Scotland in Europe: The full story of a dramatic year for Scotland’s foreign policy


CommonSpace interviews Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs, on efforts to secure Scotland’s relationship with Europe following the vote in England and Wales for Brexit

“WE DID HAVE A PLAN,” Fiona Hyslop tells me in her ministerial office in the Scottish Parliament. In her role as cabinet secretary for external affairs, a plan was certainly needed last June as the Brexit vote demanded a ramped up programme for making Scotland’s case to the rest of the world.

Within a week all of Scotland’s major parties – except the Tories – backed a historic motion for the government to reach out to European member states and the institutions of the European Union. The next day Nicola Sturgeon was in Brussels, where she was met by the commission and parliament presidents. A Scottish foreign policy with Europe, dormant for over 300 years, was reborn. 

“I was very keen that should there be a vote to Leave and the vote in Scotland was different that we had to make sure that our position was known,” Hyslop explains. “The First Minister made her statement the next day. I was in London on the Monday and met with a number of ambassadors that day when I was down in London.”

Sturgeon’s statement gave a message to the world: Scotland voted remain, and she offered a wholehearted embrace to EU citizens living in Scotland. Hyslop, meanwhile, was kicking-off the first diplomatic-information engagements. 

“We have had, deliberately, a strategy over the first period so that people knew that 62 per cent of Scotland had voted to remain. There was an emergency British-Irish Council, which again we had helped ensured happened,” she says. 

Could there be anythig more intensive and difficult for a nation without a network of embassies and ambassadors, than trying to enter the top league of European power politics without the legal status of an independent state? Yet there were early signs that the world, and Scotland’s place in it, had changed and changed utterly. A warm welcome for the first minister by Brussels presidents, a standing ovation from Europe’s parliament to Alyn Smith’s declaration to “not let Scotland down now”.

Yet that early euphoria – as top officials from Germany, Belgium, Austria and Poland spoke out in Scotland’s favour – became subdued as a nine month phoney war between the UK and the EU set in, and EU institutions and states took a unified vow of silence.

The ongoing Scottish diplomatic efforts continued quietly, often with no formal media announcements. There’s evidence of meetings with at least 10 European Government state ministers, in a variety of forms.

“In terms of the number, we’ve had a considerable number of meetings. Some at ministerial level, some are at ambassador level,” Hyslop says. “We don’t press release every meeting that we have. That’s not particularly wise or appropriate in what we do.”

She states that ministerial and ambassadorial meetings are “pushing about 100 engagements” during the strategy. 

Hyslop highlights repeated meetings with Harlem Désir, the current European minister of France, and engagements with the Irish ambassador and foreign minister Charlie Flannaghan as examples. The government also held meetings in Malta, Germany, Belgium and Estonia. 

That information strategy, in many ways, is the easiest and clearest part of the government’s strategy. Beyond those engagements, ministers now have to respond to the bureaucratic chaos of Brexit on several fronts: the Brexit talks with the Tories, Brexit talk engagement with EU partners, the fresh issue of the devolution settlement, and the ultimate goal of winning an independent Scotland with its own full European relationships.   

The ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ report, published last December, was an attempt to bridge these four challenges. Mike Russell MSP was tasked with engaging with the Tories in Westminster on achieving concessions for Scotland – but the door was slammed shut. First UK single market membership was ruled out. Then no serious talks over a so-called ‘differentiated settlement’ or further devolution for Scotland took place before the triggering of article 50 on the exit timetable. Was this effort in vain?

“It’s quite clear that people understand that the Scottish position and vote was different to the rest of the UK. They also understand that we have worked very hard to try and come to an accommodation with the United Kingdom, as clearly the UK is the negotiating member in terms of the triggering of Article 50 and the engagement and negotiating thereafter,” Hyslop says.

“I was the first minister from any part of the UK to address one of the committees of the European Parliament – I addressed the constitutional committee back in January. So I think in terms of the understanding both in the European Parliament and the Commission, and the member states, they understand that Scotland has worked hard to try and present a solution that could be part of the UK’s proposition.”

So while there have been few clear victories – beyond goodwill – the Scottish Government will remain engaged in the Brexit talks process, and in the new discussions over devolution. “We have a role and responsibility to continue as part of the UK negotiations because we have interests to protect as part of this two-year period until such time as we know what the terms of exit are,” Hyslop explains. 

Yet the Scottish Government’s patience, as the Tories refused to make the case for a Scottish compromise, ultimately ran out. By the 13th March 2017, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it “would mean letting Scotland drift through the next two years with our fingers crossed simply hoping for the best.” By contrast a fresh referendum on independence would put the public “in control of events and not just at the mercy of them”. 

“I think the big difference now is in the past other countries might have thought ‘Why on earth would you want to do this?’ Whereas now they absolutely understand why Scotland wants to be an independent country.” Fiona Hyslop

For Hyslop and Scotland’s soft foreign policy, this entailed a new wave of engagements. “Again on that first day, on that Monday [there were] a series of calls, particularly to brief countries so they know where we are. So we’ve engaged with openness and transparency. We’re not negotiating with anybody. What we are doing is making sure the position of Scotland is understood,” she explains. 

