President of the Bundestag,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you sincerely for the very warm welcome you have given me this evening, in particular my heartfelt thanks to M100 for this award, for the honour of this award but also for the very important work that you do.
Strong and independent media organisations are an essential part of any democratic society. And, so, the work of organisations like M100 is not just important to people in this room nor is it simply important to citizens here in Germany, it is vital in sustaining democracy and free expression across Europe.
For that reason alone, I am delighted and deeply honoured to be joining you here this evening. But in addition to that, having seen the list of previous winners of this award – some of whom, quite literally, have risked their lives for press freedom – I am immensely honoured and, indeed humbled.
And in some respects, I must confess, I am quite surprised to receive this award. I have been given this award for standing strongly against Brexit, and for strongly supporting the principles, the values of the European Union. However, those stances do not strike me as being particularly exceptional. They seem entirely natural to me and to most people in Scotland.
And, I’m going to explain why that is in my remarks this evening. But the best starting point I can think of, is a speech made by Chancellor Merkel at this event a few years ago. She argued, then, that a country’s policies “represent its interests based on its values”.
Scotland is, and I think always will be, a European nation, a committed supporter of the European Union – not because we think the European Union is flawless, nor even simply because membership of the European Union is so obviously in our interests, but, perhaps most importantly of all, because membership of the European Union accords so strongly with our values as a country.
So, I will focus on those values this evening and I was delighted by the Minister President’s declaration this evening that the common sense is indeed of Scottish invention. I think I will happily take that claim home with me.
But before I talk about values, I, perhaps am obliged – although with some regret – to offer some reflections on the current situation in the United Kingdom. It is no exaggeration at all that we are living in unprecedented times in the United Kingdom, both politically and constitutionally.
At a time of mounting political crisis, the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken the extraordinary step of closing down the United Kingdom Parliament for a period of five weeks to avoid scrutiny of his approach to the Brexit negotiations.
That decision by the Prime Minister and the United Kingdom Government, of course, was declared last week by Scotland’s highest civil court to be an unlawful decision. And, of course, it is now subject to a hearing before UK’s Supreme Court this week which will lead to a decision perhaps later this week or early next week. And that judgement, potentially, will take the United Kingdom into even greater unchartered waters.
There’s also, I’m sorry to say, still a very real risk of the UK ultimately leaving the European Union without a deal being struck. That’s because, rather than seeking compromise either domestically in the UK or with our European partners, the new Prime Minister has chosen to take an even harder line position.
It is sometimes quite hard to find any notes of hope in what is happening in the UK right now, but I will offer one or two.
In particular, and perhaps the most important note of hope, certainly from my perspective, is that members of Parliament, members of the House of Commons, are working collaboratively across political divides and across parties to seek to avoid a no-deal exit from the EU with all of the upheaval and catastrophe that that would bring. My own party has played a committed and a constructive role in that process.
That is why the House of Commons two weeks passed a law requiring the Prime Minister to request a further extension to the Article 50 period, if a deal has not been agreed by the 19th of October.
And it is almost certain that further extension, if it is granted by the EU council, because, of course, the UK cannot unilaterally extend the article 50 period, but if such an extension was granted, it is almost certain that it will be used for a general election in the UK.
In that election my party will argue unambiguously in favour and unequivocally in favour of continued EU membership.
And in the new session of Parliament that will follow, we will continue to work with others. We want to secure a further UK-wide referendum, which includes the option of remaining in the EU.
I should say at this stage that I know many of you in this room may, very understandably, simply want an end to this saga. Some of you will long for a Brexit withdrawal agreement to be agreed.
But I hope you will also understand the Scottish Government’s position, indeed Scotland’s position. We did not ask for, nor did we want, a referendum on EU membership in 2016. When that referendum came, people in Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain. At more than sixty percent of people in Scotland voted for the continuation of our EU membership.
And the new Prime Minister’s ultimate desired destination is a basic free trade agreement. That would be a much harder Brexit, even than that put forward by the former Theresa May. As well as placing the UK outside of the Single Market and the Customs Union, it would also remove some of the so-called “level playing field” clauses in the current Political Declaration.
Indeed, whatever the outcome of an election in the UK, the issue of Brexit is likely to dominate politics in Westminster for many years to come. There is, in truth, no end in sight to the chaos, and Scotland’s place in Europe, as a result of that, is likely to remain precarious.
There is even talk in the United Kingdom of an alliance between Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
Now, as a devolved government with responsibility for important domestic policy, my government in Scotland is doing everything we can to remain aligned with the European Union. In our latest Programme for Government, set out at the Scottish Parliament just a few weeks ago, we announced a Continuity Bill. That is intended to enable Scotland to “keep pace” with European regulations in policy areas that we have responsibility for.
And I think that is an important and certainly a strong symbolic step. It means that even if Scotland is forced to leave the EU, we will work hard to maintain EU standards, and will therefore, I hope, be better placed to rejoin in the future.
But, of course, it is a limited amount that the Scottish Government can do within the current system which is why I believe it is also right to offer the people of Scotland a choice of becoming an independent country and seeking to become an EU member state in our own right.
Now as we debate Scotland’s future, we are determined to learn the lessons of Brexit. The debate must be as constructive, as collaborative and, crucially, as informed as possible. For example, that’s why in Scotland we are in the process now of establishing a citizens’ assembly. I know that is something Dr Schäuble has championed in Germany, too. Our citizens’ assembly will look at the information and the detail that people need in order to make informed choices about the future.
