Willie Rennie's speech to the Europa Institute

Willie Rennie has given a speech to the Europa Institute in Edinburgh laying out the benefits of freedom of movement in Scotland and calling on the other Scottish leaders to back giving the public the final say on whatever Brexit deal Theresa May brings back from Brussels.

By Willie Rennie MSP Sep 27, 2017 6

It is my pleasure to speak to you this evening.

I was due to make this contribution in May after the Council Elections but Mrs May decided to win a massive majority instead. 

Having secured that mandate, she is now striding the European stage securing concession after concession from European Union members. 

We’re not paying them a penny.  

In fact, Boris Johnston is receiving a cheque to the value of £350million every Monday morning and has recruited thousands of nurses and doctors and is building 100 new hospitals.

Brexit Bulldog David Davis has agreement to continue to use the health EHIC insurance card, the European Arrest Warrant and the Erasmus scheme for students.

Liam Fox has been vindicated for predicting that the EU negotiations will “be one of the easiest in human history”.

The whole Brexit enterprise has been nothing short of an overwhelming triumph.

Even the cabinet are united.

I must stop reading the Daily Express.

Theresa May’s speech last week was hailed, by some, as major progress. I suppose it is all relative.  I suspect relief rather than delight should be the emotion.  Relief than our Prime Minister did not insult our European partners again.  In reality all that was proposed was a delay to the implementation of whatever relationship we finally agree with the EU.  She has kicked the can down the road.

What is true is this: EU citizens from Poland, Bulgaria and Romania are going home and many will just not come back next year.  The berry fields of Tayside and Fife were short of the seasonal pickers they needed, the vegetable growers are struggling to get the staff they need, the hotels and cafes are feeling the pinch.

Last week I visited Barnsmuir Farm near Crail on the beautiful East Neuk of Fife.

It supplies broccoli for every Morrisons supermarket in Scotland.

At peak it needs 270 workers to harvest the fruit and veg it grows on farms across North East Fife.

Most come from Romania and Bulgaria but since the Brexit vote they have been struggling to get the workforce they need.

Their workers have faced a pay cut because of the fall in the value of the pound against the Euro. 

The distance from home and the Scottish weather become more important when you don’t get paid as much.

And they are wondering whether Britain really wants them when they hear that immigrants are a problem.

Some people may say it’s a good thing.  It leaves more jobs for local people.  But that’s not working out either.  Where are the British workers queuing up to take the place of the departing Europeans?

The growth at Barnsmuir has come with the advance of technology and the availability of good workers in sufficient numbers.  Longer picking seasons mean a greater demand for pickers.

Even if every available east Fife worker was to step forward there would still not be enough of them to meet the demands of the seasonal work.

Companies have tried to recruit from Scotland but without success.

Anyone who tells you we can simply replace seasonal pickers from eastern Europe with workers from east Fife has been eating too much Broccoli.

Even if the pound recovers, even if the weather improves, even if Scotland gets geographically closer to Bulgaria it will still take years to recover from the impression that Britain doesn’t want any foreigners in our country.

In 10 years the food and drink sector has grown 44% to £14billion.  The Scottish Food and Drink strategy aims to double that by 2030 to £30billion.  That will be impossible without the workforce to drive that growth in the fruit and vegetable sector.

That is one of the challenges of Brexit: squaring the circle on immigration and the economy.

Many people who backed Brexit will insist on a reduction in immigration.

Yet that reduction in immigration will hit the economy.

What is also true is that researchers in our universities are being denied opportunities in EU research programmes.

The Wellcome Trust say the Brexit uncertainty is damaging EU cooperation.

Reading University has lost lead status to a German institution for a world leading neuroscience research initiative because of the uncertainty.  Tom Johnstone, the head of brain imaging at Reading, is now considering leaving the UK.

Alison Smith leads the plant metabolism group at the University of Cambridge and has stood down from her position as the coordinator of a European research consortium.

Greek national Antonis Michalas at Westminster University has worked around the world on network security. After moving to the U.K. two years ago, he received several European grants but since the Brexit vote he has lost an important proposal after collaborators on the continent expressed scepticism about the funding prospects for a project with UK involvement.

“What I’m afraid of is that we will be isolated in the U.K.,” he says.

