Foreign Affairs Committee, French National Assembly
First Minister, 19 February, 2019
It is a pleasure to come to Paris. Unfortunately I’m not able to stay in Paris until the weekend, to watch the rugby! I do however hope to be back in France in June - when Scotland will compete for the first time in the women’s football world cup, and when our fans will again, I know, receive a very warm welcome.
It is a real honour to be invited to this committee. As my remarks will make clear, Scotland and France are natural partners on very many issues. In fact, one of the reasons for my visit this week is to launch the new Scottish Government office here in Paris.
That is an important development for us. It represents a commitment, not only to our relationship to France, but also to Scotland’s role as an open and outward looking European country.
It also perhaps overdue because France was actually the very first country to establish a consulate in Scotland.
It was opened by General de Gaulle in 1942. A quote from General de Gaulle’s speech on that occasion is inscribed on the outside wall of the Consul-General’s residence in Edinburgh – it says simply ‘the oldest alliance in the world’.
That of course reflects the fact that our countries enjoy ties of trade, commerce and friendship which go back for more than seven hundred years.
For centuries, our citizens even had the right to dual nationality – something which seems increasingly tempting for Scotland, as the prospect of Brexit looms ever larger and we risk losing our European citizenship.
I will reflect on these historic links between our countries from time to time in my remarks today. But as you would expect, I want to focus more strongly on our modern partnership.
In fact my basic message this afternoon is actually very simple. Scotland cherishes our friendship with France. We believe that it brings significant benefits to both of our countries. We want it to flourish further in the years ahead. And we are determined that that will happen regardless of Brexit.
I’ll say more about that later in my remarks.
But, as you would expect, I will start by addressing the issue of Brexit.
It is, after all, the dominant issue in the UK at present.
The first point I want to stress is that Scotland and the Scottish Government is committed to the European Union.
We believe that Scotland benefits hugely from access to a single market of more than 500 million people.
We benefit from the rights EU membership offers to workers, and from the protections it has provided for our environment.
We benefit from the freedom to travel, study and live in Europe; and also from the contribution that our fellow EU citizens have made to Scotland.
These EU citizens of course include 13,000 French people, who are our colleagues, friends, neighbours and in many cases our family.
The Scottish Government is proud that they have done us the honour of making Scotland their home.
We will always stand up for their rights – in recent years we have argued successfully to ensure EU citizens would not have to pay a fee to obtain settled status in the UK.
We will always make it clear that EU citizens are welcome. In fact in the coming months, we plan to step up our efforts to encourage EU citizens to stay in Scotland.
In addition to all of the practical benefits we gain from the EU, we also cherish its fundamental values - freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality, and respect for human dignity and human rights - and we will always encourage the EU to live up to these values.
There’s a point here which perhaps goes slightly beyond Brexit.
The main task of the Scottish Government’s new Paris hub is to strengthen our ties with France.
But another important reason to be based here is that Paris, as a great world city, is the home to major international organisations. UNESCO and the OECD, in different forms, have both been here since the 1940s.
It’s a reminder that France was at the heart of efforts, after World War II, to create a rules-based international order. The institutions created during that time – which of course include the predecessors to the European Union - have brought significant and lasting benefits to Europe and to the world as a whole.
We are being reminded at the moment that the principles that they exemplify - multilateralism, cooperation, a respect for human rights – cannot be taken for granted. We hear too many voices of intolerance and isolationism around the world today. That should concern all of us.
And so participating in international institutions, and speaking up for internationalist values, is hugely important.
I hope that Scotland’s base in Paris – in a small but significant way – will help us to do that more effectively.
Of course at the moment, a key way in which we co-operate with other countries is through the EU.
I was struck by something that Ireland’s Prime Minister said earlier this month.
He was reflecting on the consistent support Ireland has received from the EU throughout the Brexit process. He observed that this solidarity resonates in all small member states.
It’s a good illustration of the fact that for member states – especially, but not exclusively, smaller ones – EU membership can amplify, not curtail, national sovereignty.
And the Taoiseach’s statement was striking to me because the solidarity the EU has shown with Ireland since the EU referendum, contrasts very sharply with the UK government’s attitude to Scotland.
