Thanks to all of you for that welcome. And thanks also to M100 for the work that you do. Strong independent media organisations are an essential part of any democratic society. And so the work of organisations like M 100 isn’t just important to the people in this room. It is vital to sustaining democracy and free expression across Europe.
For that reason alone, I am delighted to be here this evening. But in addition, having seen the list of previous winners of this award- some of whom, quite literally, have risked their lives for press freedom – I am immensely honoured.
And in some respects, I must confess, I am quite surprised. I have been given this award for standing strongly against Brexit, and for supporting the European Union. However those stances do not strike me as being exceptional. They seem entirely natural to me and to most people in Scotland.
I’m going to explain why that is in my remarks this evening. And the best starting point I can think of, is a speech made by Chancellor Merkel at this event nine years ago. She argued that a country’s policies “represent its interests based on its values”.
Scotland is, and I think always will be, a committed supporter of the European Union – not simply because membership is so obviously in our interests, but because membership accords so completely with our values.
So I will focus on those values this evening.
But before I do that – although with some regret – I think I should probably offer some reflections on what’s been happening in the UK.
The UK Parliament has been shut down for 5 weeks – at a time of mounting political crisis – because of an order from the Executive. That order was ruled unlawful by a Scottish court last week, and is now the subject of a Supreme Court hearing.
There is still a very real risk of the UK leaving the European Union without a deal. That’s because, rather than seeking compromise either in the UK or with our European partners, the new UK Government has chosen an even harder line position.
Indeed a UK Government minister has recently resigned as she believed pursuing No Deal was in fact the government’s main objective.
It’s maybe hard to find a note of hope in all of that. But there are one or two. In particular, members of parliament are working across parties to reduce the damage Brexit could cause. My own party has played a committed and constructive role in that process.
That is why parliament two weeks ago required the UK Government to request an extension to the Article 50 period, if a deal has not been agreed by the 19th of October.
It is almost certain that an extension – if granted – would be used for a UK general election.
In that election my party will argue unambiguously in favour of continued EU membership.
And in the new session of Parliament that will follow, we will continue to work with other parties. We want to secure a further UK-wide referendum, which includes the option of remaining in the EU.
I know many of you in this room will understandably want an end to this saga. Some of you will long for a Brexit withdrawal deal to be agreed.
But I hope you will also understand the Scottish Government’s position. We did not ask for, or want, a referendum on EU membership in 2016. When it came, people in Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain.
The new UK Prime Minister’s ultimate desired destination is a free trade agreement. That would be a much harder Brexit, even than was put forward by Theresa May. As well as putting the UK outside the Single Market and Customs Union, it would also remove some of the so-called “level playing field” clauses in the Political Declaration.
Indeed, whatever the outcome of an election, the issue of Brexit is likely to dominate politics in Westminster for many years to come. There is, in truth, no end in sight to the chaos, and Scotland’s place in Europe is likely to remain precarious.
There is even talk of an alliance between Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
As a devolved government with responsibility over important domestic policy, we are doing what we can to remain aligned with the EU. In our latest Programme for Government we announced a Continuity Bill. It will enable Scotland to “keep pace” with European regulations in devolved policy areas.
It is an important practical and symbolic step. It means that even if Scotland is forced to leave the EU, we maintain the EU standards, and we will therefore be better placed to rejoin.
But there is a limited amount we can do.
That is why I believe it is right to offer the people of Scotland a choice over their future. We should have the opportunity to become an independent country and EU member in our own right.
The referendum process must be beyond legal challenge – to ensure its legitimacy both in Scotland and in the wider international community.
And the debate over our future must also be as constructive and informed as possible. That’s why we are in the process of appointing a citizens’ assembly. I know that that is something Dr Schauble has championed in Germany, too. Scotland’s assembly will look at issues such as the information that people will need in order to have an informed debate about the future.
There is of course a very important point here. Nobody in the UK – and indeed across Europe – can fail to be concerned about the polarisation of political debate caused by the Brexit experience.
However Scotland – like any country – cannot simply ignore or suppress differing views about the best future for our country.