I hear similar reports from universities in Scotland. 

Anton Muscatelli at Glasgow says “There have been at least three instances over the last six months where we were trying to attract senior professorial level appointments – not all EU by the way, some were non-EU but they wanted to come into the European Research Area. And [they] basically said: ‘You know there’s uncertainty at the moment whether the UK will be part of the European Research Area and therefore we will wait and see.’”

As well as the loss of lead status and the loss of world class researchers they are concerned about losing the best European students and research funding.

At St. Andrews University, one fifth of the staff come from elsewhere in Europe and one fifth of the research funding comes from the EU.  And just over 10% of all students are from the EU.  The University’s exposure to Brexit is huge.

From picking berries to breaking the boundaries of scientific knowledge Brexit is already damaging the United Kingdom.

A hit to the economy, a hit to tax income from the businesses and workers, a hit to our world class reputation in research and our world class universities, a hit to locally grown quality produce in our shops and a hit to our reputation in food and drink.

This is the fix that the Conservative Government have got themselves into.

There is an expectation that with Brexit immigration will be cut.

Without a cut to immigration there will be further disenchantment with the political system. Cries of betrayal and broken promises will be heard.

Yet that cut to immigration poses a direct threat to two major sectors of our economy.

The Conservatives face a choice: damage the economy or betray the voters who backed lower immigration.  

This is a clash of conflicting priorities and the Government are making no attempt to explain to the British people that they cannot choose both. 

The Conservatives should not skulk, they must explain, as they voters will find them out sooner or later.

At the heart of the argument I made during the Scottish independence referendum was that a single market underpins our future success.  That it makes trade easier and allows businesses based on innovation and excellence to thrive.

Scotland’s exports to the rest of the United Kingdom are worth £50 billion.

Analysis has shown how that trade supports tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland.

That applies to the UK’s relationship with Europe in exactly the same terms.

Three million jobs in Britain depend on Europe.

Exports to the EU are worth £240 billion to the UK. That’s almost half of all exports.

As part of Europe we are part of an economic market worth trillions.

There are 500 million customers.

It means that a Scottish company that is good and efficient at its job can expand across the continent.

Analysis shows there is a “border effect” which damages trade across any border, however allied the economies and benevolent the relationships.

It happens without a physical border.

Perhaps most starkly, the border effect reduces trade between the United States and Canada by 44 per cent.

And that is even with the successes of the NAFTA free trade agreement which has seen trade more than triple, reaching a trillion dollars.

To me it is instinctive economics that a small company looking to expand will choose first to develop within its jurisdiction.

If you have just spent years building your business and getting to grips with the red tape, the last thing you need is a whole new variety of regulations.

I would always make the same case to avoid imposing borders that hit trade inside the EU as any pro-UK person might have done for trade within the UK.

The European Community came out of a continent that had been devastated by conflicts between countries for two centuries

We don’t know if there would have been conflict in Western Europe without the EEC.

But we do know for certain that, with the EEC and now the EU, there were not.

The United Kingdom – strictly speaking Great Britain – came about because of economic and financial collapse in Scotland.

We don’t know if Scotland would have endured that misery permanently.

But we do know for certain that with the UK Scotland did not.

I have always been struck by those parallels. I referred to them back at the start of 2014 in the early days of the Scottish independence referendum.

Thankfully we rejected the break-up of one single market – the UK – but are heading towards the break-up of the other single market – the EU.

Of course, there was a lot of analysis before the 23rd June last year. But there were a range of Brexits on offer on that day. It was hard for a commentator to persuade a potential Leave voter that their devastating critique of any single version of Brexit was significant as the voter might, quite reasonably, believe a better version of Brexit might come to pass.

We were only missing Kirk Douglas for “I’m Brexit”, “No, I’m Brexit”.

Even now we have a variety. Last month we had the Norwegian and the Swiss models.

Now we have the Canadian and the EEA-Minus.

When we have the survivor model of Brexit will be when British and Scottish business must be ready to sound the proper alarm. That is the moment when they have to get their arguments and evidence in front of people so that people demand a vote on the terms of the deal.

So my plea to all those companies who believe they will be harmed by the Brexit-on-offer to get their facts and their arguments lined up now.

