In Scotland it is not where you’ve come from that matters – it’s where we’re going together.
As a country we’ve been enriched down the years by “new Scots” from Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, the other countries of the UK, Asia and by many others who have chosen to make Scotland their home.
In recent times our population decline has been reversed, with inward migration from Europe playing a large part as a result of freedom of movement within the European Union.
We’ve learnt from each other and shared experiences and as a result Scotland has been changed for the better.
For nearly 50 years Scotland was part of the EU until the UK left on January 31 last year. That was not something that Scotland voted for. In the Brexit referendum in 2016, there was an overwhelming majority for “remain” and every local authority area in the country voted to stay in the EU.
Strong support for EU membership has been reaffirmed in elections that have taken place since the referendum.
Despite those clear and repeated democratic votes Scotland has not only been removed from the EU but from the Single Market and Customs Union.
That is because the UK Government rejected a compromise plan the Scottish Government put forward which sought to reconcile the fact that the UK as a whole voted narrowly to leave the EU but that two of the four UK countries (Scotland and Northern Ireland) voted to remain.
The result of that decision is that we’ve lost the benefits of the “four freedoms”, including freedom of movement, which were so important for Scotland.
The damage of this hard Brexit is already being felt. From our coastal communities to our manufactures and groups as diverse as touring musicians and students there has already been a cost.
It is baffling, and, to be frank, an act of cultural vandalism, that the UK Government has chosen not to participate in the Erasmus+ programme, something it could have continued to do despite Brexit.
“Scotland is a country and not a region of a unitary state. Scotland’s position is therefore unique – a country, in a voluntary union, which has been removed from the EU against the will of the majority who live here”
I would like to thank all those members of the European Parliament, who took up our case (and that of our friends in Wales who also wanted to remain in Erasmus) and we continue to explore how we can remain close to this most valuable of programmes which has benefited so many young people in Scotland and across Europe.
We will always be a voice urging the UK Government to have as close a relationship with the EU as possible and not the distant one currently favoured by many at Westminster. That closer relationship would be in all our interests.
The Brexit vote and the decision by the UK Government to pursue a hard Brexit has prompted renewed debate in Scotland about our constitutional future.
The Scottish Government’s position is that the people of Scotland have the right to decide whether they wish to become an independent country.
It is important to stress in this respect that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union of nations. It is universally accepted, both by those opposed and in favour of independence, that Scotland is a country and not a region of a unitary state.
Scotland’s position is therefore unique – a country, in a voluntary union, which has been removed from the EU against the will of the majority who live here.
At present in the UK there is a system of devolution which means the Scottish Parliament has policy responsibility for the environment, health, education, housing, transport and a range of other matters, including some powers over taxation and social security.
As the Brexit vote has shown, the UK Parliament has responsibility for matters such as European policy and foreign affairs.
The debate therefore is whether those powers that are “reserved” to the UK Parliament should come under the control of the Scottish Parliament and by extension the people of Scotland.
The neighbouring countries of the UK will always be our closest friends but our relationship would then be a new and, I believe, better one.
“The founding values of the EU - human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, respect for human rights and the rule of law - are Scotland’s values too”
There is a clear, on-the-record acknowledgement from all the main political parties in Scotland – including Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party – of the right of people in Scotland to choose their own future.
In 2014, after the independence referendum of that year, the parties came together to produce a report on the Scottish Parliament’s powers which said: “It is agreed that nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”
We would clearly not expect the EU institutions to comment on the case for either a referendum, or for independence, but there are two points worth stressing to a European audience: First, we understand how important it is that any referendum on Scottish independence be legal and constitutional, such that its result will be recognised at home and internationally. That will continue to guide and inform our approach.
Secondly, with EU membership part of our vision for an independent Scotland, we will fully recognise and respect both the accession process and the obligations of membership.
Let me explain why I am so confident that EU membership is right for Scotland.
The strong support for the European Union in Scotland is based both on the practical benefits of membership but also on values.
The founding values of the EU - human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, respect for human rights and the rule of law - are Scotland’s values too.
The Scottish Parliament continues to fly the European flag, as a symbol of our commitment to those values and we have recently passed legislation that will enable Scotland to “keep pace” with EU regulations in “devolved” policy areas when it is appropriate to do so even as a non-member.
The pandemic has reminded us as never before of our common humanity and of the deep interconnections that bind the fate of Europeans and indeed people across the world.
Tackling COVID will continue to be the top priority of the Scottish Government. And we, like all national governments, are thinking deeply about the kind of economy and society we wish to build as we emerge from the current crisis.
Scotland has much to contribute to the great challenges we are all facing. Our climate change targets are world-leading and we are harnessing our extraordinary renewable energy resources.
We are committed to creating a well-being economy and to tackling the great inequalities that the pandemic has so clearly exposed.
Scotland’s universities are among the best in Europe and we are the cutting edge of digital developments.
I believe the best way to make that contribution is to regain our place in the European Union.
We didn’t want to leave in the first place and we look forward to a time when we will once again play our part in this great shared endeavour.