Introductory remarks by Sir Graham Watson, ex-MEP, former leader of the Liberal ALDE Group in the European Parliament, at the EMIS webinar ‘Scotland’s links with Europe’ on 30 July 2020
In my view this subject should be of interest to folk on both sides of the fissure about independence, because it’s about how we promote a wider consciousness of Europe in Scotland and of Scotland on the continent of Europe.
I’m a Liberal Democrat and I share fully my party’s policy of opposition to a break-up of the UK. I identify as a Scot, a Brit, a European and a global citizen. I believe, however, that Brexit will lead to the break-up of the UK and to an independent Scotland which will seek to rejoin the EU. And I see no reason to fear that, provided Scotland is prepared for it. Sadly, in the current constellation, I see precious little preparation.
Scotland’s population is about the same as that of Denmark or Finland or Slovakia, each of which does more than adequately within the EU. But we resemble Slovakia more than Denmark. Our productivity is low, our economic growth rates are weak; the ratio of our exports to GDP is only half the EU average. We are failing to manage well the policies devolved to us in 1998 in health, education and social welfare. It’s not a good basis on which to argue for the allocation to Scotland of powers in state aid or food or the environment which have hitherto been exercised in Brussels.
And our public finances are a mess. If we want people to take us seriously and respect our achievements, we have to start at home.
How do we preserve and enhance Scotland’s links with the EU, in the hope that one day we might again be part of it?
First, we need a clear, comprehensive strategy which is understood by and enjoys the support of the broad mass of people in a country which is not a state but which is not powerless either. We then need to find the resources and put the policies in place to deliver it, consistently, over the next decade.
It has to start with strengthening Scotland’s economy. If the country of James Watt and Adam Smith wishes to contribute to the renewed European debate on industry and trade, we need to concentrate on recovery from our underperformance in productivity and innovation. And we need to lift our horizons: our exports are a paltry £80bn of which £50bn goes primarily to the rest of the UK. The Scottish National Investment Bank and the Trade Board may have a role to play in this, but let’s get real about them.
One area where we are doing well is renewable energy. But if we’re serious about a 90% cut in GHG emissions 30 years from now we need a huge investment in insulation of our housing stock, for example. And we might work with other countries to identify best practice.
We also need to take control of our labour market. England’s hostile environment for migrants could be an opportunity for Scotland. So rather than arguing for an indyref which we’ll not get for at least a decade, let’s focus on things we might get like devolution of powers in migration policy. Let’s build on Scotland’s reputation for welcome. As somebody who was born in Rothesay, I’m immensely proud of what we did for Syrian refugees. That can be replicated many times over. And let’s make sure we stay involved in European networks on migration like the European Council for Refugees and Exiles, even after Brexit.
Much of what we can do involves what’s often called soft power, or para diplomacy. We do it quite well, though on a limited canvass, through Scotland’s offices in Brussels; and to some extent through the Scotland hubs in Berlin and Paris and Dublin. We might usefully look at Copenhagen, Helsinki and Bratislava to build links with other countries of our size.
None of this is rocket science. A report published in May of last year by the Scottish Centre on European Relations, brought together by the admirable Kirsty Hughes, outlined a number of ideas. It called, for example, for an audit of bi-lateral relations with other European countries. It suggested we try to join the New Hanseatic League, which brings together the Nordic and the Baltic Countries. It took up the idea of Scotland trying to mirror EU legal developments going forward, transposing them into Scots Law so that we keep up with human rights standards. It looked at sectoral co-operation, in culture and in youth work, for example.
The UK pulled out of the Council of Europe’s youth work – the European Youth Foundation and the European Youth Centre – some years ago; there’s probably no reason why Scotland could not re-join it. This all has to be part of what Anthony Salamone called a philosophy of ‘Think Europe’.
Most of all we need to set up or join networks of international cooperation. The reunification of Ireland will probably come before independence for Scotland, but in the meantime why don’t we propose a ‘Council of Alba’ bringing us closer to Ulster and the Republic, hosting the first meeting on Iona? Or set up a Scottish-German equivalent of the annual Königswinter gathering, perhaps chaired by David McAllister MEP, to help us follow Ireland’s success in their ‘Ireland in Germany’ initiative?
Scotland joining the European Economic Area is little more than a pipe dream, but we might apply to join the Nordic Council, which is a body for inter-parliamentary co-operation between the parliaments of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Aland Islands. Some of them are members of NATO, some are not; some EU, some outwith. The Nordic Council has no formal power, but it’s been so effective that the governments of those countries have set up their own ‘Nordic Council of Ministers’. We could join that too, another opportunity for the First Minister to grandstand…
My main fear is of continued dithering and drift. Since the UK Parliament voted for Brexit, we’ve seen renewed political leadership in the EU in an agreement on economic recovery from coronavirus, an ambitious seven-year budget, a determination to make Europe a stronger economic power, a reaffirmation of its climate goals and a new approach to China. Meanwhile, in the UK we’ve seen a period of muddle and drift under a prime minister with extravagant self-belief and the arrogance which fate detests. And in Edinburgh an absence of any coordinated strategy to forge a European way forward.
We can do better than this.