During the summer recess I had the pleasure of being guest speaker at an impressively well attended meeting of Skye and Lochalsh Branch of the SNP, in Portree. Among the members present, there was considerable interest and concern about the ongoing preparation of a controversial trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), between the EU and the USA, and I updated the meeting on the latest developments in what is likely to be a very protracted process of negotiation.
The question and answer session also focussed to a large extent on the planned referendum on UK membership of the EU. The UK government has stated its preference that the vote should be held by 31st Dec 2017, at the latest.
The EU terms of membership reforms which the UK Government claims to be promoting are somewhat vague, and David Cameron has confessed that Treaty changes would not be able to be concluded before the in/out referendum. Scotland's independence referendum process provided a model which the UK government ought to follow, by enabling our 16 and 17 year olds to vote on such an important issue for the future of the nations which form the UK. EU citizens who are resident here should also be allowed to participate.
The freedom to travel, study and work across Europe has brought major benefits to Scotland. At present there are 170,000 people from the European Union who live and work in Scotland. They contribute a great deal to the diversity of our culture, the prosperity of our economy, and the strength of our society.
The EU is constantly evolving to take account political realities and seeking to address the concerns of the member states. Reforms can be implemented within the existing Treaty framework, rather than requiring Treaty change. These reforms should focus on two priorities; economic and social policies which will make a tangible difference to the lives of its citizens, and regulatory reform.
Scotland benefits directly from being a part of the EU. 336,000 Scottish jobs were estimated to be directly associated with exports to the EU in 2011. The EU was the destination for 46% of Scotland’s total exports in 2013 - worth £12.9 billion that year. A funding package of €1.9billion for Scotland in 2014-2020 will support the Scottish Government’s aspiration to deliver sustainable economic growth for all in Scotland. In the same period, Scotland will receive €844 million as the EU contribution to our Rural Development Programme, and €3.5billion will be the amount of Common Agricultural Policy direct payments that Scotland will receive.
The CAP must be simplified in its operation, and more streamlined with food production at its core. Scotland’s £13.9 billion food and drink growth sector has already rocketed since 2007. Turnover here has shot up 21 per cent compared to growth of 8.6 per cent across the rest of the UK, with Scotland’s massive success fuelled by the unwavering support of the Scottish Government and our agencies. The Scottish Government can now plough £70 million into food and drink processing in Scotland as part of the new Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) 2014-2020.
The EU internal marketplace of 500 million consumers is vitally important to Scotland's economic performance, now and in the future.