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Russell: 'no UKG Brexit plan'

Published: 26 Oct 2016 14:59

Dedicated JMC sub-committee to meet for first time next month.

The Scottish Government will continue to seek answers from the UK Government and fight for the best outcome for Scotland and those who choose to live here, Minister for UK Negotiations for Scotland's Place in Europe Michael Russell told Parliament today.

With only 18 weeks to go until Article 50 is triggered by the UK Government, Mr Russell updated Parliament on recent Scottish Government activity aiming to bring forward solutions to the problems created by the Brexit vote.

This included:

  • Meetings with devolved and EU administrations
  • Public Q&A held in Scotland House, Brussels
  • Publication of the draft Referendum Bill
  • Agreement with the UK Government to a sub-committee of the JMC on EU Negotiations

Statement text as follows:

This is our third statement updating Parliament on our actions following the EU referendum and the overwhelming vote in Scotland to remain.

The First Minister last updated Parliament on 7 September. Today I would like give you more information about developments since that statement.

Reassuring our fellow EU citizens about their future right to continue living and working here remains of vital importance. Present UK Government rhetoric balances their future against that of UK citizens living in Europe – who are equally uncertain about their prospects, however using human beings as bargaining chips cannot be justified. The UK should take the lead and end this uncertainty now.

The impact on EU nationals living in the UK is just one of many problems the Brexit vote has created, all of which have been compounded by the reaction, inaction and confusion of the UK Government at Westminster.

Our approach in contrast has been to seek consensus, to establish clear priorities and to propose solutions to those problems in keeping with the democratic mandate which we have – a triple mandate arising from the election in 2016, the vote on the June 23rd and the vote of this Parliament on 28th June.

Since my appointment I have pursued that mandate at every opportunity. I have met twice with the UK Brexit Secretary David Davis, most recently on Friday along with the Secretary of State and colleagues have met with Treasury Ministers and the Trade Secretary.

I have been to Cardiff to identify common ground with Mark Drakeworth, my Welsh counterpart, met with representatives of the London Mayor's office and our officials have been engaged with the Northern Ireland Executive. I have begun a series of meetings with party leaders – with Willie Rennie and Patrick Harvie and I look forward to meeting Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson.

We have above all been pressing hard for a mechanism to deliver the full involvement promised by the Prime Minister.

The Joint Ministerial Committee finally met on Monday. The First Minister and I, along with our counterparts from the devolved administrations, attended the meeting in Downing St chaired by the Prime Minister.

The meeting considered the means by which the devolved administrations' could and should engage with the UK Government on the development of a negotiating position for our future relationship with the European Union.

This was a long overdue meeting but unfortunately it was, in large part, hugely frustrating.

In line with the wishes of this Parliament, as expressed during recent debates, the First Minister set out Scotland's key interests in protecting our place in the single market, securing continued freedom of movement and protecting social and employment rights. She also pressed, along with colleagues, for more information on the high level negotiating stance of the UK Government and some indication of how it would take forward engagement with the 27 remaining EU Members.

However we know no more about the UK Government's approach now than we did when we went into Downing Street.

We do not know whether the UK Government is in favour of membership of the Single Market, or the Customs Union or what type of relationship it envisages between the UK and the EU after Brexit or indeed how and when these decisions will be made.

We did secure agreement that the JMC in plenary session will meet more frequently with another meeting promised for the New Year, before the triggering of Article 50. To put that in context, the last meeting of the JMC Plenary before this week was in 2014.

It was also agreed that a sub-committee be established to discuss the issues raised by Brexit.

That sub-committee – the JMC (EU Negotiations) – will meet for the first time early next month.

Following a proposal from the First Minister agreement was reached that a detailed work programme must be established ahead of the first meeting which must be linked to the timetable for, and key points anticipated in, the overall Brexit negotiating process. This timetable must ensure that issues are discussed in sufficient time to inform the UK Government's European Sub-Committee's decision making process. The Scottish Government will take part in as many meetings as necessary in order to ensure that this is the case. And I shall be speaking with David Davis later today about these issues.