And there is, I think, an important point here. Nobody in the UK – or indeed across Europe – can fail to be concerned about the polarisation of debate. Right now, the Lord Mayor referred to some recent tragic examples of the consequences of that polarisation.
That said, of course, Scotland nor any other country cannot simply ignore or suppress differing views about the best future for our people and our country.
What we must do is find ways of debating our choices respectfully and in a way that doesn’t just focus on the issues that divide us but seeks to find maximum areas of agreement as well. And that is what I and the Scottish Government will try to do in the months and years ahead.
And in all of this, I will do everything I can to secure Scotland’s future as a European nation. After all, that is what the people of Scotland want.
I have already mentioned the strong majority for a European membership in the 2016 referendum. In June’s European elections this year, there was again an overwhelming majority for political parties favouring continued EU membership.
Now that is partly because Scotland so clearly benefits from EU membership. As I said earlier, we know it is not a perfect institution, but it is, undoubtedly good for our businesses and our universities, and it is particularly good for our people. A membership of the EU gives our people the freedom to study, to live and to work across the European continent. And Scotland has also been enriched by the many EU citizens who have done us the honour of making Scotland their home. We want European citizens to stay in Scotland, to continue to move to Scotland and we want to ensure that they are welcome in the future.
But our desire for EU membership is about more than self-interest. It is fundamentally about values.
The EU’s fundamental values, its founding values are ones we cherish – freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality, respect for human dignity and human rights.
A good example of this, which I know is close to this gathering’s heart, is the EU’s support for a strong, free and independent media – not just in the EU, but in enlargement countries and elsewhere. And that support isn’t simply expressed through policy statements, but also through practical and financial support for journalists’ associations, and projects to build trust in the media.
More generally, however, the basic principle that the EU exemplifies – of independent sovereign countries coming together to work together for a common good – appeals to people in Scotland.
We recognise the benefits of pooling sovereignty on the basis of partnership. And we have seen how smaller countries in the EU can amplify their influence by making alliances to bring about positive change.
In particular, over the past three years since the Brexit referendum we have seen the European Union show solidarity for the Republic of Ireland. It has shown clearly – and I think this will long be remembered in Scotland – that sovereignty is enhanced, not diminished, by membership of the EU.
And that basic principle is perhaps particularly important today when we look at the major challenges that our world currently faces. Scotland wants to make a positive contribution to the world, and we believe that we can do that more effectively as part of the EU.
Climate change perhaps offers the most obvious example. Two years ago, I was in Bonn for the 23rd Conference of the Parties – or COP23. Next year, Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, my home city, will be the proud host of COP26. We hope to extend as warm a welcome to the world, as North Rhine Westphalia offered to us back in 2017.
Indeed, regardless of our constitutional circumstances, Scotland is well-placed and determined to show leadership in tackling climate change, the biggest moral obligation that we owe to this and, more importantly, to the future generations. But we know, we believe strongly that we can contribute more as part of the European Union. And we also believe that the EU will be able to act a bit more effectively with Scotland’s contribution.
The same is true in other areas – for example the rise of new technology. Scotland currently has a growing reputation as a tech hub.
But it is very clear that the European Union – representing a market of 500 million people – is better able to set minimum standards for technology than Scotland would be on our own.
And when we consider these kinds of issues, and there are many more I could have cited, it becomes obvious just how unique the European Union is to lead and to show leadership, and to find solutions to these challenges that we face.
It is indeed hard to think of another international body which grapples so consistently and in such detail with a key dilemma that all advanced nations face – how do we benefit from internationalisation, free trade, and technological advances, while also maintaining minimum standards, and protecting the welfare of our citizens?
The European Union, of course, doesn’t have all of the answers and it doesn’t always get it right. It doesn’t always live up to its own values. No organisation or individual does.
But when you look at its overall record– not just in promoting trade, but on protecting the environment, improving consumer safety, and enhancing employment rights – its achievements are impressive. We should never shy away from identifying the EU’s shortcomings, but we also need to do far more to celebrate its successes.
And we should also remember that above all else, the EU is still today a peace project.
Back in June I attended with many other leaders the commemoration events for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. At an event like that, it is impossible not to reflect on the carnage this continent has seen within living memory. And it is impossible not to marvel at the achievements of the post-war generation who helped to build a better Europe. And we should not compromise or sacrifice those values.
The EU still shines out as one of those post-war achievements. It is an institution where trade-offs, consensus and details are prized – not as ends in themselves – but as necessary means for achieving prosperity, equality and peace.
And at a time when the rule-based international order is under such severe threat, it exemplifies the benefits of co-operation and solidarity.
In a world of great trading blocks, it strives to promote free trade while protecting people’s wellbeing.
And at time when the voices of intolerance and protectionism seem to be on the rise, its fundamental values – of peaceful democratic co-operation – seem much more precious, and indeed more fragile also, than they have done in at least a generation.
As I’ve said on a number of occasions during my remarks, the European Union is not perfect. But no organisation, in my view, has done more to promote – not just prosperity, but also freedom, democracy and human rights across the continent.
So, for all of these reasons Scotland sees the EU as a natural home. We will always promote and support its work. And I hope that we will be able to do so as a member, for many years to come.
I am deeply grateful to all of you for your kind remarks and your warm welcome this evening. I am deeply honoured to accept this award. And, finally, I want to wish M100 all the best for the future, in the enormously important work that all of you do. Thank you very much indeed.