THREE years ago, on January 31, 2020, the UK left the European Union following the results of the June 23, 2016, Brexit referendum.

That vote was 52% to 48% across the UK; Scotland voted 62% to 38% Remain, with its vote completely ignored by successive Tory governments.

Scotland’s democratic wishes have been ignored and run roughshod over by the UK Government and the hard Brexit of Tory ultra-Brexiteers. Their only real defence for ignoring Scotland’s wishes is that the 2016 vote was a UK-wide vote about taking the entire UK out of the EU.

Besides that threadbare explanation is the thin argument from Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack that there is “no desire in Scotland to have membership of the EU” which he recently told the House of Commons – this when 72% of people in Scotland have indicated they want to rejoin the EU.

The UK’s hard Brexit – one that was never explicitly on offer before or endorsed in the 2016 vote – has become to the ultra-Brexiteers and right-wing press “the will of the people”.

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And as such this hard Brexit is one that the UK Government, Labour opposition and much of the media do not want to name, talk about or understand as such.

This hard Brexit has caused far-reaching damage to the UK economy, society and businesses; inconveniencing people, travel, trade and commerce. It is now synonymous with a hard right-wing ideologue project to tear down regulations and deregulate the UK.

This is what is behind the UK Government’s Retained EU Law Bill which plans to take 4000 EU-derived pieces of legislation out of UK law, trashing rights across areas people take for granted such as consumer and environmental protections.

It has jeopardised the Northern Irish peace process and Good Friday Agreement. The UK Government’s hard Brexit combined with the hardline stance of the DUP has led to political instability in Northern Ireland.

Stormont has not been re-established and relations between the UK and the EU and US have soured. All because the DUP represent a minority of a minority in the province: 41% of Unionist voters in Northern Ireland agree with the party’s no-compromise position on the protocol.

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This has diminished the UK. There is no “global Britain” for all the Brexit triumphalism, but a shrunken, isolated, declinist Britain. And, alarmingly, one which at the highest levels of government has weakened its key strategic international alliances and relationships, namely with the EU and US, and undermined the basis of UK foreign policy since 1945.

Despite the unpopularity of Brexit across the UK, majority support for rejoining the EU and a growing “Bregret” across society, there will not in the near future be another UK-wide referendum on membership of the EU.

Anand Menon, director of the UK In A Changing Europe initiative, recently oversaw the publication of the organisation’s report, Where Next? The Future of the UK-EU Relationship. He states about the UK’s future: “How might relations change in the coming years? The short answer is that change is likely to be slow and incremental [with] no sudden UK rush to join the customs union or single market.”

All this hurts Scotland. As Kirsty Hughes, previously head of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, puts it: “Scotland had almost no input into the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and its views now on relations with the EU are not influential with the UK Government nor Labour opposition. So, while the EU still views Scotland sympathetically given Brexit, Scotland is not seen as significant to the UK-EU relationship.”

Scotland is a European country. A country which sees its connection and future as being with our friends and neighbours on the continent. How then can this democratic aspiration be fulfilled? What is our route back to Europe and how can we realistically progress it?

Scotland’s European fate involves more than the EU. It has to include debate about not only how we realise our European credentials, but also how we talk about the different choices involved in making this real.

This entails addressing nuanced, complex European issues beyond just asserting that Scotland has a pro-EU majority that has been thwarted – it must instead examine the spectrum of European choices.

The “Europe for Scotland” declaration of May 2021 saw thousands of EU citizens and public figures make common cause with Scotland. They stated that Scotland’s EU status was linked to the cause of self-government and a pan-European issue, not just an internal UK matter.

Anthony Barnett, one of the original supportersan author and activist, and co-founder of Europe for Scotland, said at the time: “We want to shift the narrative from Trumpite rhetoric of negativity, hostility and separation to positive and intelligent solidarity”. These are qualities still needed today.

THERE are different European futures which need exploring. There is for example a lack of substantive SNP deliberations on a Europe which has changed dramatically since the party came up with its “independence in Europe” policy in 1988.

Then the European Union was the European Economic Community (EEC), and it only had 12 members as opposed to the present 27. And Europe as a continent was divided by the Cold War and Iron Curtain – without mentioning Brexit.

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As the EU has enlarged and deepened, so the stand of the SNP should have shifted, as it should have done post-2014 and in light of Brexit. For example, what kind of Scotland-EU relationship do people regard as most ideal?

Is European Free Trade Association (EFTA) membership and some kind of associate relationship with the EU more desirable or practicable, at least in the short term? What of the shibboleth of “a hard border” between an independent Scotland in the EU and the rest of the UK, specifically England? Then there is the question of the Schengen visa-free travel area, which 23 of 27 EU members and four EFTA members are in.

There’s also the currency question and issue of future membership of the euro. Could the examples of Switzerland (EFTA member) and Norway (EFTA and European Economic Area member) provide relevant examples for Scotland in the short term and perhaps even the longer term?

All of this has a major impact on Scotland’s European future and upon the politics of independence. Many of the big questions that Scotland must face to address its relationship with the EU are the same issues which could prove to be tripwires on independence. And hence they are not concerns which can just be marginalised or kicked into the long grass now.

The forces of Scotland’s democratic pro-European majority must assert themselves and talk as the majority they are. In so doing they need to navigate the difficult divisions which cut through lthat bloc – between being pro-independence and pro-Union, while alongside this, the pro-European dimension cuts through the independence camp.

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Such differences can only be addressed and overcome by explicitly talking about the kind of European future and EU relationship that Scotland aspires to. That means drawing from the democratic injustice that has seen Scotland dragged from the EU against its will. It means drawing on the influence of Scotland’s para-diplomacy; its network of consuls and Scottish Government offices in Brussels, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin and Paris, while working with the solidarity for Scotland’s position across EU capitals.

This means democracy has to be at the heart of Scotland’s European aspirations – but this on its own is not enough. We have to shout our pro-EU credentials from the rooftops, speak for the majority of Scots, and continually challenge the hard Brexit the Tories have imposed at such devastating cost.

Democracy, Europe and independence all have to be more than distant abstract principles if Scotland is to realise its future as a European country. Detail needs to be fleshed out on each, work done, and the different choices faced up to.

This should not be something anyone should shy away from, be afraid of, or think of as secondary importance.

Scotland’s desire to be a European country is part of the tapestry that makes us distinct and apart from the project of British exceptionalism and English nationalism which fuels the fantasies of a hard Brexit.

Scotland is a European country – one with a past, present and future connected to Europe.

This is who we are and can make even more concrete – internationalist, outward-looking, collaborating with others and part of something bigger than ourselves.

But there is a difficult path and set of obstacles to navigate, as well as alliances and co-operation to be made closer to home.