Let me make clear to Parliament. The Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and indeed people of Scotland are and must be equal partners in this multi-national United Kingdom. The Scottish Government will not be and is not simply consultee or a stakeholder. That is not what this parliament asked us to do.

There is a huge amount of work to do to satisfy the Prime Minister's own requirement for "a UK approach and objectives for negotiations" before she triggers Article 50. As the Welsh First Minister said after Monday's meeting "time is against us", given that there are only 18 weeks between the first meeting of the JMC (EN) and the UK Government's self-imposed March deadline for triggering the Article 50 process.

18 weeks: 126 days. We cannot afford to lose a single one of them given the vital importance of this task. A task that includes ensuring that the UK – and Scotland – does not drive straight off a hard Brexit cliff.

Monday made it clearer than ever that there is at present no coherent UK plan. But there has to be a Scottish plan, and ideally that should be one that is good for the UK too. Alongside our efforts to influence the United Kingdom to adopt a soft Brexit with continued membership of the single market the Scottish Government will bring forward our own detailed proposals to protect Scotland's interests by the end of this year.

A key part of these proposals will be ways in which we can maintain membership of the Single Market for Scotland, even if the rest of the UK leaves.

I have noted recent comments by Alex Rowley, and by David Watt of the Institute of Directors in Scotland which suggest a consensus position on the key issue of immigration, may be possible. We will continue to seek advice from the Standing Council, to seek agreement on this and other key issues and I remain open to proposals from other parties.

This Parliament also gave Ministers a mandate to engage with other European nations and institutions to ensure Scotland's position is heard.

Since our last statement to Parliament the First Minister attended the Arctic Circle Assembly where she met with the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Iceland and the Deputy Prime Minister of Finland. The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs has met with the Taoiseach and the Irish Foreign Secretary as well as with ministers from the French, Italian and Maltese governments. In addition along with continued engagement with the diplomatic community in Scotland we have also met with the Chief and Deputy Chief Ministers for Gibraltar.

Fiona Hyslop and I also visited Brussels last week. We spent time with Scottish MEPs, as well as with Guy Verhofstadt, who forms part of the European Parliament's negotiating team and with Danuta Hubner, the chair of the Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee which will take forward scrutiny of Brexit.

And of course, the views of this Parliament remain crucial to establishing the principles behind our approach.

My cabinet colleagues and I have taken part in very useful debates on the implications of EU referendum. This series will continue with a debate on the environment tomorrow.

Members will also know that this Scottish Government was elected with a clear mandate that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold an independence referendum if there was "a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will."

That is a direct quote from the manifesto on which we stood and won.

We are now faced with that specific scenario.

As a result in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum we said we would prepare the required legislation to enable a new independence referendum to be held if it became clear that was the only or best way of protecting those interests.

We repeated that commitment to Parliament in our Programme for Government.

Last Thursday we published the Consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill. This consultation invites views on the draft legislation and technical arrangements for a referendum. This will ensure that the draft referendum bill is to be ready for introduction should it be, in the opinion of the Government, the right way to proceed.

The people of Scotland, in every local authority area, voted to remain in the EU. That is an inescapable fact, and is recognised by every party in this chamber.

We have, therefore, sought, and will continue to seek, to work with every party to ensure that the democratic, economic and social advantages of our engagement with and connection to Europe continue to benefit us as a nation.

There is much we can do together.

We can continue to seek answers from the UK government on the most basic of questions.

We can continue to bring forward solutions to the problems created by the Brexit vote.

We can continue to assert our right to be treated as an equal partner.

We can, as the FM said this morning, and we must come together to form an all Scotland coalition to protect our place in the single market, regardless of our views on the constitution.

And we can resolve to ensure the best outcome for Scotland and all the people who live here – all of them, including those who have come from elsewhere.