Last Tuesday I hosted a gathering of consular officials from European Union countries at Bute House. The purpose of the meeting, and my message to those diplomats was clear: their citizens are very welcome here in Scotland, and I am determined that they will remain free to live and work here, contributing to our national life.
As I said on the morning after the EU referendum result was announced, those who have done us the honour of choosing to make Scotland their home deserve that firm reassurance that their residency status and rights here will not change.
Scotland has always been a diverse and inclusive nation, and we have a long history of welcoming people from other parts of Europe, and from further afield, to come and live here. So following the Brexit vote, one of my first priorities was to reassure EU citizens living here that they are a welcome part of Scotland’s communities.
Since then I have been touched by the number of emails and letters I have received from EU nationals all over Scotland telling me about their lives here and how they have never felt anything but welcome in our country. However they are also concerned about their future here, and understandably so.
The contribution they make as a whole is almost incalculable – they fill important jobs in our public services, including many who care for people daily in our NHS, and overall they make a significant net contribution to Scotland’s economy.
In total, the EU expatriate community living in Scotland now numbers around 180,000. That includes the 21,000 EU students who study at our universities and colleges, while many more have put down more permanent roots and have firmly settled here for many years, including those who are raising families and children born here in Scotland.
That is why it is, quite simply, a disgrace that the leading contender to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister has so far refused to guarantee the status of European nationals living here in the UK.
Theresa May’s insistence instead that she wants to effectively use these people as bargaining chips in the UK’s negotiation process and withdrawal from the EU is a shameful stain on her credentials and her reputation which risks doing her far, far more damage – at home and abroad – than perhaps she realises.
To their credit, some Conservative politicians, including some who campaigned for a Leave vote, have said that EU citizens living here should have their residency and rights guaranteed immediately.
Ms May would do well to listen to those voices on her own side and to act now. Because, while the prospect of mass deportations and repatriation of individuals and families may be utterly far-fetched, for as long as it remains theoretically possible it will continue to create a climate of unnecessary fear and uncertainty.
It will also give encouragement to the more unpleasant aspects of post-Brexit vote Britain, which has seen a string of xenophobic incidents where EU nationals have been targeted and told to “go home”. And Ms May’s stance also does nothing to help the cause of the millions of UK citizens living in other EU countries, who are now similarly fearful about what the future holds.
I have written to David Cameron, and to the candidates to succeed him, making it clear what the Scottish Government’s position is on this matter – EU citizens are an important part of Scotland’s past, present and future. And those who have chosen to make Scotland their home should be allowed to stay for as long as they wish.
Of the many European nationals who have contacted me since the Brexit vote, some have asked what the future holds in terms of Scotland’s place in the EU. I can only repeat what I have already said, which is that the Scottish Government will pursue every possible avenue to maintain our place in the EU.
That includes the option of an independence referendum if it becomes clear that that is the best or only way of doing so. And let me be clear – EU nationals resident in Scotland would be able to cast their votes in any such referendum, just as they were last time.
Just over a week ago I joined with colleagues in the Scottish Parliament for the official opening of its fifth session, presided over by Her Majesty The Queen.
It was a special occasion, including the performance of our new Makar Jackie Kay’s first piece of commissioned poetry titled ‘Threshold’ – a poignant piece of work which reminded us we are a Parliament for all of Scotland.
The poem ends with the words “Come join our brilliant gathering” – and that is the message I believe Scotland has sent to our friends across Europe and the wider world in the days since the referendum. We are an open, outward-looking, inclusive nation in which all those who have chosen to make this country their home are welcome.