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European Union Withdrawal Negotiations

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 5th March 2019.

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The First Minister:

The member mischaracterises many of those whom he quotes. I said at the outset that I would come on to this point and I will do so: I do not think that it is acceptable—and it is utterly incredible that the Scottish Tories suggest that it is—that our country should be in the position of having to choose between catastrophe and disaster. A direct answer to the question is, no—we will not choose disaster in order to avert catastrophe.

The approach of the UK Government is unforgivably reckless. No deal should be ruled out definitively—not just at the end of March but period. Today, from Edinburgh and Cardiff, we demand that it is.

However—and this brings me to Adam Tomkins’s point and to the second purpose of today’s motion—the UK Government must not use the threat of no deal to blackmail the UK Parliament into voting for its current bad deal, and in that it must not be aided and abetted by the Scottish Tories.

The response to the rejection of the Prime Minister’s deal so far has been characterised by delays, denials, dissembling and, most recently, desperate attempts at bribery. Ministers have wasted months pretending that significant changes to the Northern Ireland backstop are possible, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Surely, it would be much better to face up to the fact that the Prime Minister’s deal is unpopular because it is a thoroughly bad deal—a bad deal for the whole of the UK and, certainly, a bad deal for Scotland.

For the benefit of the Scottish Tories, I will spell out why it is a bad deal. It would take us out of the European Union, against our democratic wishes, and out of the single market and the customs union, against all our economic interests; and it provides no clarity whatsoever on what our long-term future relationship with the EU will look like. In effect, the UK Parliament is being asked to approve a blindfold Brexit, which is completely and utterly unacceptable. [


.] Adam Tomkins is saying that we have a document that is 500-odd pages long, but that is the withdrawal agreement; the political declaration, which is what is meant to set out the future relationship, is five or seven pages long. To the extent that any direction of travel can be discerned from those few pages, the declaration points to a long-term social and economic disaster for Scotland. The red lines that the Prime Minister has drawn mean that we are heading towards a Canada-style deal at best.

I want to focus on what that means. The Scottish Government estimates that it could lead to a fall in national income of £1,600 per person by 2030 compared with EU membership. Our services sector, which makes up three quarters of our total economy, will be particularly badly hit. Being taken out of the customs union and pursuing an independent trade policy will also make the UK vulnerable to the trade priorities of Donald Trump. When the United States Government’s negotiating priorities were published at the end of last week, it was absolutely no surprise to hear about fears that Scottish and UK markets could be opened to chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef.

Of course, in addition, part and parcel of the approach that is taken in the Prime Minister’s deal is the ending of freedom of movement. Combined with the Tories’ despicable hostile environment policy, that could lead to a fall in the number of people working in Scotland and paying tax here. The national health service and social care will pay a particularly heavy price if EU nationals are deterred from working here.

In short, the deal that is on the table—the disaster that the Scottish Tories think we should accept to avert catastrophe—guarantees us more years of uncertainty, during which Scotland’s interests would be at the mercy of a vicious and seemingly never-ending Tory civil war on Europe, in which currently—I am afraid to say—the extreme Brexiteers appear to be in the ascendancy. It could open up our markets to US products that, for very good reasons, are currently banned and it would damage our economy, our living standards and our NHS.

For all those reasons and many, many more, the Prime Minister’s deal would be disastrous and it must be rejected by the House of Commons.

What should happen instead? There is an onus on those of us who think that the Prime Minister’s deal and a no-deal Brexit should be rejected to say what should happen instead. The Scottish Government has made it clear that we see continued EU membership as the best outcome for Scotland and the UK. If that cannot be secured for the UK as a whole, we believe that that option should be open to Scotland as an independent country.

Of course, for more than two years, we have put forward compromise proposals that would mean that the UK as a whole would stay in the customs union and the single market. The Welsh Government has also put forward plans for a closer relationship with the EU. Shamefully, the UK Government has ignored us at all stages of the process.

What the Welsh and Scottish Governments are proposing—this is the third point that is raised in today’s motion—is that there must now be an extension of article 50. Nobody—not even the Scottish Conservatives, I am sure—now believes that Brexit can be delivered on 29 March. Quite apart from anything else, there is no time left to properly scrutinise and pass the legislation required. However, we should not simply seek a short extension, as the Prime Minister seems to envisage; we need an extension that is long enough to enable a better path to be taken. Of course, that could again open the way to the possibility of a single market and customs union compromise.

The preferable alternative option is a second EU referendum, and there is a strong democratic case for that. After all, those voting to leave the EU did not know precisely what they were voting for; the leave campaign was deliberately vague—some may say deceitful—about the form that Brexit would take. Where the leave side was specific, it was less than honest—for example, about the prospect of Turkey joining the EU and the NHS getting more money. We also now know that the leave campaign broke the law when it came to spending.

I understand that the prospect of a second vote does not appeal to everyone; and we cannot, and should not, take for granted that there would be a majority for remain across the UK—that would have to be worked for. However, simply pressing ahead with Brexit, knowing that we are heading for disaster, makes no sense at all. After all, whatever most people voted for, it certainly is not where we find ourselves now.

A second referendum provides everyone with a second opportunity. Although Scotland, of course, has the option of independence, for the UK as a whole another referendum is now the best option available.

Last month, I opened the new Scottish Government hub in Paris. In a city such as that, with evidence of Scotland’s ties with Europe extending back more than seven centuries, it is impossible not to feel a deep and profound sense of loss about what Brexit means for Scotland. Our country has benefited immeasurably from the hundreds of thousands of EU citizens who have made this country their home. Many Scots have had their horizons widened and their lives enriched by the ability to study, travel and work in Europe. The EU, although far from perfect—we would all agree on that—has also encouraged stronger trading ties, a cleaner environment and better conditions for workers. Perhaps most of all, it has exemplified the benefits that we all gain when independent countries co-operate for the greater good. We should not choose to give that up lightly.

For more than two years now, since the result of the EU referendum, the Scottish Government has proposed ways to mitigate the damage that Brexit will cause. We have been joined in our efforts by the Welsh Government. Shamefully, we have been ignored by the UK Government at almost every turn.

This motion is a further attempt to propose a way forward. It provides the basis—even at this late hour—for a more sensible and less damaging approach and, by doing so, allows us to act in the interests not just of our constituents but of the UK as a whole and, indeed, of Europe as a whole.

I commend the motion to Parliament and I hope that members of this Scottish Parliament, together with our friends in the Welsh Assembly, will vote for it this evening.

I move,

That the Parliament reiterates its opposition to the damaging EU exit deal agreed by the UK Government; agrees that a no deal outcome to the current negotiations on EU withdrawal would be completely unacceptable on 29 March 2019 or at any time; calls on the UK Government to take immediate steps to prevent the UK leaving the EU without a deal, and agrees that the Article 50 process should be extended so that agreement can be reached on the best way forward to protect the interests of Scotland, Wales and the UK as a whole.