This year the people of Scotland will be asked to make significant decisions about the future of our country.
In May voters will determine the make-up of the Scottish Parliament and the next Scottish Government.
2016 could also bring Scots to the polling booths for a second time to join the rest of the UK in deciding whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union.
The Prime Minister has said his referendum on EU membership will happen before the end of 2017. A clash with the Scottish elections has been ruled out, but some speculate the referendum could happen as early as June this year.
Whenever the poll is held, this is an important question which could have serious consequences for Scotland and is a decision that must not be taken lightly.
The Prime Minister’s announcement this week that he will permit his ministers to campaign on either side in the EU referendum campaign is deeply worrying and is in danger of moving the UK closer to the EU exit door. It means whatever the outcome of the current renegotiations in Brussels, the UK Government will not be making a unified case for continued membership. What chance has the Prime Minister got of convincing people about the merits of the EU if he cannot even convince members of his own Government.
So it is more important than ever that those who do support Scotland and the UK’s continued EU membership make the case as strongly as possible.
The Scottish Government will remain at the forefront of that argument because Scotland benefits from being part of the EU, and the EU benefits from having Scotland a part of it.
Solidarity, social protection and support are at the heart of why our membership matters. EU reform should be achieved by striking the correct balance between these three principles.
Solidarity, because the significant challenges Europe faces, such as energy security, youth employment, and the number of refugees seeking entry to the EU, cannot be tackled by Member States acting unilaterally.
Social protection, because with the pursuit of increased competitiveness it would be easy to erode the vast array of rights that have been conferred on our workers through EU regulation, such as the right not to be discriminated on the basis of age, gender or race; and rights to parental leave, paid holidays and to work for no more than 48 hours per week. I don’t want Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will only to leave important social protections like workers’ rights and maternity pay in the hands of an unfettered UK Government.
The EU must also continue to be a union of mutual support. One which seeks to improve the lives of its citizens, allows its businesses to innovate and grow, and supports the ambitions of governments for economic growth and prosperity.
The EU is a vital export market accounting for almost half of Scottish exports in 2013, worth £12.9 billion and directly or indirectly supporting more than 300,000 Scottish jobs.
Being in the EU means citizens can move freely around the continent in pursuit of work, education and family. Just as there are 173,000 citizens from other EU states living and working in Scotland and making vibrant contributions to our society and economy, Scottish people are able to live, study and work elsewhere in the EU and return to Scotland with enhanced skills and knowledge.
The Prime Minister indicated this week that an agreement on his renegotiations may be reached at next month’s European Council – paving the way for his referendum.
The Scottish Government has not been consulted on the detail of his renegotiations despite our repeated calls for Scotland to have a full and formal voice in the process to ensure our interests are properly considered and represented. So I again urge Mr Cameron to share details of his proposals while there is still time, so we can be confident Scotland’s views will be considered and our vital interests protected.
Right now – as a member of the EU – the UK sits at the top table in Brussels, with the opportunity to shape EU policy and make a positive contribution to the European project. If we are to influence positive change in Europe, we must preserve our EU membership – only that guarantees our role in the EU decision-making processeson issues that affect our everyday lives.
I only have an interest in making the positive case for continued membership in a reformed EU. We treat the electorate of our country with contempt if we attempt to simply scare them into voting the way we want. The Scottish Government is determined to do all we can to secure a vote which keeps the UK in the EU, and protect the benefits we all derive from our place in Europe and do so in a positive manner.