Wednesday, 23 April 2008

National Conversation comes to Europe

Alex Salmond, our First Minister was in town today together with Mike Russell, our Environment Minister, where they brought the National Conversation about Scotland's future to Brussels - though today was very much the international dimension with the focus on Scotland's potential in Europe.

The level of interest in what is happening back in Scotland over here is very apparent, not least by the fact that there was a packed audience in Scotland House with policy makers from across the different EU institutions, politicians, expat Scots, think tanks and other interested groups and organisations as well as other devolved regions.

For me personally it was a bit of a moment walking in the doors of the Scottish Government EU Office in Brussels and seeing copies of the
White Paper setting out options for Scottish independence. It's hard to believe that it's almost a year since the SNP took power as Scotland's new government.

And what a year we have had! Gone are the dark old days of the previous Lab/Lib Dem Executive which was too scared to fly the Saltire from Scotland House in the heart of the EU quarter, lest heaven forbid Scotland became too visible in Europe. Now we have a Scottish Government in Edinburgh that is more bullish in its defence of Scottish interests with London and willing to take a much more direct approach in its dealings with Europe to ensure Scotland's interests are protected and promoted. And to top it all off, we now have the First Minister of Scotland in the heart of the EU talking about Scottish independence in Europe, moving Scotland forward and the contribution Scotland can make in playing our part globally and taking our global responsibilities.

The First Minister set out where the political debate is at back home - that there is now broad political consensus that the current powers Scotland has under devolution are no longer sufficient and that not only are more powers necessary but the discussion itself has moved on to what those powers should be. Our position in the SNP is clear - we want to give the people of Scotland the right to decide for themselves in a referendum whether they want Scotland to be independent, retain the status quo or have further powers devolved to Holyrood. Latest opinion polls show public support for independence has increased by 14 points to 41% since the SNP's historic victory last May 2007. Opposition to independence has dropped from a high point of 50% to 40%.

The First Minister also made it clear that if the Unionist parties come forward with an alternative (as an outcome of the Scottish Constitutional Commission set up under the Chairmanship of Sir Kenneth Calman to look at Scotland's place within the UK ten years on from devolution) then he can see no reason why this option should also not be on the referendum ballot paper but this all depends on whether the Unionist parties would want to do this. If there are other options then the people of Scotland should be able to have a full and comprehensive debate about everything that is put on the table.

Much was made of Scotland seeking to engage much more positively with Europe, of wanting to emulate the success of other small European nations - Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland (the so-called 'Arc of Prosperity' countries) and our sharing of values which underline "Scotland's natural place within the mainstream of European social democracy". This was highlighted by firstly the publication of the Scottish Government's Economic Strategy and the setting of key targets for sustainable economic growth (i.e. for Scotland to match the GDP growth rate of the small independent EU countries by 2017 and to raise Scotland's GDP growth rate to the UK level by 2011). Given we are now living in a global economy you don't need to be a large country to access the global markets. The disadvantages of being a small country have been eroded and many small countries are now coming into their own through their ability to use competitive tax policies and their power to design their own economic policies that suits the distinct needs and interests of their country.

Secondly, was the building of a new relationship with local government, working together in a new social partnership based on mutual respect through the signing of a financial concordat in November 2007.

Thirdly, central to Scotland's economic potential are our life sciences, financial services and renewables, where Scotland currently enjoys more than 25% of Europe's marine renewable energy. These are all sectors where Scotland has a comparative advantage in economic growth.

Lastly, with a minority government in Holyrood, the political culture is one of negotiation and dialogue.

While Scotland aspires for a role in foreign policy, the First Minister underlined the extent to which Scotland is limited in what it can do in this regard because of the UK's unwritten Constitution. The anomaly of Scotland's position in Europe is clear - we are inside the EU as part of the UK and yet with very distinct interests we are unable to pursue our own policies that would be more in keeping with Scotland's specific circumstances and needs rather than those of the wider UK. For example, on the euro if Scotland had been developing its own monetary policy Scotland would have joined. Until Scotland can achieve independence, for the moment Scotland can only make progress in those areas where London has little interest, i.e. fisheries.

This point was picked up by Mike Russell, who in his summing up said that Scotland has been able to influence the UK position on fisheries. While the speaking note at recent Fisheries Councils has been developed by Scottish officials in close cooperation with Defra officials, the frustrating part is that Scottish Government Ministers cannot contribute to that discussion. It is the UK Fisheries Minister that gets to sit at the big table and uses the "Scottish" speaking note. Scottish Government Ministers are not allowed to speak - UK Ministers can "on our behalf".

It is a bizarre state of affairs for any country to find itself in. The importance for Scotland to be in the dynamics of those discussions and to have the opportunity to put Scotland's case forward as a Scot from a Scottish perspective rather than have someone else do it for us cannot be underestimated.

All I want is for Scotland to be like any other normal country and for me full independence is the only way in which Scotland can protect and promote its distinctive interests.

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