Scotland never endorsed Brexit on any occasion. While its clear decision to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum became widely known, it also rejected Brexit at every subsequent election. Not even a single opinion poll ever demonstrated majority support in Scotland for leaving the EU. Talk of profound division on the question of Europe does not apply in Scotland. The fact that Scotland and the UK left the EU anyway raises existential concerns over the UK’s constitutional system and indeed the future of the UK as a state.

Independence was already the central question of Scottish politics. Brexit did not create that salience, but it has transformed the debate. After years of Brexit indecision, the UK’s actual withdrawal from the EU now requires a choice in Scotland between the UK union and the European Union. Pro-European unionists, many of whom are current or former supporters of the Scottish Labour Party, wanted to keep Scotland in both unions. With that outcome no longer possible, the eventual opinion of these voters could prove decisive in a future independence referendum.

The focus in Scotland is now whether a new independence referendum should happen – separate from the question of support for or opposition to independence. The Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Scottish Greens are pro-independence and pro-referendum parties. The Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats will undoubtedly continue to oppose both.

The position of Scottish Labour is the most uncertain. While it remains a pro-UK party, several of its politicians have called for a new referendum, either on the basis of the political context now or should a pro-independence majority result (again) from the next Scottish election in May 2021. These arguments are rooted in the fundamental change caused by Brexit, the increasing public support for a referendum and Labour’s identification as a party of self-determination.

Wider Scottish society also appears to be coalescing around the idea of an independence referendum. Scotland’s largest trade union, UNISON Scotland, recently passed a motion calling for the Scottish Parliament to have the power to decide on the timing of a new referendum. The Parliament has already voted in favour of holding one this year. Unlike in England, where trade unions are predominantly associated with the Labour Party only, in Scotland both the SNP and Scottish Labour have relationships with unions.

As the dispute between the Scottish Government and the UK Government continues over holding an independence referendum, growing support from civil society in Scotland for a plebiscite would strength Edinburgh’s case. Should the issue not be resolved before the Holyrood 2021 election, and the election produce another pro-independence majority, a referendum would appear increasingly certain.

With the UK now a third country, maintaining Scotland’s European connections will be challenging. While the EU-UK partnership remains to be negotiated, all indications are that the UK Government’s choices will make it fairly distant compared to EU membership. The Scottish Parliament may well wish to preserve alignment to EU laws and policies, but it could be prevented from doing so in areas where the UK Government insists on an all-UK approach. The Scottish Government and other Scottish actors will have to work hard just to sustain their current relationships, let alone keep pace with developments in the EU.

Scotland has fostered a distinct European profile throughout the Brexit process. Its continued support for the European Union, its foundational tenets such as the free movement of citizens and the shared values of the Union stand it apart from the rest of the UK. This commitment has evidently been recognised by many EU actors and attitudes to an independent Scotland joining the EU have become much more positive compared to the independence referendum in 2014. Scotland’s pro-Europeanism provides a commonality with EU partners that is difficult to quantify, but immensely valuable.

Yet European politics and diplomacy remain based on interests and power. It will be difficult for Scotland to find a role and to have influence from its newfound position. Scotland is even further removed, both not being in the EU and not being a state. Its independence debate can also be a hindrance to building political relations. While EU member states might see advantages to working with Scotland on particular subjects, they will equally be conscious of respecting the UK’s constitutional integrity. Scotland must face these challenges and respond creatively.

To remain well connected to the EU and its members, Scotland must advance its practical cooperation with European partners on areas of mutual interest. It has valuable contributions to make on areas ranging from renewable energy and new technologies to civic participation and wellbeing. As a nation of 5.4 million Europeans, Scotland must also participate in the major debates on the future of Europe.

To do so, the Scottish Government published a new European strategy, The European Union’s Strategic Agenda 2020-2024: Scotland’s Perspective, on Brexit day. This strategy sets out four shared priorities that should focus Scotland’s engagement in the EU: democracy and values, the climate emergency, wellbeing and smart economies. It is a powerful statement of intent and a solid basis for future cooperation and partnership. The strategy affirms that Scotland will consider its relationship with the EU not only in terms of what it receives, but what it contributes. This approach is positive and forward-looking.

Scotland also now has a footprint within the EU to implement this strategy. The Scottish Government has established a network of representative offices, mostly called Innovation and Investment Hubs. It opened hubs in Berlin, Paris and Dublin, and expanded Scotland House in Brussels – in addition to opening an office in London. Moreover, these representations will enable Scotland to develop its bilateral relations with important partners.

Yet further steps should be taken to enhance Scotland’s European connections. Its pro-European sentiment must be more concretely translated into practice and action. Greater Europeanisation of Scottish politics and government should be fostered. Scotland’s independence debate requires more substantive discussion on how it would face the realities of being a European small state and what kind of EU member state it would seek to become. Whatever its constitutional future, Scotland’s European outlook will endure beyond Brexit. Its Europeanism is too deeply rooted to be shaken.

Strategic Priorities for Scotland and the European Union 2020-24

Scotland's contribution:

  1. Our legal tradition: Scots law is a distinctive mixture of Common law and Civil law. This reflects a shared past and a continental basis for a legal system, as the majority of Member States operate a Civil system.
  2. Our justice system combines a rights-based perspective projecting our fundamental values of humanitarianism, tolerance and inclusion, increasing the richness of our culture and society.
  3. We are leading the way internationally by lowering the voting age to 16 and allowing everyone who has a legal right to live here, including foreign nationals, to vote in Scottish Parliament and local government elections
  4. We are putting children and young people at the centre of our policy-making, ensuring that government decisions take account of what matters for them working closely with a dedicated Children's Commissioner and Parliament.
  5. We have made the decision to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law, the only country in the UK to do so but following in the footsteps of others in Europe.
  6. Scotland's justice organisations participate actively in networks which allow direct engagement with European partners: for example the European Judicial Networks in criminal matters and in civil and commercial matters.
  7. We are committed to remaining an engaged and outward looking partner, invested in our bilateral and multilateral relationships with bodies such as the EU institutions, OECD and WTO.
  8. We will continue to make distinctive contributions in addressing global challenges, sharing our knowledge, skills and technical expertise for global good: through our international development work we will contribute to alleviating poverty and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals in our partner countries.
  9. We will also seek to provide ethical leadership and a positive voice in the world on global issues such as solidarity, tolerance, human rights and climate change in our global supply chains and with our trading partners.
  10. Our landmark Climate Change Act is amongst the most ambitious legislative frameworks in the world, setting a target of net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045.
  11. We are committed to reducing our net emissions by 75% by 2030 and will publish an action plan on how we will get there by April 2020.
  12. We have established a Just Transition Commission to provide practical independent advice on how to maximise the economic and social benefits of decarbonising Scotland, while managing the risks and challenges.
  13. We continue to invest in renewable technology innovation, currently generating over 75% of our electricity from renewable sources with the aim of achieving 100% by the end of 2020.
  14. Scotland has world-leading expertise in subsea engineering and the traditional sectors of the wider blue economy. This can accelerate innovation in alternative sustainable energy sources (e.g. hydrogen) and decarbonisation through carbon capture.
  15. We are committed to reducing emissions from our transport systems, both decarbonising our existing models of transport and changing the ways in which we travel.
  16. Scotland's land plays a critical role. Scotland's vast expanse of peatlands act as a vital carbon sink and by restoring degraded peatlands we will improve their ability to store CO2. We have ambitious targets for reforestation.
  17. Scotland is helping to drive forward the global agenda for biodiversity and will formally contribute to development of the post-2020 framework for biodiversity, which will be finalised at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity COP 15 in KunmingChina
  18. Scotland has a rich marine environment, sharing its seas and resources with many European nations. Scotland is committed to their sustainable and responsible management, safeguarding a valuable food source and trade commodity – vital to the economies of many coastal and rural communities..
  19. We are creating a more circular economy where materials are kept in a high-value state of use for as long as possible – for example through the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme.
