Stephen Gethins, Europe Spokesman for the SNP and MP for North East Fife, spoke to Modern Europe on the 21st March 2017.
This week leaders will gather from around Europe to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. For over sixty years, European nations have worked together to create our continent’s longest ever period of peace, freedom, stability and prosperity. In place of conflict, the European Union allows Member States to find consensual solutions to problems through dialogue, diplomacy and democracy.
At this time of uncertainty in terms of our relationship with our European partners it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the major contribution that EU Membership has for us all. The bloc is by no means perfect: building cooperation between 28 sovereign states will always mean some messy compromises. However we are overall better off with it.
Of course the UK will be the elephant in the room of European cohesion, given the anniversary will come just before the triggering of Article 50. Nonetheless that should not preclude us from reflecting on the EU’s extraordinary successes. At a time when we see the rising instability and economic uncertainty it is worth bearing in mind that our closest neighbours in political and economic terms remain Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and other Member States.
Benefits of EU Membership
I am proud that 62% of Scottish voters, including a majority in every local authority area, voted to protect our place in Europe. We voted to retain the benefits of EU membership and remain an open, inclusive and tolerant society that seeks to build economic partnership with those closest to us.
The EU makes our country safer: the European ideal has cemented peace in a historically unstable continent not just after the War but also in later years in areas as diverse as Northern Ireland and the Western Balkans. The EU can become a soft superpower; serving domestic interests and complementing the work of NATO.
The EU makes our country wealthier: Access to the EU single market of over 500 million people has brought considerable benefits to us all. For example, annual exports to EU countries outside the UK are worth more than £2,000 per person.
The EU makes our country fairer: EU directives have provided us with: the fundamental right not to be discriminated against, the right to paid holidays, parental leave and other benefits.
The EU makes our country greener: EU decisions have led to cleaner air and more ambitious climate change targets. It is little wonder that Scotland has often looked for common ground on the environment in Brussels rather than London.
The EU makes our country smarter: the EU provides our students with life changing study-abroad opportunities through Erasmus and provides research funding on which our world leading universities depend. In my own constituency the University of St Andrews (visiting today) gets a quarter of its funding from the EU and is able to a wide poll of talent from across Europe.
The EU makes our country richer: the Freedom of Movement that UK and EU citizens benefit from – I was one of them for many years. At home, EU Nationals make our country a better place to live and work by enrichening us both financially and also as a society.
Scotland voted to remain in Europe to retain all of these benefits and that is where we shall remain.
Where we are now
Right after taking office, the Prime Minister assured the country she would not invoke Article 50 until she had secured a “UK wide approach” and, in good faith, the Scottish Government published a compromise proposal, Scotland’s Place in Europe.
Respecting the vote in England and Wales, the proposal accepted that the UK would leave the EU on the condition that the UK, or Scotland alone if necessary, stayed in the single market. Regrettably, the UK Government has not entered into the spirit of compromise.
The UK Government’s refusal to protect Scotland’s Place in Europe has now been responded to by the First Minister who is offering the people of Scotland a choice of two futures: one with a UK characterised by an increasingly isolationist foreign policy where some of our key industries such as education, food and drink and energy among others will be left to struggling outside the crucial EU markets. The other option is for Scotland to become an Independent Member State working with our European partners as an active partners in the same way that other similar states do. Scotland would be a medium size member of the EU, a net contributor that has met the acquis communitaire and enjoyed over 40 years of EU membership already.
Union of Equals?
I spoke before about the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. The Treaty establishing the European Economic Community, to give the agreement its full name, established the European Economic Community (EEC) as a union of equals between its members Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. The European Union, as our community now stands, continues to have equality between members at its heart.
In Scotland, however, it is unclear whether the UK remains a union of equals.
Whilst comprising the two unions may seem like comparing apples with oranges or pommes avec les oranges if you will, but:
- The EU would never have blocked a Referendum on the UK’s membership of that particular voluntary Union;
- The EU could not foist a Government on that less than 15% of the electorate in Scotland and just over a third voted for in the UK;
- The EU could not place nuclear weapons on our soil against our will.
It is now for Scotland to decide which of these unions satisfies our interests and, importantly, which one we can be part of as an equal member.
Because the UK state was created through consensual union, Scotland’s capacity to consensually exit the UK is quite distinct in Europe. When asked about whether Scotland becoming and Independent Member State would give precedence to other independence movements in Europe, Esteban Gonzalez Pons MEP from the Spanish Partido Popular clearly understood this principle and noted: “No. If they are thinking about Scotland the Catalonian situation is very different to the Scottish situation.”
Favourable EU Reactions
Perhaps this is why so many European politicians have felt confident about providing support and good will to Scotland as we seek to remain part of the EU.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt MEP, 7 Sep 2016 said “If Scotland decides to leave the UK, to be an independent state, and they decide to be part of the EU, I think there is no big obstacle to do that”.
David McAllister MEP, German’s Christian Democratic Union Party, said “Scotland at the moment has fulfilled the EU acquis to 100%.” Reported in the P&J, 17 Feb 2017.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, on 14 Dec 2016, he told Alex Salmond MP that Scotland had “earned the right to be heard and listened to” on a Scottish settlement for Brexit.
Swedish Former Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted on 20 Dec 2016 “Scotland today makes clear that it is determined to remain in the EU Single Market. Makes eminent economic sense.”
Jacqueline Minor, Head of Representation for the European Commission said “The fact that all your legislation has to be in alignment with existing European rules would presumably not be too difficult for Scotland compared with, say, Montenegro. And that might enable them to move faster than others.” Noted in the Times 13 Feb 2017
It is clear that figures from across the EU understand the situation Scotland finds itself in. I am heartened that so many of my fellow Europeans welcome the fact that Scotland has resisted the anti-EU tide. We are grateful for all of the good will that has been shown.
I believe that Scotland, as an Independent Member State, can provide a bridge between the rest of the European Union and the UK which – despite the perplexing vote for Brexit, we understand more than any other part of Europe – and with which we are uniquely positioned to work.
The EU has been a success for all of the reasons I set out earlier. However it has done so by respecting the Independence of its Members and political flexibility. It now has a thorny issue in the islands on its western flank and how it reacts to the UK leaving the EU while Ireland remains and Scotland possibly sets out its own path.
Europe’s flexibility is its strength and has solved more difficult problems than this. As we are set for years of navel gazing as the UK undertakes the momentous bureaucratic task of trying to leave the EU it is worth reflecting, just for a moment, the unprecedented success 60 years on from the signing of a Treaty that has touched and benefitted us all.
SNP Europe Spokesman