freedoms, provides lots of opportunity, and is ambitious for the planet and the place in which we live.
Next week I will open the first in a series of parliamentary debates on the implications of Brexit. Then, in the coming weeks, the Parliament will hold further debates that look in detail at the impact of Brexit on the key areas of the economy, rural affairs, education and the environment. These debates will give every MSP the opportunity to have their say on the issues the Scottish Government should be prioritising as our discussions with the UK government develop. I will also be meeting with the party leaders to hear their views and discuss their hopes and fears for the future.
None of them wanted to be in the position in which we all now find ourselves. But we are in that position and we must work together to get the very best we can from it. That is the job I have been tasked with, working to support the First Minister as she leads Scotland forward. It will not be easy, but it must be done – for Scotland’s sake.
Michael Russell MSP is the Scottish Government’s Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe.