Lewis Macdonald: Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50)

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

7 February 2017

When Theresa May invokes article 50 and gives notice of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, we will have reached a sombre moment in our shared history.

Sixty years after Anthony Eden’s resignation marked the end of empire, and 60 years after the Treaty of Rome pointed towards an alternative future, it is almost as if Britain and Europe are back to where we began.

The question now is not whether Britain leaves the EU, or whether the Government invokes article 50—the referendum vote last June made the decision to leave, and not leaving is not an option.

The question now is not whether, but when. Is the UK Government in a position to begin such a critical negotiation on our behalf, and how will it be accountable in doing so?

After months of denying that the act of leaving the EU was any of Parliament’s business, Mrs May finally agreed last week to publish her negotiating objectives in a white paper.

That white paper confirmed that the Government’s approach to Brexit is based not on a rational analysis of costs and benefits but on ideological preferences alone.

UK ministers have declared that Britain should leave the world’s largest single market, with no clear strategy on how to obtain unfettered access to that market as an external trading partner.

They also want to leave the European customs union and face the risk of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, with no idea of the terms of trade in any future agreement with the EU.

They have laid out no plans in detail for future engagement with the many other European institutions and agreements to which membership of the EU currently gives us access.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD): I thank Lewis Macdonald for giving way. Can he tell us how his party at Westminster is getting on with challenging that?

Lewis Macdonald: I will certainly discuss Westminster in a moment.

I am sure that Mr Rennie will want to reflect on how effective his colleagues there are being as well. After 60 years of Britain growing closer to Europe, we now have a Government that is determined to go in the opposite direction.

Theresa May would rather hold hands with Donald Trump than work hand in glove with Angela Merkel.

That much is clear, but there remain too many unanswered questions—too many ways in which a reckless and irresponsible approach could yet turn a difficult business into a disaster.

Our responsibility in the Scottish Parliament is to say whether we believe that UK ministers have done enough to go to Europe and negotiate on our behalf, and our answer must be that they have not.

This week, Labour is promoting a raft of amendments to the article 50 bill at Westminster; some have already been voted on and others are up for decision over the next couple of days.

The amendments set out what Labour believes are the broad principles that UK ministers should follow in negotiations: maintaining a stable and sustainable economy; preserving peace in Northern Ireland; achieving trading arrangements with the EU that are free of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, with no further regulatory burdens; laying a basis for cooperation with Europe in education, science and research, environmental protection and the fight against serious and organised crime and terrorism; and maintaining existing social, economic, consumer and workers’ rights.

Also, as we highlight in our amendment, UK ministers should consult the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations in a serious and meaningful way, and Scottish ministers should work with other Administrations to influence the process and the outcomes.

The white paper offers no more than a wish list for achieving any of those wider objectives, and it shows little sign of taking on board the views of the other Administrations within the UK.

As the minister acknowledged, we in this place have no veto on article 50, but we do have a right and a duty to speak on behalf of those we seek to represent.

We should therefore say that we do not endorse Mrs May’s proposals and that she should not proceed until she has demonstrated that she has a clear strategy for achieving the right outcomes from the negotiations that will follow.

There are other things that Mrs May could do now, even before those negotiations begin.

Yesterday, I met parent representatives at St Peter’s school in Aberdeen, which has many pupils from countries both within and beyond the European Union.

I heard directly about the insecurity that many of those families feel and their uncertainty about the choices that they have made to live in this country and about their children’s future.

Theresa May could help with that right now.

She could follow the advice of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee in its report this week and “provide clarity on the position of EU and EEA EFTA citizens living in the UK without further delay.”

That would make our constituents feel secure again. It would also let our European friends and neighbours know—in advance of the negotiations—that we will not make their citizens suffer because of a decision that our citizens have made.

Theresa May could also do what her party declined to do in the House of Commons last night and commit to seeking a consensus with the devolved Administrations on the terms of withdrawal and the framework for our future relationship with the European Union.

That would not give anyone a veto—the constitutional position is clear—but committing to seek a consensus would show a degree of willingness to look beyond the inner circles of the Conservative Cabinet, which so far has been sadly lacking.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney): I want to follow up on the point that Mr Macdonald has just made. If he can see the advantages and benefits of the United Kingdom Government coming to some form of agreement with the devolved Administrations, why, in his opinion, is it beyond the capacity of those on the Conservative benches in this Parliament to recognise the wisdom and value of such a step?

Lewis Macdonald: Those on the Conservative benches have to speak for themselves, and no doubt we will hear more from them shortly.

Clearly, however, there is a need for people to recognise the choices that are in front of us.

We will vote today that article 50 should not be triggered until the UK Government’s strategy is clear, and we will do so in terms of our own amendment.

When we debated Brexit on 17 January, we agreed that the Scottish Government should continue to seek ways of mitigating the impact within the UK. That remains our position.

However, I have to say that it is less clear how far that remains the SNP’s position. On the same day as that debate, the First Minister once again declared that a second referendum on independence was “very likely”.

She was demanding a common United Kingdom position on the one hand and working against the United Kingdom on the other.

Michael Russell: For the avoidance of doubt, I will repeat what I said in my speech. We continue to negotiate constructively and positively—or to attempt to do so—on the basis of our paper, “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, the options in which Parliament has considered, and we will continue to do so up until the triggering of article 50, because we feel that we can still achieve a deal if there is the will from the UK Government.

Lewis Macdonald: I recognise what Mr Russell says, but the truth is that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP Government are keeping the threat of an independence referendum on the table.

They might argue that that gives leverage with Theresa May, but the truth is that it merely adds to the uncertainty that we face.

Whether the SNP really wants to ask people to vote for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom in order to remain in the European Union has to be a moot point.

Some of the strongest votes for Brexit were recorded in places such as Banff and Buchan, which voted by 61 per cent to 39 per cent to leave—an “overwhelming” majority, as some on the SNP benches might say.

Those who voted to leave are hardly going to turn out to vote for independence if that means that Scotland will stay in the European Union after all.

I urge the SNP to recognise that a consensus cannot be built with the threat of a referendum on the table. If the SNP wants a positive response across the board, it should accept that.

We in the Labour Party reject an independence referendum and we will not support anything that creates barriers to trade within the UK.

However, Theresa May has so far failed to address the uncertainty that we face as a result of the Brexit process, and therefore article 50 should not be triggered at this time.

On that basis, I move amendment S5M- 03858.1, to leave out from “agrees” to end and insert:

“recognises that a majority in Scotland voted for the UK to remain in the EU, and that a majority also voted for Scotland to remain in the UK; agrees that the UK single market is more important to the Scottish economy than the European single market and therefore that there should be no move to put in place any barriers that would damage Scottish trade with the rest of the UK; believes that many people voted against leaving the EU for the same reasons that they voted to remain in the UK, in order to secure jobs, opportunities and social and civil rights; believes that the majority of the people of Scotland want to remain inside the UK, with as close a relationship with Europe as possible; agrees there should not be a second Scottish independence referendum; respects the outcome of the EU referendum and accepts that, as a result, the UK will leave the EU; agrees that the UK Government’s European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill should not proceed until it has set out detail on the full range of unanswered questions covering many policy areas where its proposals would have a detrimental effect on the jobs and opportunities of people across Scotland; further believes that the UK Government must consult the Scottish Government and other devolved administrations on the process of exiting the EU, and calls on the Scottish Government to work with other devolved administrations on the range of relevant issues, including to protect workers’ rights, to ensure that the UK does not become a bargain-basement tax haven, to guarantee legal rights for EU citizens living in the UK and to seek to retain all existing EU tax avoidance and evasion measures postBrexit.”

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