EU Referendum Debate

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the forthcoming European Union referendum where I laid out the positive, progressive case for continued membership.

I moved to amend the Scottish Government’s motion to:

That the Parliament notes the publication of the European Union Referendum Bill on 28 May 2015 and the Prime Minister’s intention to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership with the EU before a referendum; advocates the bill’s amendment to extend the voting franchise in the referendum to 16 and 17-year-olds and all EU citizens resident in the UK; believes that the EU referendum should not be held on the same date as any other election in Britain, including the Scottish Parliament election in 2016, as recommended by the Electoral Commission in its briefing, Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union; highlights the substantial benefits of EU membership to Scotland and the UK’s economy through access to its single market; acknowledges the social, cultural and educational benefits of continued EU membership, and will make a positive progressive case for continued membership during the referendum while advocating constructive reform of the EU from within the existing treaty framework as strong and active members.

The full text of my speech is below and you can watch on the video above at 13.55.

Thank you Presiding Officer.

I’m pleased to be part of the debate this afternoon.  It is not that long since we had a debate on Europe but this one take part in very different circumstances.

We now have a majority Conservative Government and we will have an in/out EU referendum by the end of 2017.

The UK Parliament is having the second reading of the Bill today as we have this debate and I accept there is legislation to be passed and debate to be had over the terms of the referendum.

But we have a majority Conservative Government in the early days of its government – they are in a position to decide the terms of the referendum.  We support changing the UK franchise to provide votes for 16 and 17 years olds.

The school debates during the referendum were some of the most informed and well conducted debates I took part in and young people showed a level of interest and knowledge that endorsed the decision to extend the franchise.

We support the franchise reflecting the franchise for the Scottish Parliament, including EU citizens resident in the UK.  Labour’s amendment also raises concerns about the date of the referendum – the EU referendum should take place in its own space.

But we cannot allow debate over process to dominate the public debate.

The outcome of the referendum here in Scotland or anywhere else across the UK is not guaranteed.

These are the early days of the debate and those of us who support continued membership must convincingly win that argument.

We cannot ignore that there a range of views in Scotland, we do have a UKIP MEP elected to represent Scotland, and there will be many who come to this debate with an open mind, looking to understand the arguments and be persuaded one way or another.

There is a long way to go with the electorate, and it would be naïve in Scotland to assume we know the outcome.

We cannot ignore that while there are many positive reasons to remain in the EU, some of those outlined by the First Minister in Brussels last week, and I will talk about some of those advantages this afternoon, there will be arguments across the political and social spectrum that the EU is not working for Scotland, from concerns over business regulations to the campaign opposing TTIP and the political direction of the EU, and those concerns need to be addressed in the debate.

Because the EU, as well as being a social, economic, cultural and educational union, is also a political animal.

All parties who support continued membership also support reform but I would argue you need to remain a member to achieve reform.

We are seeing huge economic challenges across Europe – across Europe, young people are finding it difficult to find employment, the social divide is widening, many economies seeing levels of poverty they have not experienced for generations.

From social problems, community tensions, pressure on public services and workers’ rights through to rising concerns over tax avoidance and the implications of future trade deals.  For too many people, Europe – the Parliament, the Commission, the Council of Ministers – does not look like it is adequately responding.

Often bureaucratic, slow to respond, inflexible, driven from the centre.

Greater effort must be made to reform the Commission and its bureaucracy, the Parliament and its accountability and the economic model of the Eurozone which, for too many economies is imbalanced.

But this challenge can be met from within, not by threats to leave.

I would argue that the economic benefits of membership are hugely important to our economy.

Across the UK, 200,000 companies directly benefit from EU membership; while £200 billion of annual exports and £450 billion of inward investment are tied to trade with our partners.  Some 336,000 jobs are dependent on these relationships.

In Scotland, we benefit by access to a single market of over 500 million consumers with Scottish exports to the EU accounting for almost 50% of total international exports.

Our economy also benefits from freedom of movement and EU members who choose to come and live and work in Scotland.

Migration brings huge benefits to our country.

