The National:

IT'S an intense moment for the discussion of European and international policy at SNP conference. The global climate emergency is still far from being fully addressed; the Covid-19 pandemic is not over, even if there’s light at the end of the tunnel on vaccines, and the economic impacts will be with countries around the world for years ahead. Closer to home, the UK has left the EU – and the step into a hard Brexit future will take place in just one month’s time, deal or no deal.

More positively, a new president, Joe Biden, will take over in the US in less than two months. The European Union is pushing forward both its European green deal and its serious and major recovery strategy from the pandemic, although funding for the latter is getting entangled in resistance from Poland and Hungary to a basic rule of law mechanism (that their own behaviour makes urgently necessary).

In this context, it would be easy to label the conference resolution on Scotland in the world, with its emphasis on Scotland as a good global citizen, as somewhat motherhood and apple pie. But the damage that Brexit – and the UK Government’s handling of it – has done to the UK’s reputation and influence in the last four and a half years is immense. So, any efforts to maintain and project Scotland’s European and international goals, and current relationships and policies, as cooperative, engaged and principled is surely both important and welcome. And an emphasis on rejoining the EU, welcoming EU citizens’ contribution to and presence in Scotland, promoting human rights, supporting international development (including the 0.7% of GDP target just abandoned by the UK Government), treating climate change as an emergency, and being open to migration, are all welcome policy aims.

The conference resolution called on the Scottish government to develop a new international policy framework – that can be used both now and as a basis for a future independent foreign policy. This is where the real challenge lies: building coherent and strategic policies towards the EU and the wider world, despite Brexit and despite the limits of devolved powers.

It will require a serious step up in policy and strategy – and resources. Headline goals on climate, trade, human rights and development, and opposition to Brexit, are a good start. But then there needs to be a focus on real in-depth policy, particularly across Europe and in the EU which needs to be at the heart of any Scottish foreign policy. There are big but fundamental debates in the EU, alongside the European Green Deal and the Covid recovery strategy. France’s president Macron is keen for the EU to develop what he calls strategic autonomy, Germany is less keen. Brussels has produced a positive, new policy paper on future EU-US relations but the devil is in the detail. Scotland needs to show it can contribute to these focused debates just as smaller EU states do.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon: SNP will commit to referendum in early part of next parliament

Look at any of the smaller EU member states – whether the Czech Republic, Ireland, Denmark or Sweden for instance – and all of these put their European policy at the heart of their wider foreign policy. Scotland can learn a lot from how these smaller EU states develop their foreign policies. More Scottish engagement in the EU’s key strategic policy debates would be welcome. And Scotland would benefit a lot from expanding its existing range of EU offices (currently in Berlin, Dublin, Paris and Brussels).

Nicola Sturgeon was clear in her closing speech that Scotland aims for independence in the EU. And Mike Russell also underlined the work his team are doing to ensure they have in-depth knowledge of the full range of EU laws and policies that an independent Scotland would need to take on board in an EU accession process. This is all vital. But answers are needed too on the difficult challenges that will be posed in economic relationships with the rest of the UK, at the border and elsewhere, if an independent Scotland is an EU member state while the rest of the UK is outside.

These are some of the challenges for developing a truly strategic international and European policy in the months ahead.