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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 28 June 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, European Union Referendum (Implications for Scotland), European Union Referendum (Implications for Scotland), Education (Delivery Plan for Excellence and Equity), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Euro 2016 (Scottish Match Officials)


European Union Referendum (Implications for Scotland)

The next item of business is a statement by the First Minister on the European Union referendum. I want to say a few words before I call the First Minister.

This is the first opportunity that we have had to come together since the monumental events of last week. The consequences of the EU referendum for Scotland are clearly complex and will take some time to fully emerge. I am determined that the Parliament is able to play a full role in this process and that we are able to have a voice, to provide a platform for every voice in this debate and to scrutinise the reactions of the Government with regard to this matter.

I am determined that the Parliament is able to respond to events as they develop, and I have therefore instructed the parliamentary authorities to ensure that resources are available over the summer recess to support a recall of Parliament, should I deem it necessary. I will remain in close contact with the party leaders and the business managers to discuss this matter, and I will report back to Parliament regularly on progress.


This is not a statement that I wanted to make. The Scottish Government did not seek a referendum on our membership of the European Union, and we certainly did not want this result. Although, of course, I respect the views of all those who voted, the United Kingdom result leaves me deeply disappointed and profoundly concerned.

The Scottish Government continues to believe that membership of the European Union is in the best interests of Scotland—for our economy, our society, our culture and our place in the world. That goes not just for Scotland but the rest of the UK. That is why, with the great majority of members of this Parliament—and with all of the party leaders—I campaigned hard for a remain result. I am proud that Scotland voted to remain in the European Union and that we did so emphatically.

It is, of course, important that all of us recognise that some in Scotland voted not to remain in the European Union but instead to leave it. I want to make it clear that, as we move forward, I am committed to listening, understanding and seeking to address their concerns. However, more than 60 per cent of voters across Scotland—and a majority in every one of our 32 local authority areas—said clearly that they wanted Scotland to stay in the EU.

Scotland voted to stay inside the single market and to protect the jobs, investment and trade that depend on it. We chose to be an open, inclusive and outward-looking society in which other EU citizens are welcome to live, work and contribute. We voted to protect the freedom and prosperity that comes with our rights to travel, live, work and study in other European countries, and we endorsed the principle of independent countries working together to tackle global issues such as climate change, energy security and the fight against terrorism.

Scotland spoke clearly for remain, and I am determined that Scotland’s voice will be heard.

We are now, of course, in uncharted territory. We face risk and uncertainty greater, perhaps, than at any time in the post-war period. We are already seeing some of the early consequences. There has been extraordinary volatility in equity and currency markets. Beyond the financial markets, there are suggestions that companies are considering relocating jobs and diverting investment, and that others are concerned about their future access to skilled workers.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer emerged yesterday—I will not say from hiding, although it was beginning to feel like that—to tell us that the UK economy faces the future

“from a position of strength”.

Just hours later, the pound reached a 31-year low and the Standard & Poor’s ratings agency downgraded the UK’s AAA credit rating. Like all of us, I hope very much that we will see an early return of stability and some confidence. However, I fear that we are still in the early days of this period of risk and uncertainty.

These are times that call for principles, purpose and clarity—in short, for leadership. That is why the vacuum that has developed at Westminster is unacceptable. The politicians who proposed this referendum have a duty now—no matter how bruised they feel by the result—to step up to deal with the consequences of its outcome, and those who campaigned for a leave vote, making a number of promises in the process, must now be clear and honest about their plans to deliver.

One thing is clear: there cannot be three months of drift while the Government and main Opposition parties at Westminster immerse themselves in internal elections. That would compound the difficult situation that we are already facing and risk even more damage to our economy.

We have heard that—almost incredibly—there was no plan for this outcome. It is my view that the UK Government must now get a grip on this, first, to restore stability and confidence and then to set out its plan for the way forward. It must involve the Scottish Government in that work every step of the way.

The Scottish Government is already hard at it. I have set three priorities for our work in the immediate term.

First, I want to reassure those from other countries who have chosen to make Scotland their home. I made a commitment to them on the morning of the result and I repeat it here. You are welcome in Scotland. This is your home and we value your contribution. [Applause.]

That commitment is all the more important in light of reported racist attacks in the wake of last week’s result. Let us as a Parliament unite today to make it clear that Scotland is an open and welcoming country and that prejudice, hate and racism will not be tolerated, now or at any time.

The terms of the motion that we debate this afternoon afford the whole chamber the chance to send that message loudly and clearly. Alasdair Allan, the Minister for International Development and Europe, stressed our commitment to EU citizens living in Scotland when he briefed the consular corps earlier this week, and over the course of next week I will host consuls general from all EU member states at a summit in Bute house to discuss how we provide further reassurance in the weeks and months ahead.

