First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
29 February, 2016
Thank you very much indeed, Torsten, for that introduction and thank you to the Resolution Foundation for hosting today’s event. It is indeed a very appropriate venue for the discussion that we are going to have this morning. And, thank you to all of you for coming along here on a Monday morning to hear what I have got to say and hopefully to ask many questions.
As Torsten has just said, February 29 is a rare occasion to speak to you all. Indeed, in Scotland at any rate, we seem to have more frequent referendum days than leap year days.
It is interesting, I have to say, to hear many of the same arguments we heard during the Scottish referendum repeated in the early stages of the EU referendum albeit in different context. There are some early lessons emerging from the Scottish referendum that all of us should pay heed to in the weeks and months ahead.
Firstly, one of the things we learned quickly about referendums in Scotland, is that if people are encouraged to and given the opportunity to truly engage in the issues, and realise the potential impact, good or bad, on their own day to day lives, then it is possible to generate a thriving democratic debate that leaves a positive legacy regardless of the outcome of the referendum. So, I certainly hope that some of that happens with this referendum too – and I have to say seeing so many people gathered on a Monday morning to discuss the issues is a thoroughly good start.
I also hope, and this is the second lesson I would take from our own experience that I hope that the debate that we engage in over the next few months is a thoroughly positive debate. So, I hope that we have a debate that is uplifting, positive and focusing on the very issues Torsten spoke about. And if that happens, not only do I believe it will lead to what I consider the right outcome - which is a vote to remain in the EU - but it will be an experience that the people across the UK benefit from and feel good about. The opportunity to have a fundamental debate about the future of your country is a good opportunity to have.
I’m going to look forward to June’s referendum day in a moment. But I want to start by looking backwards. Because yesterday, February 28th, marked a significant anniversary that had relevance to the subject matter that we are discussing this morning. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the final signing at the Hague of the Single European Act.
Now that was a noteworthy occasion because so many of the consequences of that flowed from Single European Act are still with us today. It was of course a major move towards the creation of the European single market.
But to achieve that, it encouraged further pooling of sovereignty, for example by removing national vetoes in some areas. And the signing of the Act intensified efforts – notably by Jacques Delors, the then Commission President – to ensure that social values were part of the single market. The Commission wanted to ensure that the single market led to improvements in people’s living and working conditions.
But actually, for many people - and I’m definitely one of them, as my speech will make clear - social protections are a significant part of what makes membership of the European Union a good thing and worthwhile. I don’t see a tension between the economic elements of the EU and the social side. On the contrary, I believe that they should, and must, go hand in hand together.
So I’m going to talk about that social and economic case for Europe later.
But I want to start before I do that – because this comes up quite frequently when I talk about the European referendum - by addressing two misconceptions that sometimes arise when people ask me my view on Europe.
The first is something which isn’t questioned so much in Scotland – where it is reasonably, easily understood but it is sometimes perhaps understandably seen as curious to people outside of Scotland - and that’s the idea that there’s somehow a contradiction in believing in independence for Scotland, while also supporting membership of the European Union.
This of course ignores the obvious point that all 28 members of the European Union – by definition - are independent countries. 9 of them have smaller populations than Scotland.
The fundamental principle of the EU – that independent nations work together for a common good – appeals to me and appeals to many people across Scotland.
After all, there is nothing at all contradictory about independent nations recognising their interdependence – about choosing to pool some sovereignty for mutual advantage. On the contrary, that is the way of the modern world that we live in today.
And of course Scotland has been pooling sovereignty, in one form or another, for many, many years. We’ve always had to look outwards – to the rest of the UK, to Europe and to the wider world. That is true now, and it would be true should Scotland become an independent nation.
All of that might help to explain why opinion polls consistently show that - while there is no room for complacency - support for the European Union in Scotland seems to be significantly higher than in the rest of the UK.
And of course that raises a further issue which has been widely discussed certainly in Scotland. I have said before that if Scotland were to vote in favour of EU membership, and the rest of the UK voted to leave, in other words if Scotland was to be out-voted then there is a real chance that it could lead to a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Now I don’t think that should be surprising. After all a key plank of the No campaign was that if Scotland voted for independence, our membership of the European Union would be at risk.
Now that argument that if Scotland had voted to be independent was always – to use the technical terminology - complete rubbish, but it was made repeatedly and it was made forcefully. And so if, less than two years later, Scotland was to find ourselves taken out of the European Union against our will –because we had chosen to stay in the United Kingdom – it is not hard to see why that might lead to a growing clamour for a further referendum.
I’ve made that point frequently because it strikes me as an honest assessment of what could well happen. But – and this is the second misconception I want to counter – it’s not what I want to happen.
