External Affairs Secretary on Scotland in Europe
Fiona Hyslop MSP
European Policy Centre
Good afternoon. I’m pleased to be here in Brussels today to discuss the themes of Scotland, the EU, the referendum and reform. I’d like to start by thanking the European Policy Centre for hosting this event – it is a pleasure to speak to an organisation which provides such excellent EU policy analysis and as ever, has attracted a fantastically engaged and varied audience.
It is a great privilege for me to be here in Brussels at the institutional heart of Europe at the start of what I believe will be a crucial period in the EU’s development. In light of the results of the recent European Parliament election, and the imminent appointment of a new College of Commissioners, we are at a point at which the EU’s priorities are being re-examined, new commitments are being made and a wider – and much needed – discussion is under way about how to build a stronger, more responsive and more successful Europe. A Europe that meets the aspirations of its citizens.
There are, of course, parallels between the conversations here in Brussels and in Scotland in this respect. We too have arrived at a new juncture in our constitutional journey and our aim is to create a stronger and more successful Scotland – a Scotland that meets the aspirations of its citizens.
Today, I’d like to set out how we have reached this point, what happens next and what all this means for our partners in the EU.
The route to the referendum
One of the central messages to emerge from the Scottish referendum was the extent to which ordinary citizens across Scotland, many of whom had never voted before, re-connected to the political process and participated – actively – in a national debate. This was a debate that was not only about how individuals saw their constitutional future, but more importantly, a wide-ranging discussion about the kind of society in which they wished to live and which policies they wished their government to deliver.
So how did we get to the referendum?
In 2011, the Scottish National Party, standing on a platform of independence for Scotland, won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, giving not only the political mandate, but the constitutional legitimacy to call for a referendum on Scottish independence.
I would like to be clear at this point that Scottish nationalism has always been a civic, peaceful, constitutional and wholly democratic movement. The cause of Scottish Home Rule has always been advanced within the government system and constitutional tradition of the UK, compliant at every stage with the rule of law.
Our independence referendum was squarely within that tradition, with the Scottish and UK Governments working together to agree a constitutional and binding process, enshrined within a document called the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’. This was signed in October 2012 by David Cameron for the UK Government and Alex Salmond for the Scottish Government.
The Edinburgh Agreement set out the principles under which the referendum should be held. A key paragraph of the agreement was paragraph 30 - on cooperation.
It stated that the UK and Scottish Governments would respect the result of the referendum and work together constructively in light of the outcome, pursuing the best interests of the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom.
The Referendum was held on 18 September and 55% voted No and against the proposition that Scotland should become an independent country at this time. The turnout was almost 85% - this equates to just over 3.6 million votes being cast and the referendum having the highest ever turn-out of any UK-wide vote.
In line with its commitment, the Scottish Government has accepted the result of the Referendum.
What happens next
However, it is clear from polling that not all of the 55% voting ‘no’ and against independence were voting for the status quo. Indeed, during the referendum campaign, Prime Minister Cameron stated: “Business as usual is not on the ballot paper. The status quo is gone. This campaign has swept it away. There is no going back to the way things were. A vote for ‘No’ means real change.”
The leaders of the UK political parties committed that further substantial devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament will be delivered within a short period of time. For example, the Prime Minister said “if we get a No vote, that will trigger a major, unprecedented programme of devolution with additional powers for the Scottish Parliament.” Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and a Liberal Democrat, stated that Scotland would see “effective Home Rule but within the security and stability of the United Kingdom.” Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that: “we’re going to be, within a year or two, as close to a federal state as you can be in a country where one nation is 85% of the population.”
Proposals for new powers are to be developed by a Commission established by the UK Government and headed by Lord Smith of Kelvin, comprising representatives from each of the main political parties in Scotland. The process will cumulate in the publication of draft legislation no later than January 2015.
Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, has set out three “good government” criteria by which the Scottish Government will assess proposals on further devolution to Scotland, which are:
Coherence - so far as possible, the Scottish Government and Parliament should have a coherent set of powers to tackle a particular problem, rather than leaving some relevant powers in the control of one government and others in that of the other;
Effectiveness – the package should provide levers that can be used to address social and economic challenges and not simply be a transfer of funding or delivery accountability with little or no practical scope for taking innovative policy decisions to meet Scottish needs;
Transparency – citizens should know who to hold accountable for decisions.
The First Minister has also set out three “policy” tests against which the Scottish Government will assess proposals for further devolution. Importantly, these issues were those that the people clearly engaged with during the most energised and participative democratic process in Scotland’s history.
1) “They should enable us to make Scotland a more prosperous country” – in particular, genuine job-creating powers are important.
