Thanks to all of you for coming here. It’s always a pleasure to come to Brussels. And it’s a particular pleasure to be here on a day when Scotland has such a strong and visible presence in the city.
Despite what the timing might suggest, I haven’t come here for the Scotland-Belgium football match. Although I will of course keep a close eye on this evening’s result.
My purpose in being here today is a bit different. This evening I’ll be launching a showcase of theatre, music and dance performances from Scotland which were successful at last year’s Edinburgh fringe. It runs at 5 different venues for the next 3 days – I hope that some of you will be able to catch parts of it.
And this morning, I met with Michel Barnier and will later meet with Jean-Claude Juncker. Brexit is central to these meetings and is – as you might expect – a key part of my remarks this morning.
However I’m actually going to spend less time than you might expect talking about the details of the current position in the UK.
That’s partly because I don’t want to fill you all with despair. Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s mainly because I don’t want to fill myself with despair!
And, of course, there isn’t yet a coherent or a credible UK government position to speak of.
However, my determination not to focus solely on Brexit is also because I want to spend some time talking about broader issues – in particular the values of the EU, how Scotland sees its place in the world, and how all of that is related.
But before I do that, I will briefly summarise the Scottish Government’s position on Brexit.
As I think you all know, Scotland voted to remain in the EU in 2016.
The Scottish Government deeply regrets the UK’s vote to leave. We think the best option – for the UK, as well as for Scotland – would be to remain in the EU.
Despite that – we recognised the outcome of the UK-wide vote, and argued for a long time for possible compromise solutions.
In March and April, there was an indicative votes process in the House of Commons. MPs were asked to vote on different possible Brexit outcomes. The idea was to assess which options could command support across the House of Commons.
The party I lead, as you might expect, voted for revoking Article 50, and also for holding a second referendum – repeating our strong preference to remain in the EU. However we also voted for the proposal that – should remaining in the EU not prove possible – the UK should stay in the single market and customs union. It reflects a proposal we suggested some two years earlier. Indeed – though it is not my preferred outcome – it is in many ways the logical compromise solution, given the narrowness of the leave majority across the whole of the UK.
It’s also – and worryingly, this is unlike much of what is being put forward from the current candidates to be Prime Minister– a compromise which has some basis in reality. Michel Barnier, when he spoke here in April, made it clear that the EU could accept a customs union, or a relationship similar to the Norway model – as long, of course, as the UK abandons its self-defeating red lines.
But I have to say that – even in the two months since those indicative votes were held in the House of Commons – the chances of that compromise appear to have disappeared. Nobody who wants to be leader of the Conservative Party is proposing it as an option. And so increasingly, the likeliest way of avoiding a hard Brexit, or a no-deal Brexit, is for the UK to avoid Brexit altogether.
That could of course be done by revoking the article 50 notification – especially if we are facing no deal. But the likelier route – particularly if the Labour Party finally endorses it unequivocally – is a second referendum.
Of course, there is no absolute guarantee that there would be a majority in the U.K. as a whole for remaining in a second referendum. And there would only be time for a referendum if the EU could be persuaded to agree a further extension to the Article 50 process.
However, it would offer the opportunity for those of us who want to see the UK stay in the EU to make and win that argument.
What is clear is that very few people voted for the UK’s current position of chaos. And the specific details of what Brexit involves are better known now than they were in 2016. In these circumstances, checking whether people across the UK still want to go ahead with Brexit is the obvious democratic course of action. That is what the Scottish Government will argue for. And we will work with others to try to achieve it.
However, we also need consider the best way forward for Scotland, if the UK does leave the European Union.
Brexit – and all that flows from it – runs counter to Scotland’s expressed democratic wishes. And it would constrain the choices of Scottish Governments now and well into the future. It would reduce our ability to fund public services, support businesses, tackle poverty, and work with other countries.
In addition the Brexit vote, and the events of the last three years, have caused many people in Scotland to question how the UK works as a political entity, and whether the Westminster system of government is the best way to secure a better future.
After all, the UK is supposed to be a partnership of equal nations – indeed that laudable aim was once the promise of Theresa May.
But that simply is not the case today.
In fact the contrast between the solidarity shown to Ireland by the EU, and the way Scotland has been treated by the UK Government, speaks for itself.
Far from being an equal partner, the views of the people of Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament have been ignored.