Migrants contribute more to the economy than the resources they use and many businesses I speak to – in the food sector, agriculture, textiles – as well as our health sector and services, couldn’t operate without employees from EU member states.

That is a fact of our economy and of who we are.

But this debate cannot be only about the economy.

This debate can’t just be about economics or politics. It also has to be about our role in the world.

We are faced with a choice between working together with nations across Europe to tackle the big challenges of our age, or cutting ourselves off from the world.

It must be about hearts and minds.

This is a social, cultural and educational union too.

Many of our environmental targets come from the EU – biodiversity targets, air quality, water quality – and while we must do more to meet these targets, it is right to be making efforts at a strategic EU level to make shared progress.

The freedom of movement in Europe, which is one of the Eurosceptic drivers, works both ways.  Thousands of British citizens live and work freely across the EU.  We travel with no barriers across the EU.  We are part of a European family and are more interconnected than ever before.

The challenges of the modern world don’t recognise borders – human trafficking, internet fraud, copyright crime.

A few weeks ago we held a debate about the Mediterranean migrant crisis, a complex set of challenges, needing EU and international action.

And it is not isolated.  This situation encapsulates the demands of our modern world but as part of the EU we influence decision making and help find the solution to these challenges.

We need to be part of the debate of moving a far too inward-looking, self-obsessed Europe into an outward looking, globally orientated Europe.

Crucially, so much of our progressive social policy originated in the EU, driving common standards for workers across the EU.

We must argue for social solidarity and put this agenda at the heart of the EU again.

The EU has been an effective vehicle in advancing social conditions at work.

Following campaigns by trade unions across Europe and MEPS, the EU brought in measures to give part time and temporary workers the same rights as full time workers as regards training, pensions, maternity rights and leave.

It introduced EU wide laws on working time and required, for the first time, a guaranteed right to paid holiday.

These were significant rights introduced by the EU at a time when it was easier to demonstrate how it benefited its citizens.

We are living in more complex times and the EU must demonstrate that it can respond to the modern economy.

I don’t think the result of the referendum is predetermined here in Scotland or anywhere else.

The initial polling does suggest a Yes result but there is a long way to go.

We cannot be complacent about the result.

It is important that we get a clear result with support across the whole of the UK.

Those of us who take a progressive approach towards UK continuing membership should be emphasising the positive way forward.

I am concerned that focusing on process and talking up voting divisions – which polling suggests don’t actually exist – runs the risk of souring the debate and creating false division and grievance.

Let’s not give Eurosceptic and UKIP any succour – we should be tacking this debate head on and building a consensus across the UK for a future in Europe.

Instead of talking up the political consequences of a UK exit from the EU, those of us who support staying in the European Union should concentrate all our efforts on making the case for it.

If I am being generous, I do understand the anxiety around a Conservative Government taking this referendum forward.

I have plenty of disagreement with their politics and on this issue; they have their own disagreements within Government.

But I am not convinced that the introduction of a double majority is the way to resolve this.

I won’t deny that different results across the UK would be difficult – but, let’s be clear, current public reaction does not suggest this will happen – but a double majority is not a logical or credible solution.

We recognise that this is a UK vote.

We cannot weight votes depending on where you live in the UK – that would be undemocratic.

Gordon Wilson points out, it would set precedence for any future referendums, and – given the ambition of many in the SNP – you would think that would be something they would want to avoid.

There are also legal concerns – the vote is of a member state, not individual parts of that state.

This debate would be more productive if we emphasis where we have agreement – which is for the UK to stay within an EU working in the interests of the people of Scotland and the UK.

Let’s not engineer a disagreement between Scotland, England and Wales – a situation which helped give the Tories the keys to Downing Street – and miss the bigger prize.

Presiding Officer, as a member of the EU we have a voice on the world stage that would otherwise be lost.

Whether it’s discussions about tackling climate change or our relationship with the biggest economies in the world, we have influence far greater than our size would suggest.

In the 21st century, we live in a time which demands co-operation and partnerships and the European Union is a positive force we should remain part of.