As I’m sure you all know, in 2016 two of the four countries that constitute the UK - England and Wales – voted to leave the EU.
But the other two - Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain in the EU.
In Scotland’s case, 62 per cent of those who voted, chose to remain.
Despite that, the UK Government has been unwilling to recognise the complexity of the vote. Instead it has disregarded Scotland’s views, sidelined moderate voices and chosen to draw negotiating red lines that undermine our efforts to maintain a close relationship with the European Union. Indeed that approach has led to many of the difficulties the UK Prime Minister faces today in trying to build a majority on the way forward.
I can understand Europe and France’s frustration with that – in fact I share that frustration.
The Scottish Government has consistently stood up for EU membership but also tried to promote compromise, to minimize the harm caused by Brexit and to take account of the nature of the vote across the UK.
We have made clear our view that continued membership of the EU is the best outcome, but we have also suggested that if this was not possible, the UK should seek to retain customs union membership, and of course we also believe that when we have greater clarity about the terms of Brexit that Scotland must have the option to choose a different course by opting to become an independent country.
I will say more about independence at a future date.
One thing I do want to stress, however, is that for the Scottish Government, independence is not about the isolationism that characterises Brexit – instead independence would see us recognizing and embracing our interdependence with other nations. We will always seek to be close allies and partners with our neighbours in Europe. The last two years, to my mind, have underlined the importance of that position.
Now, you will have noticed that the UK Government’s negotiating stance has not reflected any of the Scottish Government’s views or proposals.
That is why we believe that the deal the Prime Minister agreed with the other EU member states in November is deeply flawed.
Let me be clear, though - that is a reflection of the UK Government’s flawed negotiating strategy, rather than the position of the EU.
To give one important example, it seems clear that no free trade agreement envisaged by the UK Government will match the benefits the Single Market provides for services. However Scotland’s services sector accounts for three-quarters of our economic output. Putting that sector at a disadvantage will be damaging to Scotland and indeed the whole of the UK - and ultimately to member states across Europe.
Perhaps even more fundamentally, we still have virtually no clarity on what the UK’s long-term relationship with the EU will look like. The UK Parliament is effectively being asked to approve a “blindfold Brexit”.
That is deeply concerning. If you look at the ongoing chaos at Westminster - where hardline Brexiteers appear to receive more attention than moderate voices – it is impossible to be optimistic about the UK Government’s ability to agree a long-term relationship which safeguards Scotland’s interests.
And in the places where November’s political declaration is clear, it is damaging to Scotland.
By insisting on an independent trade policy, it effectively rules out a Customs Union. It effectively rules out single market membership by explicitly committing to the ending of free of movement of people.
I spoke about French citizens in Scotland earlier. For me, this is one of the saddest parts of Brexit. The UK Government is proclaiming the end of free movement as a victory – instead, it is a self-defeating measure. It removes opportunity from millions of people.
It is an approach which is especially damaging to Scotland. Without freedom of movement there is a danger that our population will start to decline. We could face workforce shortages in rural areas, in our universities, in our care and health services.
European nationals are not only very welcome in Scotland. They are crucial to our well-being.
All of this is down to the red lines that UK Government has chosen to draw. Given the existence of those red lines, I understand why the European Union believes that the deal agreed in November is the best which could be achieved. And I appreciate that many people in France and across the EU would like the UK to just get on with it.
But no government of Scotland which has the interests of this and future generations at heart could possibly support the current deal.
In addition, we still believe that there are still possible routes to a better outcome.
However to achieve that, the UK Government would have to alter its approach.
Firstly, the UK Government should make it clear that it would not support the UK leaving the EU on the 29 March without a deal in place. Such an outcome would be disastrous.
The UK Prime Minister should therefore write immediately to the European Union requesting an extension to the Article 50 process. That would alleviate the most immediate time pressure. And in any event, it has been obvious for some time now that the UK is not remotely prepared to leave the EU on 29 March.
I sincerely hope France would lend its support such an extension. However I am well aware that a new European parliamentary session starts on July 1. And so I know that the time of any extension - and indeed the purpose of it - would need to be considered carefully.
