I REGULARLY write in this paper about European issues and why they matter to Scotland and the independence movement.

Having spent 16 years as an MEP as well as having studied in the EU, I can quite rightfully be accused of some bias towards it – one though which is certainly rooted in the benefits of what EU membership meant for Scotland!

EU membership, after all, is what helped reverse the long-term decline in Scotland’s population. The single market and customs union meant Scottish goods could flow seamlessly across our continent, boosting our economy after the devastation wracked by Thatcherism. The EU’s structural funds built new bridges, roads and causeways in parts of our country long neglected by the Union.

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That’s not to say that the EU is perfect – no human institution is – but inside the EU we were a constructive voice working alongside our fellow Europeans to build a better continent.

SNP MEPs frequently articulated how we could reform programmes such as the Common Agricultural Policy or Common Fisheries Policy. We pushed for EU enlargement. And we fought for fairer trade deals which protected human rights and our planet.

There are many tragedies to Brexit but for me the biggest is the denial of future opportunities for our young people to live, work, study and travel without restrictions across our shared continent. The UK has at least finally woken up to the folly of remaining outside Horizon Europe but the Westminster parties remain opposed to Erasmus+, further restricting the opportunities for Scottish students to study abroad.

When the EU proposed a sensible Youth Exchange Mobility Scheme, the Tories and Labour raced each other to see who could dismiss it first, without considering the benefits that this could bring to the employment prospects of our young people.

Despite Westminster’s efforts, where there is a will, there is a way. I am delighted to see the youth wing of the SNP – the Young Scots for Independence (YSI) – are hosting their second international conference in the ancient capital of Scotland, Stirling. Having held a successful conference last year in Edinburgh, this edition sees delegates from across Europe come together to find ways to build ties and find solutions to shared issues in this post-Brexit era, pre-independence era.

This type of European solidarity is particularly important in today’s uncertain world. Ukraine continues its fight to defend itself against a revanchist Russia. Populist far-right parties are growing in strength and we in the centre-left must find effective ways to meet the challenge directly. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change continue to become clearer with more extreme weather events affecting all of us and posing new social, economic and health challenges for our societies.

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The EU itself has sought to meet these challenges head on. Its approach to foreign affairs and security has evolved at light-speed with the European Defence Fund and the Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco) projects. The Green New Deal places Europe as a serious player at the forefront of the green transition – and the economy of the future. The EU is learning to stand on its own two feet and flex the strength of a united Europe.

For those whose values we share, it is in our mutual interest to cherish and strengthen these ties that bind. When Scotland completes the devolution journey and becomes independent, our accession case will be judged by politicians, activists and officials across the EU – the more first-hand experience of Scotland to hand, the better.

Equally, it will be good for us to know where the EU is coming from, the challenges it is facing and how we can work together to address them. It is, as this year’s conference slogan says, “Our European Future”.

So hats off to the YSI for once again organising this year’s conference and I look forward to meeting all the delegates this weekend – more power to your collective elbows!