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Five Fall Into Brexit Adventure: What's next for the Scottish MEPs?

Alasdair McKillop

If the consequences of the EU referendum can be expected to weigh heavily on all of our politicians, special consideration should still be given to Scotland’s six MEPs. Five of them campaigned in favour of continued membership of the EU, with UKIP’s David Coburn being the outlier. Given this and the firm vote in favour of Remain that was recorded in Scotland, David Martin and Catherine Stihler for Labour, Ian Hudghton and Alyn Smith for the SNP, and Ian Duncan for the Conservatives have committed to working in partnership to secure the best outcome for Scotland. Citing letters and emails received from constituents concerned about their future, Smith stressed the symbolism of this (almost) united MEP front. But it hasn’t been all Saltires and shortbread, even for the gang of five. Ian Duncan, on the day after the vote, was quick to state that Britain would succeed outside Europe while continuing to exert an influence on the continent. In this respect, he was offering an early taste of the more complex position adopted by the Scottish Conservatives.

While there have been no formal changes to their status, the MEPs would be forgiven for thinking a psychological barrier has been erected to separate them from their colleagues in the European Parliament. Perhaps sensing the implications of the change in circumstances, Ian Duncan resigned his position as rapporteur on the reform of the Emissions Trading System shortly after the referendum result became known. This move mirrored the resignation of the UK’s European Commissioner, Jonathan Hill, from his financial services portfolio and the later announcement that the UK would not take up its Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2017. Colleagues prevailed on Duncan to reverse his decision and he eventually did so, stating he would continue in the role “pending any change in parliamentary rules in relation to UK MEPs”. He also pledged to campaign for the UK’s continued commitment to European carbon trading regardless of future changes to its relationship to the EU. 

Similarly, Catherine Stihler remarked that Labour MEPs would “exercise careful judgement” when it came to future votes in the European Parliament as she observed some issues with longer term consequences would logically have little or no bearing on the UK. As such, she argued it was correct that UK MEPs should not “block such decisions or influence them unduly”. How this convention will operate in practice is unclear but anyone needing a fix of the intricate arguments once associated with EVEL might find a perfect substitute in the European Parliament. Stihler said there would be not be a full-scale withdrawal from the activities of the European Parliament, however, arguing such a course would be a disservice to constituents and citizens elsewhere in the EU.

If we can expect all of Scotland’s MEPs to assume a higher profile during a period that might culminate in the loss of their position, it is Alyn Smith who has been grabbing the headlines so far. A rousing speech in the European Parliament in which he urged his colleagues to stand by Scotland prompted a standing ovation from members who were possibly a little relieved to hear they were not being rejected completely. Endorsements of his performance came from political opponents as well as friends and the positive reception might have played a role in his decision to stand for election as Deputy Leader of the SNP. He will face stiff competition from the party’s Westminster Leader, Angus Robertson, with popular Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard and Inverclyde councillor Christopher McEleney also in the race. With his campaign formally launched in Edinburgh today, Smith’s pitch is heavily focused on the expertise he can bring to bear on European issues and their likely prominence for the foreseeable future.

Both Smith and Labour’s David Martin were appointed to the Standing Council on Europe, the creation of which was announced by the First Minister at the end of June. Chaired by University of Glasgow Principal, Anton Muscatelli, and with a membership comprising diplomats, trade unionists and business figures, it has been tasked with providing advice on the best way to maintain Scotland’s relationship with the EU. The Council met for the first time in Edinburgh last week and it stands ready to counsel when options become more clearly defined. Martin’s membership credentials are hardly in dispute. He is the UK’s longest serving MEP having first being elected in 1984 and his time in the European Parliament has included a spell as Senior Vice-President with responsibility for relations with national and regional parliaments.

David Coburn’s future is less clear: At the moment, he resembles a horse hitched the wrong way to the back of a locomotive. He expressed his regret following the resignation of Nigel Farage as Leader of UKIP but hasn’t been tempted to enter the contest to elect his replacement. Instead, he offered his backing to fellow MEP Stephen Woolfe and endorsed strict campaign rules, including the requirement for candidates to pay a £5,000 deposit, that are intended to exclude frivolous or unsavoury characters. But with the potential to make gains in England at the expense of a Labour Party in turmoil and the political consensus in Scotland so heavily favourable to the EU, the time and resources devoted to Scottish activity might dwindle considerably under a new leader. Like UKIP itself, the question of ‘mission accomplished, now what?’ attaches itself to Coburn.

With uncertainty the prevailing mood and the possibility of a separate deal for Scotland much discussed, it is reasonable to conclude Scotland’s Remain MEPs will be heavily engaged in the coming months. Experts might be almost as unpopular as politicians at the moment but it would seem wasteful not to make full use of the political expertise possessed by our MEPs. Ian Hudghton, a long-serving President of the SNP, has been a member of the European Parliament since 1998 and Catherine Stihler since 1999. Even Ian Duncan, although only elected in 2014, can draw from a considerable well of experience that includes working as the European Advisor to the Scottish Parliament and clerking for the European & External Relations Committee. He was also Head of the Scottish Parliament’s European Office in Brussels. At the risk of tempting fate, the post-referendum clamour seems to be subsiding just a little. If that is the case, those who know the EU best of all should start to receive a wider hearing.

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