Yes, of course I want Scotland to be independent but I don’t want Scotland to become independent because the UK chooses to leave the European Union. I want the United Kingdom as a whole to choose to stay in the EU. I think that option will be better for the rest of the UK. I think it will be better for the EU. And should Scotland become independent – something I believe will happen - I think it will be better for us, too. If you think about it even for a second – and Ireland’s stance on the UK referendum is good evidence of this - why wouldn’t we want our closest neighbor also to be a fellow member?
So let me be absolutely clear. I want the vote on 23 June to result in an overwhelming victory, across all parts of the UK, for remaining in the European Union. I will campaign wholeheartedly to achieve that result.
And the main argument I will stress is a very simple one. The European Union is good for the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities across our country.
In fact, some of the benefits the EU brings are so basic that we take them for granted – whether it’s the ability to travel freely across the continent or the reciprocal right to free medical treatment in other EU countries.
The debate around free movement usually tends to focus sometimes exclusively on those who chose to come and live here in the UK. But let’s not forget the right to live, work and study across the continent has also created opportunities for 2 million UK citizens who have chosen to live in other EU countries. And of course that free movement has helped to turn London into perhaps the most cosmopolitan city on the planet. The 170,000 EU nationals who live in Scotland, I believe, enrich our culture, strengthen our society and boost our economy.
Now, I’m aware that the volume of immigration in England is greater than in Scotland. That inevitably and understandably means it’s a bigger part of the debate.
But fundamentally, I believe all parts of the UK benefit from people choosing to come here to work and to study. They contribute significantly to economic growth. And I think the answer to the concerns that people have isn’t to clamp down on free movement; instead it is to ensure that the economy works more effectively for people who are currently unemployed, or on low wages or struggling to access housing or offer services. It’s to generate hope rather than play on fear.
And on that issue, in some respects, the European Union can be and is part of the solution. It’s worth looking at some of the social protections the EU has established, which benefit everyone in the UK, but often aren’t attributed to the European Union.
The right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity; maternity and paternity leave entitlement; the right to paid holidays; the right to work for no more than 48 hours each week – all of these are enshrined in EU directives and regulations.
Now obviously it is open to individual governments to provide better rights and protections if they want to. But it’s not inevitable that they will.
In 2013 the UK only increased the minimum entitlement to parental leave as a direct result of European directives. There are other cases – for example minimum annual leave, and conditions for agency workers - where the UK complies with the European minimum and no more. Which begs the question without European regulations would minimum standards be meet the regulation at all?
In fact, when you consider some of the UK Government’s other policies – for example its attempt to further weaken trade union rights - we should be thankful that the European Union sets some basic social standards.
Now, I know that there are some people who see these rules as burdens on business rather than statements of basic human decency. None of them will be at a Resolution Foundation event, but they do exist!
But even if you hold that view, leaving the EU doesn’t resolve the issue. Presumably leaving the UK out of the European Union, we would still want to access the single market. We only have to look at countries like Norway and Switzerland who have to comply with these directives without being able to shape or influence them. Their compliance is a requirement of their access to the single market.
That’s because there’s a sound reason for them, for these rules and regulation. They prevent a race to the bottom, where the single market is undermined by exploitative working practices.
More fundamentally, they set minimum civilized standards for what workplace rights should look like in an advanced economy. That’s good for workers in London and Glasgow, and it’s also good for workers in Bucharest or Berlin. These directives, in my view, aren’t burdens on business, and they’re not simply statements of principle – they are real achievements which make a real difference to millions of people’s lives.
And beyond those benefits for individuals – which are sometimes woven so deeply into the fabric of our lives that we hardly register them – there are also big economic and environmental advantages.
The EU gives us open access to a market of 500 million people. In Scotland, annual exports to EU countries outside the UK are worth more than £2,000 per person. They help to support 300,000 jobs.
Trade deals are easier to negotiate as part of a block. Harmonised regulations help businesses to export. And all of us benefit as customers – for example the abolition of roaming charges next year is a result of the move to a single market in digital products and services.
Of course it is possible to get some of those economic benefits without being part of the EU – but as Norway and Switzerland demonstrate, that involves being bound by EU rules without having the ability to influence them.
It’s also worth considering the environment. European decisions helped us to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by almost nine tenths in the last four decades. Nitrogen oxide levels have decreased by two thirds in Scotland since 1990.
Now again, decisions on these issues could have been taken separately by 12, 15 or 28 individual nations. But because air quality and the environment is an international issue – because pollution knows no boundaries - it makes sense to develop common goals and common targets. As some of you might remember, a major reason for the drive to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions, was the impact that UK pollution was having on West German forests.
There is still more that Europe can and should do here – but joint action in this area has almost certainly saved tens of thousands of lives.
And if you look at climate change – the biggest environmental, economic and moral challenge facing the planet – the EU was the first major economy block to make its plans for reducing emissions known before last year’s Paris summit. The EU was active in working with developed and developing nations. It was able to plausibly talk as an equal with China, India and the USA. It could negotiate far more effectively than 28 individual member states would have ever been able to do on their own.
