In the first of our new section, Scotland’s EuropeanStories, Jo Goodburn and Vanessa Glynn, both executive members of the European Movement in Scotland (EMiS), recount how they were instrumental in establishing Scotland House at the heart of the EU Quarter in Brussels to act for Scottish interests and relations in Europe.
A sharp tap on the attic door. “You JockRep?”, drawled the languid UKRep First Secretary. “The Permanent Representative wants a word.”
It’s April 1998. Scotland has voted to establish a Scottish Parliament and devolved government. Now Ministers and civil servants must make that happen. Work in London and Edinburgh is frantic to put in place the machinery and systems that will turn that vote into a nation able to manage its affairs.
We’re two Scottish Office civil servants between postings, in Brussels, and our country needs us. Donald Dewar’s finger points at us as he says: “Put Scotland at the heart of Europe.”
Devolution gives Scotland control over great swathes of domestic policy but not foreign affairs. What on earth has Europe got to do with it!? Well, devolution will give the Scottish Parliament democratic control over farming, fisheries, environment, justice, regional development, health and education. The EU legislates in all these areas; this affects Scotland on a daily basis as well as us all as citizens, workers and consumers.
MEPs elected in Scotland sit in the European Parliament, and Ministers and the new Scottish Executive (as our government was styled back then) will negotiate alongside colleagues from the rest of the EU as part of the UK’s decision-making team in the European Council. Scotland needs to be represented where the deals are done, gathering intel, building relationships, influencing policy development so that our nation’s interests are protected and promoted.
What we did
So, we got to it. From that attic in the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representation (UKRep) to the EU, we scoped out what Scotland would need to serve its EU interests. We spoke to the myriad parts of the EU institutions, Scottish business, local authorities and interested parties. We learned from the experiences of other similar nations, such as Catalonia and Bavaria. We worked hand in glove with Scottish Enterprise, led by the irrepressible and (now much missed) Donald MacInnes, who already operated an effective economic office in Brussels.
It made sense to combine forces – a government representation for newly devolved Scotland, embracing services for business and providing a hub for all Scottish interests, from legal services to cultural outreach. We would use our house for outreach to fellow Europeans and the Scots community using the conference and event facilities for policy seminars, media networking, Burns’ Suppers, art installations and more.
We set up Scotland House in the heart of the EU Quarter in Brussels – from our eyrie in the attic we had espied the renovation works going on in the building opposite, with its main door opening onto Rond-Point Schuman, an ideal location to show-case Scotland and build European friendships. We visited in hard hats – all the way up to the top two levels – and realised that, as well as an excellent site for Scottish Government representation, we could provide an events and meeting space with one of the best views of the EU decision-making locations in town!
We saw to everything from how many staff would be required to where the telephone points would go, from setting the annual budget to buying the coffee cups. Scotland House was officially opened by Donald Dewar, in July 1999, on budget, in the week that devolved powers were assumed by the Scottish Parliament.
Summoned to the UK Permanent Representative’s grand office in those early days of planning back in ‘98, to explain what Scotland was thinking, we were able to reassure that our Ministers were looking for a close working relationship. We did enjoy the slight ruffling of diplomatic feathers when we broke the news that Scotland House would be setting up shop in premises not long vacated by UKRep itself – something of an iconic venue to the Foreign Office from the earliest days of EU membership. But we must have done something right as the Permanent Representative also agreed to give the Scottish Executive members of staff full diplomatic status, Scotland’s first diplomats for 300 years!
Brexit has not ended the story of Scotland House – it was given a make-over in 2018 adding state of the art office space and show-casing wonderful Scottish design and manufacture in its public spaces. Indeed, it is more vital than ever that Scotland is represented in Brussels and in the hubs that have opened in other European capitals since. Now, though, our access is more restricted and influence is that much harder to achieve. But Scotland House is there waiting, at the heart of the EU, for the day we rejoin.
Jo Goodburn and Vanessa Glynn
Images of Scotland House via scotlandeuropa.com; of Donald Dewar, the first First Minister, the Queen and David Steel, the first Presiding Officer, at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, July 1, 1999, via flickr/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0