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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Conversations and partnership in a new relationship with the European Union


Irene Oldfather looks forward to a new era of cooperation with Europe

Brexit cost the European Union a lot – hours of negotiations, millions of pounds and a costly and fractious divorce but as in any relationship breakdown, perhaps the biggest humiliation was the shattering of the shared dream – a united Europe where democracy, freedom and peace were the foundations on which to build a strong economy, support frictionless trade and enjoy the benefits of freedom of movement. 

Add to that the shared values on cohesion and cooperation, commitment to human rights and a common vision on social and environmental standards - just a few of the rewards of the near neighbour partnership.

Relegated to the status of a third country and often seen as difficult and unpopular to boot, the first few years of Brexit have not been without significant challenges for the UK.

For civil society in the devolved nations where there is a strong appetite for aligning to Europe, its felt a bit like waiting in a train station while the trains to Gare Schuman were passing us by.

However, there is recent reason for optimism. The structures put in place by the Withdrawal Agreement to govern the new relationship are finally gaining traction. The UK Domestic Advisory Group (DAG) set up to govern the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA)  is finding its way. It took the UK government a year longer than EU counterparts to put it in place, but it is now producing working papers on a range of relevant issues around regulatory and trading environments and setting up a sub group on Nations and Regions to ensure that any particular and differential issues relating to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the English regions are given the attention that they deserve and are accommodated within the DAG framework.

The DAG created both challenges and opportunities. The challenge – how to ensure a voice for civil society in what has, post-Brexit, become an organisationally fragmented system. The opportunity – a way to improve networks, relations and cooperation as well as comment on the implementation of the TCA.

In Scotland there has been appetite to reconnect in a positive and constructive way to Europe. And from that has emerged the Scottish Advisory Forum on Europe (SAFE) a collection of social partners interested in ensuring a forum to discuss and collect experiences of current challenges and opportunities both from the implementation of the TCA as well as identifying areas where networking and cooperation could improve early intelligence and upstream intervention, as well as share good practice.

The strapline of the new Scottish Advisory Forum on Europe is Conversations, Cooperation, Participation suggesting the potential for a linear route to better, and in some cases different, relations with our European partners and neighbours.

Building on this principle, SAFE has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the voice of civil society in Europe which has an advisory function in terms of publishing opinions and inputting to policy making at European level where it is a serious and respected partner of the European Commission.

The consequential signing of the MOU at the highest level by President Oliver Roepke demonstrates a commitment to advancing common agendas and respecting the role of civil society in taking those agendas forward. Indeed across many of these areas it feels as though it is citizens, academia, the third sector, business and young people leading the charge for greater cooperation and participation across a range of thematic areas not least of all mobility, energy, climate change and frictionless trade.

It is important to remember that when barriers to trade are unresolved, it is citizens who are the end-user and it is communities who are affected by shortages of medicines, increases in food prices, poor labelling and unsafe products.

It feels as though after seven years of very frosty dialogue since the 2016 referendum, there is finally a thawing of relations.

There is certainly improved dialogue and the EU delegation to the UK in London has taken the initiative across a range of policy areas pertinent to citizens, including holding a youth gathering in October which brought together young people from across the UK to ask them about hopes and aspirations. I was privileged to chair three of the sessions over the day and was inspired by the enthusiasm of our young people to network and mobilise to common purposes.

This is to be followed in December by a citizens’ gathering to allow opportunities to network across citizens’ groups in the UK and EU which affords at a very practical level discussion about challenges and blockages and how working together issues have the potential to be resolved upstream and early.

The EESC is looking in its opinions to connect and cooperate as the recent visit to Scotland demonstrates. The Cillian Lohan opinion on young people will draw heavily of the voices of young Scots who attended our all nation summit.       

One could imagine that the next 'gathering' supported by an EU post in the UK or one of the devolved nations could be on trade. Having a UK base and one stop shop with easy access could support business and help bring clarity and practical information in what has become a very difficult and complex landscape for business.

For too long we sat in the station waiting room, now it feels like we are slowly getting back on the train. There is no quick fix to where we sit. It will take time to rebuild relationships. No matter what your view is constitutionally on Scotland, the UK and Europe, no matter whether you are, leave or rejoin, it has to augur well for citizens and business to have the opportunity to input to decisions that impact on their livelihood.

Through the DAG and SAFE, through conversations, cooperation and partnership the channels of communication are open and it is for us to identify where we can, successfully, collaborate for the benefit of our communities. The recent agreement on the opening up of the €95 billion Euro Horizon programme on Research and Innovation to the UK as a third country is a prime example of how working together we can achieve so much more.

Civil society has a role to play in keeping the dialogue open and constructive.

Irene Oldfather is chair of Scottish Advisory Forum on Europe; vice chair of UK Domestic Advisory Group; a director of Alliance; former MSP, and a member of EESC and European Committee of the Regions.



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