None of this is to say that the European Union is perfect. No international organisation is; no national government is, for that matter.
The EU is and always will be capable of improvement. Last year, for example, the Scottish Government proposed ideas on reform on issues ranging from the integrated energy market to much more discretion to domestic governments on public health measures shaped by our own experience of trying to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol in Scotland.
And I know that many people - including many who consider themselves as being social democrats - have deep-seated concerns about the EU at present.
The handling of the Greek crisis troubled many and I share some of those concerns. I have also heard an argument from people on the left that shouldn’t support the EU because of the proposed trade deal with the USA - TTIP.
I share a number of the concerns about TTIP. I personally cannot and would not support a trade agreement that would put at risk our public NHS, but the blame for that lies not with Europe and the EU itself but with the current UK government that so far is refusing to insist that the NHS is specifically and expressly protected.
And of course the single biggest issue facing Europe at present – the area where the need for action is greatest - is the refugee crisis.
Even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t be able to solve this crisis by building walls or erecting barbed wire fences. Jean-Claude Juncker put this well, I thought, in September. He pointed out that - if you just imagined for a moment that you were a refugee - “there is no price you would not pay, there is no wall you would not climb, no sea you would not sail, no border you would not cross” in order to flee from the horrors of war, and the barbarism of Daesh.
Burying our heads in the sand or individual countries turning on themselves will not make the refugee crisis go away. It will simply make the refugee crisis and the management of it more chaotic.
In my view, the most effective solution must be through a fair and humane processing of asylum claims – contributed to by all EU members - and then the relocation of refugees, among all EU nations and any other willing partners. The reluctance of so many governments to help meet that challenge is, I think, a genuine failure of leadership.
This is also an area where I would like to see the UK to do more.
Scotland has taken nearly 40% of the refugees to arrive in the UK so far under the Syrian resettlement programme. In all of the preparatory work for that, we have worked constructively and very well with the UK Government. And it has be said that the UK Government has done some genuinely positive things – for example it has made significant aid contributions to help refugees in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. All of these things are to be applauded.
So I am going to put this next comment fairly gently. But two weeks ago at the European Council, the heads of government and the heads of state broke off from discussing the refugee crisis - one of the most defining issue of our times - in order to negotiate the taper rate at which the UK is allowed to cut benefits for working EU citizens. I can’t be the only person who wondered whether the UK’s standing in the world was really being enhanced at that moment in that process.
And my hope – although in the short term it may be a forlorn hope – is that when the referendum is over, or preferably even before, the UK will focus more on working with partners across the UK to do more to help with the refugee crisis – because it is the most significant of the issues currently facing the EU.
Because for all the EU’s shortcomings on this issue, the solution is more co-operation between different countries, not less. We need a collective response, not closed minds or isolationist actions. And the European Union for all its flaws and imperfections is better placed to provide that than anyone else.
So my point is the European Union is inevitably an imperfect organization. But we should, in my belief, work in good faith with our partners to make it better. We should help to create the Europe we want to see.
I started this speech by looking at a 30th anniversary. Now I want to end it by looking at a 75th anniversary.
In 1941 this church was largely destroyed by an incendiary bomb on the last night of the London blitz. There’s a handwritten account of the fire, which is displayed at the back of this room.
For more than two decades afterwards, this space that we’re in was left open to the skies.
That’s difficult to imagine now, as we look around this hall. And it’s maybe hard for this generation of politicians and voters to fully appreciate the place the European project had in the hearts, of so many people who lived through those times.
But it’s also hard not to be inspired by the determination of the EU’s founders - not just to avoid war, but to work together to build something better.
And it’s impossible not to be impressed by the extent to which they succeeded. Free trade, free movement, environmental protections and employment rights - all of these are substantial achievements of the European Union. They make hundreds of millions of people wealthier, healthier, happier and freer.
And I think that’s something to be celebrated, not renounced.
There’s something inherently noble about 28 independent sovereign democracies choosing to work together to promote peace and mutual prosperity. And it’s not just a noble principle. It brings us real and meaningful benefits.
Of course it’s not surprising that the European Union sometimes falls short of its own ideals, or that it’s often bureaucratic, frustrating and messy. In many ways what is more surprising is how well it has lasted and how much it has achieved.
For all its imperfections, the European Union is a force for good in the world.
I would much prefer Scotland to be one of the independent states of the EU and I believe for what it is worth in the future we will be. But independent or not, I believe we are better off in than out so we can work with our neighbours to create a wealthier, fairer, happier continent.
That’s why I will campaign for continued membership in the run up to June’s referendum. I believe that it’s the best outcome for communities, businesses and individuals everywhere – across the European Union, and in all the nations of these islands.