John Edward: Door that swings open to real opportunities

Businesses or organisations looking for an introduction to Europe have a valuable ally, writes John Edward

Businesses or organisations looking for an introduction to Europe have a valuable ally, writes John Edward

Europe or the EU is not a single political issue for Scottish and UK debate. It is an entire, cross-sector policy process. Recent speculation from all sides about being all “in” or all “out” – whether as an independent UK or an independent Scotland – is just guess work. The absolutist positions of either can’t, and won’t, be proved until small matters like referendums happen first.

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Meantime, the world still turns. Earlier this month saw the typically modest anniversary of a body which has probably done more than any other to keep Scottish interests at the heart of Europe. Steering well away from the often zero-sum politics around the European Union itself, Scotland Europa – a coalition of Scottish public and private interests – marked 20 years of “networking Scotland in Europe”. Celebrations out of the way, its constituent members returned to planning their role in Europe for the next two decades – recognising that little stays static in the EU for long.

Placing Scotland’s potential future in a European context is nothing new - the 1997 White Paper which laid the gound work for the creation of the Scottish parliament made explicit reference to a Scottish presence in Brussels. Five years before, as the Single Market and the Maastricht Treaty came to life, Scotland Europa itself was born in Brussels. It is a sign of how much water has flowed under bridges since then that the political midwife was Ian Lang, a Scottish Conservative Secretary of State.

In those days, the EU was a Community of 12, economic and monetary union was a work in progress, the Schengen agreement on open borders had still to take effect and Jacques Delors’ Commission was in its pomp. The ECU and Euro have been through some up and downs since then, but membership of the Union overall has grown first north, then east and south to over double what it was twenty years ago. For Scotland, the main priority in Europe 20 years ago was access to, and effective use of, structural funds, in the pre-enlargement days when parts of Scotland were consistently amongst the most needy in Europe.

Ambitions, however, soon developed beyond tracking down money. The EU’s methods of working – managing both legislation and funding – had earned a reputation for labyrinthine impenetrability. However, given the enormous amount at stake for member states, businesses and related interest groups, Brussels often repaid a little hard work. A vast range of issues and opportunities focused around the EU institutions and were central then, as now, to how the continent worked. Scotland’s choice then was to be on the ground and at the heart.

If sheer weight of numbers were any indication of the presence of opportunities for business, then Brussels is still Aladdin’s cave. Calculations estimate more than 20,000 lobbyists, consultants and interest “representatives” living and working in Brussels. In the sphere of offices representing “regional” concerns – of which Scotland Europa is still one – there are well over 250 based full-time within the confines of the Brussels ring-road.

This is not merely an opportunistic presence. Close attention to the workings of the EU has always been necessary to avoid unpleasant surprises from the legislative pipeline years downstream, which can have a profound impact on working standards and practices. Outcry in the UK media, and some political circles, over EU legislation traditionally ignores that timeline and focuses on the kitchen tap rather than the reservoir.

The creation of a single market with four freedoms for trade has been the Community’s single most notable achievement. As early as 1957, the Treaty of Rome made explicit reference to “progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade”.

Scotland Europa recognised that focus by bringing together a loose coalition of the economic development agencies and other public bodies, chambers of commerce, higher education, trade unions, local government and some major companies; all of which recognised the EU’s growing influence on them.

The multiplier effect of a wide membership base was clear – any information passed down the chain reached several hundred organisations and any interest that the information generated could be conveyed back to the centre of Brussels, to within metres of the major institutions. A key player in all of this was Scottish Enterprise, and Highlands and Islands Enterpise, which was and remains the principal stakeholder and supporter of Scotland Europa. It is an under-rated credit to chief executives from Crawford Beveridge to Lena Wilson that they have kept faith in the support of a strong, competent voice for Scottish interests in Brussels.

Aside from active and sustained participation in European Structural and Social Funds, Scotland has been an increasingly inventive recipient of research funding and other, non-geographic, forms of EU support. The success in policy terms is harder to measure but many times more important. Scotland Europa sits amongst the key legislative bodies of the European Union, competing for space, individual powers and architectural inventiveness. Even the least communitaire member state, the United Kingdom, ends up on the winning side of key votes in ministerial council more than 90 per cent of the time. That drive for consensus across so many countries means that early awareness of how draft policy might affect local interests is often as important as the final vote. While a truly common foreign or justice agenda still eludes the 27 Member States, the EU has had the sole right of negotiation in common commercial policy for decades – a fact not lost on the hundreds of multi-national companies and third country embassies based within a couple of kilometres of Scotland Europa. These are useful neighbours to have – whether from a “smart successful Scotland” or a “wealthier, fairer and greener” one.

In 1992, as now, the framework that now exists within the EU – financial, legislative and judicial – is in many ways the basic law for companies and individuals in Europe. Recognising the depth and scope of that structure is in itself a way of opening doors to greater possibilities, or at least understanding where the limits and traps lie. Much has changed in Scotland in twenty years but for many, the first door has led to Scotland Europa.

• John Edward is the former head of the European Parliament Office in Scotland