But really all the engagement is connected: the high level meetings, the Brexit policy paper, the trade missions. They are all messages that Scotland is a serious and effective partner for European authorities, which makes a transition to independence far smoother than it would otherwise be. 

“I think the big difference now is in the past other countries might have thought ‘Why on earth would you want to do this?’ Whereas now they absolutely understand why Scotland wants to be an independent country,” Hyslop says.

“So not only are we in a new context within the UK and Scotland, we’re absolutely in a new context in regards understanding by EU member states about Scotland’s position.”

Yet Hyslop is also cautious and highlights the gradualist approach the Scottish Government is taking. “Nobody is acting independently of the EU27. We’re not asking them to, and we’re not negotiating with them,” she highlights. “What we are doing is helping them understand the journey that Scotland is on, and has been. Also [providing] a good understanding that Scotland are good Europeans in terms of our contribution.”

“We haven’t called the referendum. We’ve called for the powers to have that referendum. We have to make sure at the time, that we need to have those discussions. It would be premature and would be unreasonable to expect to set the agreement of either individuals or institutions before there has been a vote to take place,” Hyslop states.

“I think a lot of people in the independence movement want answers immediately and want security and guarantees from day one as of now. What’s really important is to make sure the circumstances are right at the time that you want to have those discussions and those negotiations. But we’re not there yet.”

Enthusiastic activists might expect the government to charge in prematurely on their behalf, seeking public support for an independent Scotland from European leaders. Yet the constitutional contrast is expected to gradually grow during the negotiation process. Scotland’s interests – be it fishing, exports, university funding, citizens rights – are all likely to be on the menu. As the UK appears unstable, especially for the 181,000 odd EU nationals seeking the right to live, love and work here, the opportunity to guarantee those rights will be a powerful pro-independence incentive. 

When it comes to demographics, however, winning independence on the back of a Europhile bandwagon isn’t so simple. Over a million Scots voted to leave the EU, and many remain voters were also sceptical about the direction of the EU project.

Membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) has been touted as a compromise – which would maintain the major pillars of European cooperation in open trade and free movement, while maintaining control over fisheries, and agriculture in Scotland. While Hyslop admits there are some “people within the party that would prefer that EFTA option”, she flat out rejects any policy change. 

“That’s not our position. Our position is as it has been and remains is that we want to see membership of the European Union,” she affirms. 

Despite its divisive nature – with some in the pro-independence movement like Jim Sillars and leave voting MSP Alex Neil pouring cold water on the pro-EU strategy – Scotland’s relationship with Europe is set to remain a major fault line in constitutional debate. 64 per cent of Scots have little or no confidence in the Tory Brexit strategy, according to latest polling by Lord Ashcroft. 

That feeling of UK Government incompetence, detachment, and a belief that a different path is open to Scotland – away from intolerance, isolation, hard right policies – is a story that the Scottish Government is carefully curating. “What kind of country do you want to be?”, asks a slogan for a future referendum.

Whether it will prove electorally crucial or not, the European issue will remain higher up the agenda of Scottish politics. Pro-independence politicians are keen to emphasise the change in attitudes since 2014. The Scottish Green party – limited in resources – secured public backing from 50 European politicians for an independent Scotland in the EU. Spain, notably, also intervened to quash the myth that the state would block Scottish EU membership.

Where much European influence lies, in Berlin, senior figures including Elmar Brok MEP, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, and chair of the predominant EU bloc the European People’s party, Manfred Weber – to name a few – all expressed support for Scottish EU membership. German public support was also found to be 7-1 in Scotland’s favour when YouGov polling was conducted on the subject. 

Hyslop recognises German interest. She says: “Well the Germans are very pragmatic. The document [Scotland’s Place in Europe] was well received by a number of member states. I think there was an understanding particularly from the German Government that we are making very strong efforts to try and be positive pro-Europeans, but also trying to do it in a constructive way.

“There have been numerous meetings with the German government at different levels. I’ve got a very good relationship with the German ambassador, and I see him when I am in London.”

Read more – German support grows for Scotland to stay in European Union

Of course the challenges of building these relationships in foreign policy does have a foundation. Scotland Development International (SDI) is active with offices across the world. Scottish Governments have organised various trade visits and joint appearances, as a form of soft foreign policy. The Scottish Government, in contrast to the UK equivalent, declared support for a Palestinian state. And the Labour and SNP led administrations have both funded development projects centred on the African nation of Malawi. 

This international aspect of government work has gained a new lease of life, and mini-embassy style investment operations have been set up and planned in Dublin and Berlin respectively. With Brexit, strengthening those relationships are an economic and political necessity.

As Hyslop explains: “As we steer a course in uncharted waters to independence, we want to make sure we create the circumstances that should the people of Scotland decide they want independence it will get the best reception possible as a positive, pro-European nation. That’s what my intention is.”

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is: Pledge your support today.