And instead of prompting a radical re-think to accommodate the views of people in Scotland, the deadlock at Westminster over Brexit – if the evidence of the current Conservative Party leadership contest is anything to go by – is going to lead to a worldview even more at odds with Scotland’s values and even more damaging to our future.
The other countries of the UK will always be our closest friends as well as our closest neighbours– that will remain the case, regardless of Scotland’s constitutional future. But Brexit demonstrates why Scotland needs the ability to chart a different course.
That’s why the Scottish Government is making the preparations now to give people in Scotland the choice of becoming an independent country.
It’s maybe worth adding that as we do that, we are determined to learn the lessons of Brexit.
One of those is to proceed, both at home and across Europe, in as consensual a manner as we can.
The fact that, just as on Brexit, people hold passionate views on the issue of independence – both for and against – should not stop us trying to find as much common ground as possible. And it should make us all the more determined to foster a debate that is open, frank, respectful and well informed.
The misleading claims made in the Brexit referendum and the excessively confrontational approach that the UK Government has taken since have resulted in the mess that U.K. is confronted with today.
As we chart Scotland’s way forward, we must do it very differently. That is why, for example, we are learning from Ireland and other countries by establishing a Citizens’ Assembly on Scotland’s future.
The Scottish Government has also reached out to other parties so they can contribute to discussions and decisions.
In Scotland, we are currently marking the 20th anniversary of devolution. The first speech ever made in the new Scottish parliament, in May 1999, was by Winnie Ewing. At the time, she was also the mother of the European Parliament, having served there since 1979. In fact, she was known there as “Madame Ecosse”.
Winnie Ewing expressed the hope that the Scottish parliament would try to follow the more consensual style of the European parliament – at least when Nigel Farage is not there – and other European legislatures, rather than the confrontational manner of Westminster. In our actions now, we are trying to stay true to that advice.
The 20th anniversary of devolution is also relevant to the wider points I want to make about Scotland’s place in the world, and how they relate to the values of the European Union.
It was always envisaged that self-government for Scotland would lead to a stronger Scottish presence overseas. Indeed Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister, argued that a new parliament would add “a new dimension” to Scotland’s presence in Europe.
For that reason, Scotland House was established in Brussels in 1999 – you will, I am sure, receive invitations to its 20th birthday celebrations shortly.
And in the two decades since then, Scotland’s role and presence here has grown significantly. This week’s cultural showcase is just one example of that.
That has been mirrored by a stronger European presence in Scotland – both through formal institutions such as the European Commission office – and the European Parliament Office, which was established in 1999 – and through the EU citizens who have made such a significant and valuable contribution to Scotland in recent years.
It’s important to note that in many ways, even in 1999, the establishment of Scotland House was overdue. It simply reflected a basic truth that Scotland is, always has been, and always will be a European nation.
But its establishment and subsequent expansion also recognised a desire – shared by the majority of parties in the Scottish parliament, and the majority of people in Scotland – to strengthen Scotland’s ties with Europe.
That desire clearly still exists. In the EU referendum in 2016, 62% of voters in Scotland chose to remain in the EU. There were majorities for remain in every local authority area of the country.
In last month’s European elections, there was again an overwhelming majority for remain parties. My own party – which ran on an unequivocally EU platform – won half of the Scottish seats.
And won a higher share of the vote in Scotland than the Brexit Party won across the U.K.
So during the Brexit referendum – and indeed during the rise of anti-European hardliners in the Conservative Party and now the Brexit Party – Scotland has been at the forefront of the battle of ideas which is confronting many European countries today.
In these contests, people in Scotland have consistently supported ideals of internationalism, European solidarity and co-operation.
As we in Scotland consider our future, I hope, and believe, that is being acknowledged and welcomed here in Brussels and across the EU.
One reason for the choices that have recently been made in Scotland is perhaps the fact that we are used to the idea of having multiple identities. That’s not something which is unique to Scotland, but it is certainly commonplace in Scotland.
I was struck by a point that Jean-Claude Juncker made about this in last year’s State of the European Union address. He said “We should never forget that the patriotism of the 21st century is twofold: both European and national, with one not excluding the other.”
I wholeheartedly endorse his basic sentiment, but would maybe also point out that for many people in Scotland – and I’m sure, right across Europe – patriotism can be even more multifaceted. We can be Scottish and British and European. We can be Scottish and Polish – or Italian, or Pakistani, and much else besides – and European.