Instead, we must find ways of debating our choices respectfully and in a way that seeks maximum areas of agreement. That is what I will try to do in the months and years ahead.
In all of this, I will do whatever I can to secure Scotland’s future as a European nation. After all, that is what people in Scotland want.
I have already mentioned the strong majority for remain in the 2016 referendum. In June’s European elections, there was again an overwhelming majority for remain parties.
That is partly because Scotland so clearly benefits from EU membership. It is good for our businesses, our universities, and our people – who have the freedom to study, live and work across the continent. Scotland has also been enriched by the many EU citizens who have done us the honour of making Scotland their home.
But our desire for EU membership is about far more than self-interest. Fundamentally, it is about values.
The EU’s fundamental values are ones we cherish – freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality, and respect for human dignity and human rights.
A good example of this, which I know is close to this gathering’s heart, is the EU’s support for a strong, free and independent media – not just in the EU, but in enlargement countries and elsewhere. This isn’t simply expressed through policy statements – but through practical and financial support for journalists’ associations, and projects to build trust in the media.
More generally, however, the basic principle the EU exemplifies – of independent countries working together for a common good – appeals to Scotland.
We recognise the benefits of pooling sovereignty on the basis of partnership. And we have seen how smaller countries in the EU can amplify their influence by making alliances to bring about positive change.
In particular, over the past three years we have seen the European Union standing up, and showing solidarity, for Ireland. It has shown clearly – and I think this will be long remembered in Scotland – that sovereignty is enhanced, not diminished, by membership of the EU.
That basic principle is perhaps particularly important when we look at the major challenges the world currently faces. Scotland wants to make a positive contribution to the world – but we know we can do that more effectively, as part of the EU.
Climate change provides an obvious example. Two years ago, I was in Bonn for the 23rd Conference of the Parties – or COP23. Next year, Glasgow will be a proud host to COP26. We hope to extend as warm a welcome to the world, as North Rhine Westphalia offered to us in 2017.
Regardless of our constitutional circumstances – Scotland is determined to show leadership in tackling climate change. But we know that we can contribute more as part of the European Union; and that the EU will act a bit more effectively with Scotland’s contribution.
The same is true in other areas – for example the rise of new technology. Scotland currently has a growing reputation as a tech hub.
But it is absolutely clear that the European Union – representing a market of 500 million people – is better able to set minimum standards for technology companies than Scotland would be on our own.
And when we consider these sorts of issues, I think you can start to see just how unique the European Union is.
It is hard to think of another international body which grapples so consistently and in such detail with a key dilemma all advanced nations face –how do we benefit from internationalisation, free trade, and technological advances, while also maintaining minimum standards, and protecting the welfare of individual citizens?
The European Union doesn’t have all of the answers. No organisation or individual does.
But when you look at its overall record – not just in promoting trade, but on protecting the environment, improving consumer safety, and enhancing employment rights – its achievements are impressive. We should never shy away from identifying the EU’s shortcomings; but we also need to do far more to celebrate its successes.
And we should also remember that above all else, the EU is a peace project.
In June I attended commemoration events for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. At an event like that, it is impossible not to reflect on the carnage this continent has seen within some people’s lifetimes. And it is impossible not to marvel at the achievements of the post-war generation who helped to build a better Europe.
The EU still shines out as one of those achievements. It is as institution where trade-offs, consensus and details are prized – not as ends in themselves – but as necessary means for achieving prosperity, equality and peace.
At a time when the rule-based international order is under threat, it exemplifies the benefits of co-operation and solidarity.
In a world of great trading blocks, it strives to promote free trade while protecting people’s wellbeing.
And at time when voices of intolerance and protectionism seem to be on the rise, its fundamental values – of peaceful democratic co-operation – seem more precious, and perhaps more fragile, than they have done in at least a generation.
The European Union is not perfect. But no organisation has done more to promote – not just prosperity, but also freedom, democracy and human rights across the continent.
For all of these reasons Scotland sees the EU as a natural home. We will always promote and support its work. I hope that we will be able to do so as a member, for many years to come.
I am grateful to all of you for your kind remarks this evening. I am honoured to accept this award. And I wish M100 all the best for the future, in your hugely important work.