The Deputy First Minister is also taking steps to reassure EU students who are already studying in or due to come to Scotland of their continued place in our academic community, and I welcome the commitment from the University of Aberdeen to guarantee the tuition of EU students for the duration of their courses, whatever the UK does.

Our second priority has been to engage with businesses, organisations and stakeholders to provide as much clarity as we possibly can and to understand the concerns and perspectives of all those affected by this period of damaging uncertainty.

We have made it clear in those discussions that Scotland remains a stable and attractive place for business and investment. Our ability to trade with EU countries continues unaffected by the result of the referendum until the UK concludes any negotiations, and it is my intention that we will secure continued access to the single market for Scotland.

I summoned a resilience meeting within a few hours of the result being confirmed to review with ministerial colleagues the early impacts and the Scottish Government’s plans and actions in response. The following morning, on Saturday, I chaired a special meeting of the Scottish Cabinet. My colleagues reported on their immediate engagement across different sectors and communities in Scotland. That engagement continues to inform our planning and our response.

Scotland is a good place to do business—let us be clear about that. However, let us also be clear about this: if, in the circumstances that the UK is now in, Scotland does find a way to maintain our relationship with the EU—as I am determined we will—Scotland will become an even more attractive place to do business. I want to ensure that we are alert to those opportunities.

This Government, and I hope this Parliament, will not look in on ourselves. We will listen and we will lead. That is what people expect of us, and it is what we must continue to do.

Let me turn now to our third and overriding priority. Through all of this, I am determined—utterly determined—to protect Scotland’s relationship with, and our place in, the European Union.

The formal process of the UK leaving the EU does not start until the Prime Minister notifies the European Council, in terms of article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, of an intention to withdraw. As the Prime Minister made clear on Friday morning, he does not intend to make that notification—it will be a matter for his successor.

That means that we are not yet at the stage of formal negotiations. It is vital, however, that we seize the chance that we have, before those negotiations start, to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard as widely as possible: in London, in Brussels, and by member states across Europe.

The Prime Minister gave me a commitment on Friday morning on the full engagement of the Scottish Government and to ensure that the interests of all parts of the UK are protected and advanced. Today, I seek the Parliament’s authority to hold the Prime Minister and his successor to that commitment.

This week, I have discussed the situation with the President of the Republic of Ireland, who will address the chamber tomorrow. I also had a very constructive discussion earlier this morning with the Taoiseach. As the chamber would expect, I am closely in touch with the heads of other Administrations in these islands, including through the British-Irish Council, which met in Glasgow just before the referendum and which I expect may meet again very shortly.

I spoke on Friday with the mayor of London and, this morning, with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, to discuss the shared interest that we now have in protecting our relationship with Europe. The Government is directly in touch with the Governments of other member states both to repeat our assurance that their citizens are welcome in Scotland and to make clear Scotland’s strong commitment to our relationship with Europe.

We are also in touch with both the European Commission and the European Parliament in Brussels, responding to messages of encouragement and support for the work ahead of us. In those contacts, we have again emphasised the overwhelming support in Scotland for staying in the European Union and the commitment of the Scottish Government to protecting our relationship with Europe.

Those contacts are just the start. Tomorrow, I will make an initial visit to Brussels to set out Scotland’s position and interests to representatives of the major groups in the European Parliament and to the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. I expect to hear from the Prime Minister on the outcome of the European Council meeting that is taking place this week. Following that, I intend to set out Scotland’s position directly to the European Commission. We are also following up our first contacts with other member states. The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs yesterday met the ambassadors of Slovakia, Germany and France to share our response to the result and our determination to protect Scotland’s relationship with Europe.

I believe that we have made a good start. Our early priority has been to ensure that there is a widespread awareness across Europe of Scotland’s different choice in the referendum and of our aspiration to stay in the European Union. We will intensify that work in the days and weeks that lie ahead. It is my responsibility to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard in Europe, and I intend to do so. I have also been very clear that I want our work to be guided at every step of the way by expert advice and wide experience. Both the Government and the Parliament have a great deal of work to do to set out and evaluate all the impacts of the referendum result and all the options that are open to Scotland to secure our relationship with the EU. For that reason, I am establishing a standing council of experts to provide advice to me and my Government on how best to achieve our EU objectives. The council will be made up of specialists in finance, economics and European and diplomatic matters, and it will encompass a range of political and constitutional opinions. It will provide the Government with access to a wealth of knowledge that has been built up over years of experience. The council will consider the impacts of proposed changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU on Scottish interests and it will advise Scottish ministers throughout our negotiations on the best way to secure Scottish interests and objectives.