2) “They should allow us to build a fairer society” - we need to address the deep-lying causes of inequality within Scottish society.
3) “They should enable Scotland to have a stronger and clearer voice on the international stage.”
Clearly, we cannot pre-empt the agreement which will be reached on these issues, but on that third test, we have set out that we would like to see an ambitious and purposeful package of new powers for the Scottish Parliament.
We have been clear that we want to have the ability to represent Scotland’s interests internationally within the framework of our current responsibilities. We also expect to see new mechanisms that give us a role in influencing UK foreign policy in areas where we are currently unable to contribute.
The important point here is that we are looking for powers for a purpose. We want to reflect Scottish views of the world with the aims of improving the lives of people in Scotland and contributing as a good global citizen.
The powers that we seek are consistent with those aims and are essential if we are to ensure that the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government can play a stronger role in decision-making on issues which affect their responsibilities.
We are making the case that additional powers should include specific competence for Scotland to act directly in the European Union, and internationally:
- to improve Scotland’s sustainable economic performance;
- to maintain the integrity of Scottish Government policy in its areas of responsibility; and,
- to make a distinctive contribution to global challenges.
Scotland’s relationship with the European Union is particularly important in this new debate. The EU exercises considerable influence over economic prosperity and social welfare – areas of policy that are either already the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament or expected to be transferred to Edinburgh through the Smith Commission.
Our strong belief is that Scotland should have guaranteed rights to engage directly with EU institutions and EU decision-making processes in these areas.
A statutory mechanism should be put in place to enable Scotland to jointly develop, influence and represent UK policy positions on broader European matters (for example, on EU reform or treaty change). This development would recognise the distinctive Scottish approach to the EU, about which I will say more later.
Scotland remains an outward facing nation, keen to share our talents, our goods and our ideas with those around the world. This has not changed because of the result on 18 September. The job of the Scottish Government now is to ensure that the expectations of early and substantial change that were raised during the referendum campaign are met.
This means transferring new powers and responsibilities to allow the Scottish Parliament and Government to tackle the challenges facing our nation.
My government has very much welcomed the opportunity to put forward these proposals.
However, it isn’t just politicians who are leading the way in creating a fairer, more prosperous Scotland with a stronger voice on the international stage.
As I mentioned earlier, the level of engagement by the people of Scotland in the debate on our constitutional future was simply astounding. Before the referendum, 97% of those eligible to vote in Scotland registered to make their voice heard; on the day, turnout was 85%; and even now, we are beginning to see the referendum’s legacy beginning to play out.
Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the increase in membership of the pro-independence political parties in Scotland.
For example, on the 18th September membership of my political party, the Scottish National Party, stood at 25,000. Today – less than a month later – membership stands at 80,000. The pro-independence Scottish Green Party has also recorded a dramatic growth in membership over the same period.
If we were to put that in national UK terms, or in terms of Italy, the current President of the Council of the EU, it would be equivalent to membership of a political party of 1 million. By comparison, in the UK the Labour Party is the largest UK party, and it has a membership of only 190,000.
It is clear the debate in Scotland has re-energised our politics and, in doing so, challenged our politicians to respond to the expectations and aspirations of our citizens.
The reform agenda
My vision is to see this level of engagement not only in my own country, but right across the EU. We saw in the European elections in May that only 42.5% of the electorate turned out to vote – a figure that was even lower in the United Kingdom at 35%. We also saw the rise of Eurosceptic parties. Those of us who believe that the Europe Union is important – not in itself - but as an agent to deliver jobs, peace, prosperity and social progress need to take decisive action.
That is why the Scottish Government has published an agenda for EU reform with the fundamental aim of bringing Europe closer to the citizen. I have seen first-hand that levels of democratic engagement soar when people can see the relevance of policy to their own lives, and importantly, when they feel they are being listened to. As such, the Scottish Government’s focus in the EU will be to prioritise economic and social policies which reflect the fundamental aspirations and concerns of citizens right across Europe.
This will involve renewing our collective endeavours to stimulate economic growth across the EU and enhance competitiveness. It means we have to tackle the high and persistent level of unemployment across the EU - in particular, the unacceptably high rate amongst young people. Not only is tackling unemployment desirable in itself, representing as it does a significant depletion of economic potential, it tackles inequalities across our societies which undermine social cohesion and further jeopardises sustainable growth over the longer term. This is a shared endeavour for all of us - jobs and fairness are in the mutual self-interest of all member states.
In addition, we have to redouble our efforts to address climate change and deliver energy security so that we, and future generations, can flourish in a safe and sustainable environment.