And so it shouldn’t be surprising that belief in Scottish independence – which is about self government, not ethnicity – goes hand in hand with a belief in internationalism and interdependence. National identity is not, and never should be, an exclusive concept.
For that reason, the basic values of the EU are ones we identify with. We like the idea of independent nation states co-operating for the common good. The commitments that heads of government made last month – defending one Europe, staying united, looking for joint solutions, promoting fairness, protecting democracy and the rule of law – they are ones which the Scottish Government endorses and wants to contribute to.
In fact, for all of its imperfections – and all bureaucracies, governments and organisations are imperfect – there is an idealism to the EU project which is appeals strongly to us.
It is, at its heart, a peace project. We have been reminded of that more strongly than ever in the last week. Some of the conversations I have had with D-Day veterans at the commemorations in Portsmouth and Normandy will stay with me for a very long time.
However the EU also exemplifies the international consensus and cooperation which will be needed to meet the other major challenges the world faces.
The climate crisis – the defining challenge of our generation – is perhaps the most obvious example.
Scotland already collaborates with European partners on marine renewables, low-carbon buildings and ultra-low emissions vehicles. And of course in major negotiations such as those in the run-up to the Paris Agreement, being part of the EU helps to amplify the voice of member countries.
Scotland will play a leading role in tackling climate change in any circumstances. But we know that we will act more effectively as part of the EU, and that the EU will act more effectively with Scotland’s contribution.
There are many other examples, too. They exemplify the fact that – while Scotland benefits greatly from EU membership – we also have much to contribute through our universities, our scientists, our companies, our creative artists, and our natural resources.
Adapting to an ageing population is one – Scotland is a partner in the European innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy ageing.
So too is harnessing new technology and artificial intelligence. Scotland is becoming one of the major hubs for data and technology start-ups. We have vast potential for developing artificial intelligence and using big data in a way which helps humanity. But we do that more effectively within the EU.
That’s partly because of the benefits our universities gain from EU membership. But also, when you look at issues such as privacy, and the ethical use of data, it is clear that minimum standards imposed by the EU – a block of 500 million people – will hold far more sway over technology giants than the actions that Scotland or the U.K could take unilaterally.
And I suppose that although the examples I have mentioned will deliver practical benefits to people across Europe, they also come back to values of fairness and solidarity. They reflect the fact that the European Union is more about more than trade and commerce – it is concerned with the wellbeing of its citizens, as well as the wealth of its member states.
It therefore makes a systematic effort to balance economic growth with environmental sustainability and with a concern for equality. It sees free trade as a march to the top rather than a race to the bottom.
Of course, there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that these principles are translated into reality. But they are principles worth standing up for.
The importance of that is coming into ever clearer focus in the UK. When President Trump visited London last week, there were discussions about a possible trade deal between the UK and the USA. Many of those focussed attention on the possibility that the US could seek changes to food and environmental standards; or that its private companies could gain greater access to public health service provision.
It was impossible to hear those discussions without reflecting once again on what the UK is in danger of losing.
In a world of great trading blocks, the EU is the best means we are ever likely to have for expanding free trade while preserving social protections.
In an age where the voices of protectionism and intolerance often seem to be getting louder, the EU amplifies our own support for openness, diversity and human rights.
And at a time when the rules-based international order is being threatened, the EU exemplifies the value of co-operation and solidarity.
I mentioned the D-Day commemorations a bit earlier. The EU’s immense contribution to post-war peace, reconciliation and human rights was recognised in 2012 when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In his acceptance speech for the prize, Herman van Rompuy – the then president of the European council – expressed the hope that future generations – in whatever language they choose – will say that “I am proud to be European.”
His words express the hope and expectation I have for future generations in Scotland. I believe that we too will be proud to be European. And I hope that our European identity will continue to find expression in our membership of the EU.
Because of that, the Scottish Government will exert a positive influence- whenever we can – in the wider debate about UK membership. But in the spirit of international co-operation and solidarity, we also desire the option of taking our own place in Europe.
We want not simply to benefit from free movement and free trade – although we do; we also want to contribute Scotland’s ideas and talents to Europe’s shared challenges; and to uphold and exemplify our shared values.
In the 20 years since devolution, Scotland’s contribution to the EU has already grown significantly. For all the current challenges we face, my hope – and my belief – is that it will grow further in the years and decades ahead.
We look forward to working with our friends across Europe to make that happen.