I believe there will be a demand from the public for a say. This is a battle of ideas that can be won.

This has to be done over the heads of the Conservative Government that hopes the Conservative Party’s 50 year split over Europe can be ended by inflicting any deal on us.

Before it is too late we need to speak up.

I do appreciate the sense of fair play.  Remain lost, the argument goes - We should accept the vote and leave the EU without question.

Well it is my job to question. If I see that something is damaging our country, I have a duty to act no matter how unpopular that is with some.

That does not mean that I, Willie Rennie, will singlehandedly overturn the expression of democracy that was the EU referendum.  I can’t do that and I won’t even try.

What is legitimate is for the British people to do that.  They should have the right to reject a bad deal on the EU.

We were not given the detail last June.  All we had was slogans on the side of a bus. 

Slogans that triggered the United Kingdom Statistical Authority to write a formal letter to the Foreign Secretary to say they were simply incorrect.

So when we see the detail. 

When we have the deal. 

When we know what the shape of our relationship with Europe is. 

The decision whether to accept it or not should be with the British people. 

Why should Theresa May and her cabinet be the only ones to decide whether the deal is good enough?

People rightly ask me how I square this idea with my rejection of a new Scottish independence referendum.

I think it’s straightforward.

In 2014 the Scottish Government prepared a detailed white paper. This presented the best case deal that the Scottish Government thought it could get.

And people in Scotland rejected their best case deal. That is even before actual negotiations had trimmed and changed the deal to something that wasn’t half as appealing.

Even as we stand here tonight we still don’t have a clear view on the best that we might get from Brexit.

My concern is that whatever the deal the Conservative cabinet will feel compelled to accept it because of the Brexit vote. 

They will accept it no matter how many jobs will be lost, no matter how many universities lose top researchers, no matter how many farms can’t get enough agricultural workers they need, no matter how many hotels struggle to serve their customers. 

The Conservatives will accept it because they have made the catastrophic decision to leave the EU -no matter what.

I respect the result of the referendum and I respect the British people so much that I believe they should decide whether to go ahead with the divorce.  That is respectful and it is democratic.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government are prepared to back our position.

It would be in their interest to do so.

They share a similar analysis to mine on Europe.  They also believe there should be a way out of this if the deal is damaging. Their preferred solution was another independence referendum.  But they have cooled on the idea as people in Scotland have made it clear that we have settled the independence question.

Our escape chute of a Brexit deal referendum could therefore be a credible alternative that they could support.

So I would urge the First Minister to join us in our effort to save the country from real and lasting economic damage.

We stand with the SNP on the attempt by the Conservatives to deny powers that should be rightly with the Scottish Parliament.  They could stand with us on this shared interest too.

And I would urge Ruth Davidson to do the same. 

She has said that she would vote remain again if there was a re-run of the referendum.

Ruth has said that Brexit will hit our economy in such a way that we will never quite recover.

If she believes that, she has a duty to stand up and do something about it.  There is little point complaining if you offer no way of avoiding the damage you fear.

She couldn’t have been clearer when she stood on the stage at Wembley before the referendum.

There is no point her sticking to some sort of loyalty to the UK Conservative Cabinet. They don’t show any sort of loyalty to each other.

So Ruth Davidson should join us too.

All that leaves Labour in the extraordinary position they are more supportive of Brexit than the Scottish Conservatives.  I suppose it depends on which day of the week.

Kez Dugdale gets it. She’s seen the shambles of Labour’s Brexit position from the inside and she has had enough.

She wants a Brexit deal referendum.

So my challenge is to the two Scottish Labour Leader contenders.  Show a bit of muscle on Brexit.  Stand up for our economy, our universities, stand up for our interests.

Anas and Richard: Tell Jeremy Corbyn he needs to give the British people the final say on Brexit instead of giving Theresa May the authority to make that call. 

With a united front on Brexit, Scotland could make the difference.  We need to stand together when it matters most.

On seasonal workers and world leading researchers.

On that conflict between the economy and immigration.

On the similarity between independence and Brexit.

On the need to work together to give the British people the final say.

Look back at the two great disasters of recent years – the War in Iraq and the banking crisis.  Charles Kennedy warned about the first and Vince Cable about the second. Wise heads.

On Europe let us turn back before it is too late.


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