At the AGM of Brussels Branch of the SNP, held in the European Parliament, I updated members on the celebration of the Scottish Nation that is Homecoming 2009. With an ambitious programme of hundreds of events, between Burns Day and St Andrews Day, Scotland is being marketed around the world with the intention of encouraging Scots, and friends of Scotland, to return. Homecoming Scotland 2009 will make a significant contribution to the SNP Governmentʼs aspiration to increase tourism by 50% by 2015.

The Homecoming was also the theme of an inspirational ʻImmortal Memoryʼ delivered by Scotlandʼs Environment Minister Michael Russell at the European Parliamentʼs prestigious Burns Supper in Brussels. A charity fundraising event which, since its establishment in 1999, has raised tens of thousands of pounds for Mercy Corps Scotland, the 2009 Burns Supper took place on World Burns Night. Mike Russell said in his tribute to Burns;

"This is the year of Homecoming, when the Scots diaspora will be invited back home to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Burns. It promises to be a special year for all with an affinity with Scotland. Burns has been celebrated world wide almost since his death. Lincoln and Lenin were both Burns fans and the enthusiasm of ordinary people has resulted – again and again – in enormous celebrations on special anniversaries.

"In 1859 – a hundred years after his birth – there were national and international events including a huge poetry competition. The first Burns Festival had already been held some fifteen years earlier in Alloway, and Burns clubs and Burns Suppers – including the toast to the Immortal Memory – had been on the calendar since the start of the century. 2009 will be another big year, celebrated in our distinctive way. Burns has been a passion and an inspiration for more than two centuries. Now in these difficult times we must make sure that he guides people home and helps Scotland to celebrate and share our contribution to the world.

"Of course Burns was a farmer, and food and farming remain central to our identity and our culture. He was also a man much in love with the countryside and the year of Homecoming should encourage people to rediscover our wonderful landscapes, our wide range of wildlife and our improving environment - all of which are at the heart of our world wide green reputation. But we cannot rest on our laurels. There is much we still have to do to be worthy of that reputation. We have already taken decisive action to tackle the amount of waste and litter we produce, set tough targets for retailers to cut plastic bag use, and started to roll out millions of pounds to help communities reduce their carbon footprint. Weʼre doing even more in 2009 with pioneering initiatives on travel, waste and energy.

"We are also at the forefront of global efforts to tackle climate change. If passed, our Climate Change Bill will mean Scotland has the most ambitious climate change legislation anywhere in the world."

There is a tremendous level of interest and goodwill among our European neighbours towards all things Scottish, from the cultural events of Homecoming to the political progress of the SNP Government. While in Brussels, Mike Russell met with his counterpart from the Czech Republic, Environment Minister Martin BursÍk who was addressing the European Parliamentʼs Environment Committee on the priorities of the Czech Presidency of the EU.

My hope is that 2009 will be marked not just by the success of Homecoming, but also by progress made towards Scottish Independence, so that our Ministers too will have the right to participate fully in all of the vital decision making bodies of the EU, and the wider world.

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