Beyond that I believe there are two options. The UK Government could drop its self-defeating red lines and, at long last, stand up to the more extreme Brexiteer element in its ranks and agree to the UK as a whole remaining firmly within the Single Market and Customs Union. Among other things, that would make it far easier to maintain an open border on Ireland. It is the UK’s chosen red lines that currently make that solution impossible.
However, there is no sign so far of the Prime Minister being willing to contemplate such an approach - and, of course, even if she was, there may be too little time left to achieve a guarantee of it before the UK relinquishes EU membership.
That is why the alternative option is now the preferred one for me and many others - a second referendum offering people the choice to remain in the EU.
There is a strong democratic case for that. For parliament, it is a way to break the deadlock. For Scotland it is an opportunity for our wish to stay in the EU to be respected.
And for all voters, it is a chance to make a decision based on much more detailed information than was ever made available in 2016.
At the time of the referendum, people who opted to leave knew that they were voting against EU membership; but they did not know what they were voting for.
That allowed the EU to serve as a scapegoat for wider concerns – for example an entirely justified dissatisfaction about austerity, inequality and stagnant living standards.
A second vote could be based on a much clearer understanding of what the leave option actually means in practice.
This option does not currently have the parliamentary support it needs. However it remains one way out of the problems the UK has created for itself. So it is a course the Scottish Government will support. We cannot endorse the UK Government’s current Brexit proposals, and we will do everything in our power to secure a better outcome for Scotland, the UK and Europe.
And regardless of the eventual outcome of the Brexit process, the Scottish Government will ensure that Scotland is – and is seen to be – an open, welcoming and outward -looking country.
In the last two years we have doubled our trade representation on mainland Europe. We have launched a new promotional campaign which invites people to live, work, invest in and visit our country. We have enhanced our Brussels office, and established new bases in Berlin, Dublin and London.
And yesterday, as I mentioned, I formally opened our new base in Paris. That exemplifies Scotland’s desire to strengthen the connections between our countries. That is something which I stressed in meetings with European Affairs Minister, Nathalie Loiseau, yesterday, and with the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, today.
We have many opportunities to do so. Culture is an area where Scotland and France already have a formal co-operation agreement. Scotland was country of honour at the Brittany’s Lorient festival in 2017, and yersterday I confirmed that the Orchestre de Paris will play at this summer’s Edinburgh International Festival.
Economically, in recent years, France has been Scotland’s largest European inward investor. French businesses employ more than 20,000 people in Scotland. France is also a key market for Scottish businesses – you are our third largest export destination.
There are many opportunities for us to build on these links. Low carbon technology is a good example. One of my last visits to Paris was for the 2015 Climate Change conference – I know how hard France worked to achieve that agreement.
Scotland now generates more than 70% of our electricity from renewable sources. The waters around Scotland are currently home to the world’s most powerful offshore wind turbines, and the world’s largest tidal stream project.
We already collaborate with French institutions in this area – the Universities of Caen and Le Havre in Normandy are involved in a tidal energy project led by the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney in our Northern Islands. EDF is a significant investor in Scottish offshore wind projects.
There are many areas for cooperation. Technology and artificial intelligence could be another.
Events such as Vivatech demonstrate how successful France has been, in recent years, at becoming a major centre for technology businesses.
Scotland is also enjoying success in that area. Other possible areas for partnership include food and drink, health and social care, and the need to balance growth with equality. And of course one of the most important areas of all is education.
Virtually every university in Scotland has a research connection with partners in France - either through bilateral links or through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.
Almost 2,000 people from France study in Scotland, and many Scots study here in France. These exchanges were largely enabled by Erasmus and Scotland is determined to continue to play our part in that programme.
Just a few kilometres from here, you can still see the entrance to the old College des Ecossais in Paris. It was established in 1325. It is a reminder to this day that the exchange of people and ideas between our countries and the benefit of that.
I began by quoting General de Gaulle. I’ll end by quoting him.
On the opening of the French Conculate in Edinburgh, he welcomed the “exchanges of ideas, feelings, customs, and...words...between two peoples joined by a natural friendship”.
That’s a friendship i’m very keen to strengthen between our two countries. That’s why i’m so delighted to be here today. It is a privilege to attend this committee. I look forward now to answering your questions.