  20. We have taken action to reduce the use of plastic cotton buds and microbeads and will take further action by banning more problematic single use plastic items, such as cutlery, plates and food and drink containers, by 2021.
  21. Beginning in 2020, Scotland's 'Green New Deal' – harnessing the Scottish National Investment Bank, a £3 billion Green Investment Portfolio and a Green Growth Accelerator – will create the right conditions to attract green finance, making a significant impact on emissions across sectors while guaranteeing new, high quality jobs.
  22. We will prioritise the role and growth of the renewables sector, sharing our world class expertise and skills with EU and other partners.
  23. In the built environment, we will scale up and accelerate existing work so that we reduce emissions from heating our homes and buildings to near-zero by 2045.
  24. Scotland faces a population challenge with rural depopulation and an ageing demographic. We have established a Ministerial Population Task Force looking to address these issues, and we are keen to share learning with other EU countries that face similar demography challenges.
  25. We are making Scotland's workplaces fairer through our work to reduce the disability employment gap, tackle the gender pay gap and tackle race inequality in employment while also investing in business led by women and other under-represented groups.
  26. We are working with partners to target sectors of high employment/low productivity, helping them to embed digital technologies and to provide workers with opportunities to reskill and upskill and supporting SMEs to innovate and internationalise.
  27. We also taking bold action to tackle poverty and inequality to make sure everyone in Scotland has equal opportunities. For this we have set ourselves ambitious targets to reduce child poverty
  28. Our efforts to work with business to increase the number of people receiving at least the Living Wage – now over 80% of all workers – is helping to lift families out of poverty.
  29. Scotland is one of the most progressive countries in the EU for LGBTI equality. We are embedding LGBTI inclusive education within our school curriculum.
  30. Our social security charter, co-developed with people with relevant lived experience, is based on the principle that the promotion of dignity, fairness and prosperity for workers is a joint endeavour.
  31. We are committed to an economy in which everyone can contribute and benefit from growth. Our world leading National Performance Framework, incorporating the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, is helping us deliver in practice what is meant by a wellbeing economy. We were proud to host the Wellbeing Governments Group in 2019 with the EU Commission and others and will continue to take a leadership role.
  32. We shall continue to work to tackle the causes of inequality faced by women and to end violence against women and girls for good. We support EU accession to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
  33. Scotland's research and innovation communities have been significantly active in partnering and collaborating under Horizon 2020.
  34. Scotland has played a key role in the Vanguard Initiative which promotes growth through smart specialisation, leading the way on for example spin out pilots (e.g. advanced manufacturing).
  35. We continue to take action to make Scotland world‑renowned for inventing, designing, developing and manufacturing key products and technologies. We will particularly focus on industrial biotechnology, life sciences and the space sector.
  36. We want Scotland to become the first country in Europe to provide an end‑to‑end solution for small satellite manufacture, launch and innovation in satellite data analysis.
  37. Harnessing the potential of digital technology is key to Scotland's future prosperity. We aim to provide access to superfast broadband to every home and business in the country.
  38. We are also providing funding to help more people get the digital skills they need and for businesses to invest in new technologies such as cyber security and data analytics
  39. Businesses that innovate are central to achieving our economic and social ambitions as they enable growth and create high quality jobs. We will support businesses by providing millions of pounds of funding annually for research and development and by continuing to make it easier for them to get the information, advice and support they need.
  40. The bio-economy is very important to the Scottish Government and its aspiration to drive forward a low-carbon future. The Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre in Glasgow aims to stimulate the growth of the Industrial Biotechnology sector in Scotland to £900m by 2025. Scotland's Industrial Biotechnology National Plan was refreshed in January 2019.
  41. Scotland remains committed to international collaboration as a driver for innovation and a healthy open economy to stimulate investment, trade and growth.
  42. Scotland is absolutely committed to the closest ongoing involvement in Horizon Europe.
  43. Scotland's world class universities will continue to welcome and actively seek out academic partnerships with others in the EU.


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