In Scotland, we have already made good progress in these areas. For example, we are delivering on our commitment to provide more than 25,000 new Modern Apprenticeship opportunities each year for young people, and our “Opportunities for All” initiative offers learning or training opportunities for all 16‑19 year olds in Scotland not already in work, education or training.
On tackling climate change, renewable sources delivered just over 40% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption in 2012. This compares with an EU-wide figure of 23.5%.
But we know that cannot achieve our goals in isolation. We recognise that issues such as climate change or youth unemployment in Europe – be it in Spain, France, Portugal or Greece – affect Scotland too.
We also know that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our societies are still suffering from the devastating impact of the economic and financial crisis. The Scottish Government will work to urge the EU institutions to allow - and indeed, encourage - Member States to implement economic and domestic policies to support these citizens. After all, the EU is committed to building a ‘social Europe’, in which poverty, inequality and ill-health are combatted.
Again, the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling these difficult issues is borne out in our policies. For example, the Scottish Government has supported those on low incomes by introducing a requirement to pay a living wage in our public sector pay policy – currently £7.65 an hour, or around €9.50.
A living wage supports families’ incomes - not only tackling poverty, but also helping people to buy local goods and services, supporting local economies.
We are convinced that the prioritisation of economic and social policies must go hand-in-hand with regulatory reform. Businesses too are still struggling to recover from the financial crisis and they must be able to do so free from unnecessary financial and administrative burdens.
As such, we have set out five principles of better regulation in our reform agenda for the European Union. EU laws should be:
- and the institutions should be held to account where regulation is overly restrictive or onerous.
The UK ‘in/out’ referendum and repeal of the HRA
This approach of ensuring better regulation rather than less regulation for businesses contrasts with the UK government’s approach of seeking to repeal EU legislation via an arbitrary ‘one in, two out’ rule. We believe that the only way to effectively reform the EU is to look forward and to seek to do things in a more efficient and coherent manner.
Furthermore, the Scottish Government does not agree with Prime Minister Cameron’s assertions that our relationship with the EU should be renegotiated and enshrined within a reformed treaty. We wish to protect the integrity of the single market and the benefits we derive from it and consider that the existing EU treaty framework provides a suitable political and legal basis to effect the reforms that we are advocating. This is particularly the case given that the Commission has shown its willingness to engage in constructive dialogue on reform via programmes such as Europe 2020 and REFIT.
The UK Prime Minster has also undertaken that if his party wins a majority in the next UK general election – to be held in May next year – it will offer an ‘in/out’ referendum on the UK’s EU membership.
Having gone through our referendum in Scotland where all sides argued that membership of the EU IS important, the Scottish voice will be distinctive and experienced in any future ‘in/out’ referendum, and it will be a voice which strongly advocates us remaining in the EU.
Leaving the European Union would not only extinguish opportunities for Scotland to grow its economy and create jobs; it would limit our ability to work with our partners to address common challenges; and importantly, would deprive over five million people living and working in Scotland of the rights and protections afforded to them by EU law.
Speaking of rights and protections, those of you with an interest in human rights law will have noted Mr Cameron’s proposals for a future UK Conservative government to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998.
This legislation incorporates fundamental freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights into the domestic legal order of the United Kingdom.
Any attempt to amend or abridge these is a matter of serious concern to my government and we will do everything within our power to ensure that human rights protections remain in place. Indeed, under the terms of the current UK devolution settlement, any attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act would require the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
Given our longstanding opposition to the proposals to scrap it, we would, of course, invite the Scottish Parliament to refuse the consent to repeal the Human Rights Act.
Throughout the referendum debate, the Scottish Government has, in the words of President Barroso, “repeatedly reaffirmed its European commitment.” The Italian Government, which as I mentioned earlier currently holds the Council Presidency, also reiterated its strong will to build ever closer relationships with the Scottish government at bilateral, European and international level. As we embark on a new policy cycle in Brussels and near the UK general election, it is more important than ever that we continue to reaffirm our European commitment and forge these strong bilateral links.
The Scottish Government will therefore continue to protect and promote the benefits of our EU membership, and the wider protections of international law under the European Convention on Human Rights.
We will seek to influence the UK government and EU institutions to advocate meaningful reform in those areas in which things can be done better in Europe.
And we will continue to argue the case for extra powers for Scotland in the EU so that we have the leverage we need to protect Scotland’s interests, making our distinctive, pro-European voice heard loud and clear here in Brussels.
Finally, I would like to make this point: connecting people, politics and power has never been more important that it is now – not just for Scotland, but across Europe.