EXACTLY a year ago, few would have thought that 2021 would start the way it did. The UK stared down the barrel of a No-Deal Brexit until the very last minute and the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to deal severe blows to the country.

This year will be a period of readjustment, not just for businesses but for citizens as well. The end of freedom of movement for the UK means that from January 1 newcomers fell under the new points-based immigration system which will decide if they have the right to live and work here while people from the UK will face similar barriers on the continent. EU citizens who already live in the UK need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme as soon as possible, the deadline for submitting the application being June 30, 2021.

Cultural diplomacy and influence

Embassies and consulates have, since the 2016 EU referendum, helped their citizens navigate this unstable period and provided as much support as possible during the coronavirus crisis. The French General Consulate in Edinburgh has been no exception.

But it does more than provide consular services: it is an “influence consulate” and its role is to encourage and further relations between Scotland and France. French businesses are the second-biggest investors in Scotland’s economy after the United States and France is Scotland’s second-biggest export market after the US as well. This is a major relationship, which might explain why the French representation in Scotland is located in the heart of Edinburgh, in a magnificent building on the Royal Mile.

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“We immediately saw why it would be interesting to be in the heart of the city, very visible, with an ideal location and the possibility to welcome shows and conferences in excellent conditions,” French Consul Laurence Pais says. “We also needed to show how close the French-Scottish cultural relation is, hence the search for partners with whom we work all year long: the Edinburgh Art Festival and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Then, we have the bistro which represents France well and creates a little corner of France in Edinburgh.”

As director of the Institut Français d’Ecosse, which promotes the French language and France’s culture, cultural diplomacy represents a huge part of her work here. “We also promote the relationship between France and Scotland through the organisation of events. The Edinburgh Fringe is an important moment where we have this Franco-Scottish approach.”

Scotland and EU affairs

However, some opposition parties have questioned whether diplomacy is really something that Scotland should worry about, arguing that foreign affairs aren’t devolved. Political scientist and analyst Anthony Salamone says it shouldn’t be so controversial: EU affairs and foreign affairs are two different things, and it makes sense to work with immediate neighbours. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable for Scotland to have substantial relations with all levels of the EU institutions, of the national governments of member states, and of subnational governments of member states,” he says. “I really wish that we had a political culture that recognised that that is normal and that, indeed, the only way for the Scottish Government to effectively manage its devolved competences is to engage with others at European level.”

Scotland’s alternative voice

Although Scotland is officially out of the EU, it doesn’t mean that links will necessarily disappear, far from it: especially because Scotland is making it abundantly clear that it doesn’t intend to stray away from Europe anytime soon. “We’re not an independent country... Not yet”, Jenny Gilruth, Scotland’s Minister for Europe and International Development, said. “And so there are limitations in terms of what we can do. But what we can do certainly is reach out to our European friends and neighbours. The Continuity Bill (passed by the Scottish Parliament on December 22), says something about our values in Scotland.

“What it does is it aligns us with key European standards, for example with regard to the environment. We want to keep aligned because fundamentally we want to get back into the European Union. So for us, it’s a hugely important piece of legislation which sends a message to our European friends and neighbours that we don’t want to leave and we want to stay with you.”

This discourse is allowing Scotland to have a voice that is now clearly perceived in the EU as alternative to the UK’s voice, says Salamone. “There’s a big difference now between Scotland and the UK, which many people in Scotland may say was always there, but it was not obvious to people outside of the UK, which is that Scotland is a pro-European place. Scotland knows why it makes sense to work together in the European Union and the people of Scotland have clearly demonstrated that. Not just in the referendum, but in subsequent elections and opinion polls. And it’s such a contrast with the UK Government: the way in which Brexit has happened, the chaotic and insulting way, the inflammatory rhetoric and so on, which has come from the UK Government throughout the Brexit process.”

“That means that there is space for Scotland to try to work together with various actors in the European Union. I think people will be more receptive to working with Scotland because they are aware that they share that common ground in terms of believing in what the European Union is about. I think that the UK won’t have that. And so I think that there are opportunities there. But you have to be clever enough, to be crafty in terms of finding those opportunities.”

The Scottish Government hubs in Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Dublin, London, Ottawa, Paris, London and Washington DC are precisely fulfilling this role of promoting Scotland’s interests overseas and strengthening relationships with countries, the Europe Minister says.

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“They’re hugely important to us because they give us a network in these countries and areas to allow us to get our message out there. We see them as a key part of saying something about our values to the world.”

Since it started operating a couple of years ago, the Paris office for example has been particularly busy focusing on climate change. Fifteen French territories, including the City of Paris, have so far signed the Edinburgh Biodiversity Declaration and an invitation to tender was launched in November in the field of green hydrogen production, drawing from French and Scottish expertise, among many other initiatives.

This is about the people too

Crucially, the hubs are not inventing those links: they are mostly building on numerous relations that already exist between universities, businesses and various organisations, and aiming to help them overcome barriers to thrive.

These links are about people too, and the respect and friendship that bind them. Brexit and the end of the transition period will not change that, according to Pais. Reflecting on the Auld Alliance, she says: “Scotland has an extremely positive, albeit a bit romantic, image in France. I am always struck by the reasons why French people decided to live here. They either studied in a Scottish university for a semester or a year or spent a weekend here and it was love at first sight: they leave everything and come here”, she says.

“Of course they love the natural beauty, the quality of life, but more importantly people’s kindness, this society that feels open, inclusive, where everybody has a place and where as long as you live here, you’re Scottish. It is very much appreciated, even with those who haven’t been here a long time. They are seeking social links, a feeling of belonging to a community.”