An independent Scotland will be an enthusiastic, engaged and committed contributor to Europe, First Minister Alex Salmond told an audience of students and academics in a speech in Brugge today.
Speaking in the College of Europe, the first university in the world to offer studies and training in European affairs, the First Minister said:
“An independent Scotland, as an equal member state, will bring a positive, cooperative voice to the EU, in contrast to the often sullen, disengaged voices that have spoken on our behalf since Margaret Thatcher’s speech in this city more than a quarter of a century ago.
“Not being at the top table in Europe has harmed Scotland’s interests for four decades. Within the UK, we are occasionally consulted. With independence, we would contribute as equals.
“Scotland’s prosperity over centuries has been bound up with the ability to trade, travel and work in Europe. And just as Scots have always worked and lived in Europe, so there are now 160,000 people from other EU states who have chosen to live and work in Scotland. They make a massive contribution to Scotland’s economy and culture. These European connections are an essential part of who we are.”
The First Minister also said he would call on the European Commission to make the living wage a requirement in public sector contracts:
“The Scottish Government has introduced a living wage – £7.65 an hour – in the public sector across our country. A living wage gives individuals and families enough income to meaningfully participate in society, rather than merely afford the basic necessities. But EU law prevents both us and Scottish local authorities from making that living wage a requirement in public sector contracts.
“What made Margaret Thatcher’s speech of 25 years ago look so out of kilter is that back then, Europe commanded strong popular support in its moves towards a social Europe, in contrast to the free market ideologies of the 1980s.
“In Scotland, for example, Europe’s approach was far more in tune with the prevailing social democratic ethos, than the policies imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s government of the day.
“And so people across the continent, who want to see Europe rebalancing the economy and addressing inequality, will ask themselves why we are in a position where EU law prevents us from increasing the living standards of EU workers. I will be asking the Commission that question later today. Perhaps they will have an explanation – certainly they should have a rethink.”
The First Minister also told the audience that Scottish independence in many ways has been profoundly influenced and strengthened by the European Union.
He added: “The EU is an institution which enables countries of all sizes to contribute as equal partners, and which is an enduring rebuke to any notion that independence might mean isolation.”
The First Minister said that the Scottish Government recognised that continued membership of the EU will require negotiations on the specific terms but these negotiations will be completed within the 18 month period between the referendum in September and achieving independence in March 2016. He pointed out that there would be no need to reopen the EU budget agreed last year to 2020 as Scotland would take responsibility for its share of UK contributions and receipts.
He outlined the democratic challenges that Europe faces today, saying the financial and economic crisis in which the EU has been trapped over the past six years has allowed radical euroscepticism to secure a significant political foothold in many EU member states.
He called for the restoration of public confidence in the democratic credentials of the legislative and policy-making process in Brussels. He said this could be achieved by improving the quality and sensitivity of EU governance rather than through yet another round of treaty reform.
Mr Salmond said: “If we are to restore public trust in the European Union’s governance, and its ability to materially improve people’s lives, I believe we have to succeed on two fronts.
“We must prioritise economic policies that stimulate sustainable growth, while having in place social policies that ensure that everyone can benefit from that growth. In the UK, we have seen how widening disparities in wealth have corroded the fabric of our society – causing deeply damaging inequalities in life expectancy, educational outcomes and employment prospects.
“In some areas of policy, the EU makes addressing these disparities more difficult than it needs to be.”
The First Minister concluded: “Now, there is a new world developing in Europe. It is a world where people want to be independent and interdependent.
“But unfortunately, too much of the debate on this new Europe at Westminster, is being distorted by the dreams of an old empire.
“Those dreams have little allure now for Scotland. Europe enriches our culture, our economy and our society. We cherish the freedom it gives us to share, to travel and to exchange.
“So when our small nation asks for the freedom to contribute, we will meet a welcome from around Europe. And we will gladly make those contributions – and more – when an independent Scotland takes its full place in the European family of nations.”