The people of Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, will soon decide whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union. The Scottish government believes that continued EU membership is in the best interests of Scotland. We would much prefer Scotland to be one of the independent member states of the EU – and hope that in future we will be. However, whether independent or part of the UK, we believe that we are better off in than out. As such, the Scottish government will make a positive and constructive case for remaining in the EU. I believe that we benefit from being part of the EU, and the EU benefits from having us a part of it.
For more than 40 years, membership of the EU has been good for the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities across the country. Just look at some of the social protections the EU has established: the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity; maternity and parental leave entitlement; the right to paid holidays; the right to work for no more than 48 hours each week – all of these are enshrined in EU law.
These social benefits need to be articulated just as strongly as the economic benefits of membership. But the economic benefits matter too. As part of the EU, UK firms have the huge advantage of being able to work in the world’s largest trading area of 500 million consumers. For Scotland, this is crucial, as the EU is our top overseas exports destination: 42% of our exports outside the UK in 2014 – worth more than £11bn – were sold into the EU market. Membership of the single market also helps to support more than 300,000 jobs in Scotland.
Having access to the European single market has removed barriers to trade and gives freedom to move capital, people, goods and services – but the EU is not simply an economic union, it is so much more than that. Being part of the EU is also about solidarity, social protection and mutual support. This has become even more evident in the recent months, with members of the EU working collectively on pressing global challenges, such as the movement of refugees and migrants, energy security and climate change. By working together within the EU, we can achieve far more and make a real difference to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
While it’s clear that being a member of the EU has its benefits, within any institution improvements can be made. If we are to influence positive change in Europe, we must remain within it – only that guarantees our role in the EU decision-making processes on issues that affect our everyday lives. Right now, as a member of the EU, the UK sits at the top table in Brussels, with the opportunity to shape EU policy and make a positive contribution to Europe. As Norway’s former foreign minister Espen Barth Eide has said, as a member of the European Economic Area as opposed to the EU, Norway makes a substantial contribution to the EU budget, but has no vote and no presence when crucial decisions that affect the daily lives of its citizens are made.
Two weeks ago, as European leaders were forced to break off from discussing the refugee crisis in order to negotiate the taper rate at which the UK can cut benefits for working EU citizens, I can’t have been the only person wondering whether the UK’s standing in the world was really being enhanced by that process. In the weeks ahead, both sides of the debate must aspire to higher ideals.
A concern for Scotland is the prospect of voting to stay in but being taken out of the EU on the strength of a UK-wide vote. I have repeatedly made it clear that such a scenario would, in my view, lead to strong demands for a second independence referendum. Indeed, I have met people who voted no in September 2014 who say they would vote yes in such circumstances. However, I have also been clear that this is not a scenario I want to see unfold. A UK vote to leave the EU is not the circumstance in which I would choose to fight a second independence referendum – but as first minister I would have a duty to listen to the demands for such a vote.
While I take nothing for granted, I believe that in June people in Scotland will demonstrate their support for remaining in the EU. My hope is that the rest of the UK will share that commitment. Because if it does, it will be good for Scotland, good for the UK and good for Europe.