Membership of the council will be flexible to ensure that we have access to appropriate advice as and when it is required. However, I can advise Parliament today that the council will be chaired by Professor Anton Muscatelli, the principal of the University of Glasgow, and will include among its members Professor Sir David Edward, a former judge at the European Court of Justice; Dame Mariot Leslie, a former UK ambassador to NATO; Lord John Kerr, formerly the head of the diplomatic service at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; John Kay, one of the country’s leading economists; Anne Glover, a former chief scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission; Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform; David Martin, a Labour member of the European Parliament; and Grahame Smith, the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. I intend to publish the full list of initial members later today.

I have set out for Parliament the action that we have taken so far since the result of the referendum became clear. The motion that we will debate shortly invites the Parliament to give me and my Government a mandate to continue our work and to explore every option for retaining Scotland’s relationship with the European Union. I very much hope that it will attract support across the chamber. The motion calls on the Government to report back to Parliament and to the European and External Relations Committee, and we will do so. I will also keep party leaders informed of our progress and will ask the cabinet secretary for Europe to keep her counterparts fully informed over the parliamentary recess. I assure members that we will return to Parliament to seek approval of any outcome of those discussions. I also believe that there is a role for key committees of the Scottish Parliament to contribute to this vital process, and I will be happy to discuss that with the European and External Relations Committee at the earliest opportunity.

Let me turn finally to the matter of independence. I make it clear to Parliament that, although I believe that independence is the best option for Scotland—I do not think that that will come as a surprise to anyone—it is not my starting point in these discussions. My starting point is the protection of Scotland’s interests and our relationship with the EU. However, I am in no doubt that a very real and material change to Scotland’s circumstances has been brought about by last week’s referendum result. There is no doubt that we are in a new and different place this week from last. During the independence referendum, we were told that staying in the UK meant that we could benefit from having guaranteed access to the EU; indeed, that was a driving factor in many people’s votes. That is no longer true. The country and the constitutional settlement that the people of Scotland voted for in 2014 is no longer a reality.

Based on the very clear result in Scotland, if we were to be removed from the EU, it would be against the will of our people, which would be democratically unacceptable. It is for that reason that I have said that everything must be on the table to protect our place in Europe, including a second independence referendum, and, to ensure that the option of holding a referendum within the timeframe of UK negotiations on leaving the EU is viable, we will prepare the legislation now. However, let me be clear that if the Government concludes that the best or the only way to protect Scotland’s place in the EU is through a referendum on independence, we will return to Parliament with that judgment and it will then be for Parliament to decide. I am emphatically not asking Parliament to endorse that step today. A vote for today’s motion is not a vote for a referendum on independence.

I hope that that clear commitment will remove any reason for the Conservatives not to back our motion today. It would be ironic—and, I think, deeply regrettable—if the party that has put us into this unfortunate position ended up as the only one standing in the way of our efforts to resolve it. Voting to deny us the Parliament’s support for our discussions with EU institutions and member states to explore ways of delivering the outcome that people voted for would be to frustrate Scotland’s interests.

The situation that we find ourselves in is not of our making. There is no easy path ahead and, at this stage, there are no guaranteed outcomes, but my job is to navigate the best possible path for Scotland—one that protects our interests and gives effect to what the people of our country voted for—and that is what I am determined to do. As I do so, I promise that I will be open and frank with Parliament and with the Scottish people about the options, the challenges and the opportunities that we face. I hope that we can move forward in a spirit of unity and national purpose.

My final point today is this: although our agenda on Europe is vital, we will not and must not allow it to distract us from the business of governing Scotland and delivering on the priorities that I set out only a month ago. Later today, the Deputy First Minister will underline our determination to promote excellence and equity in our education system by publishing our new education delivery plan. We will not waver in our determination to reduce inequalities, to promote an inclusive and growing economy and to reform our public services. The situation that we face will not stop us seeking to make Scotland a better country for all the people who live and work here; indeed, the steps that we take to protect our place in the European Union will be part of that work.

I am asking Parliament to recognise the position that Scotland has been placed in by the referendum result, which is at odds with the will of the Scottish people, and to support the motion that we have lodged for debate. Scotland has voted to remain in Europe, and we must now take all the action that is necessary to ensure that the will of the Scottish people is respected. Today, I am asking the chamber to support the Government in the challenge that lies ahead of us and for all of us to work together and to do our best to turn this moment of disappointment and regret into a new and promising beginning, based on our common values and our shared commitment to the people we serve.

I thank the First Minister for her statement. Rather than taking questions, I will move on to the next item of business.