MP for North East Fife Stephen Gethins has said he is “really worried” about what a No-Deal Brexit could do to St Andrews.
Speaking to The Saint, Mr Gethins described the UK government’s handling of Brexit as a “shitshow” and called for a People’s Vote and a postponement to Article 50.
At the time of writing, Britain looks set to leave the European Union (EU) on 29 March without a deal, after Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal was voted down in parliament by a historically large margin. Mr Gethins, the Scottish National Party (SNP) spokesperson on Europe at Westminster and member of the foreign affairs committee, expressed his concern for what a No Deal Brexit could do to St Andrews.
“[St Andrews has] one of the best universities in the world. But it relies on that funding and the ability to collaborate with other European Universities under the umbrella of Horizon 2020 and the common criteria that you signed up to. You need to be tapping into a global talent pool, and that means that freedom of movement becomes important.
“I remember meeting a team at the School of Medicine doing amazing work on dyslexia and neurology, and the team was headed by an Italian. Of the team of 20, three were UK nationals. The second team came from elsewhere in the EU, and they were all worried.
“If you’ve got an EU passport, you’ve got just as much right to live and work here and consider yourself as belonging to here as anybody else does. These are our friends, our neighbours, who happen to have a different European passport.
“St Andrews benefits from being a diverse and interesting place to live because we bring in so many people, because you can pull from that European talent pool. If we are outside of that we are less competitive. This is a better place to live and work because of its diversity.”
Mr Gethins also said the food and drinks industry, along with tourism, would suffer as a consequence of no Freedom of Movement under the current Brexit proposals. “The biggest thing is I don’t know what for. Why are we leaving the EU? All anyone can say to me is because we voted to leave. Well that’s fine, but there must be something aspirational here. There must be something better that you wanted to replace it with. It’s a myth, it’s a unicorn, it’s a series of unicorns. In fact, it is a blessing of unicorns, that is the collective.
“I am somebody who personally benefited from ERASMUS and working overseas, so why should I deprive the generation who come after me of the opportunities that I have had without knowing what the alternative is?”
Mr Gethins talked of how he had been able to collaborate with MPs from across the political divide through his work on the foreign affairs committee, which scrutinises the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Yet despite his efforts to build relationships with backbenchers, he said, “the current government’s engagement with even their own party as well as other parties has been exceptionally poor.
“I think that we struggle by having two particularly weak leaders of the two biggest political parties… We are in a weak place at the moment, we need people with courage, people with imagination, and that is not something we see on the front benches although actually it is being driven from the back benches in the many ways.”
When asked if his work on the foreign affairs committee gave him any particular insight into the Brexit process that would not be apparent to the public, he said “it’s even more of a shitshow inside…it’s horrendous.
“Ministers are worried about food shortages, genuinely. That’s why we’ve spent hundreds of millions of pounds requisitioning ferries. You have to remember that Brexit has an impact on everything else… rather than dealing with the NHS or education or making sure your public ser vices are good, we are trying to, not making things better, but make them less bad. We’ve got a choice between bad and less bad at the moment.”
For Mr Gethins, there was no doubt over who was to blame for all this. He said “the problem is not with the EU, the problem’s not even really with parliament, the problem is with the Conservative party.
“You are sitting in a situation whereby the Conservative party is so badly divided on this and every time Theresa May is changing her mind is to try and put out a fire in her own party.
“I think the EU has shown huge flexibility in the face of the UK boxing itself in with these ridiculous red lines it’s set for itself. Also, bear in mind that the UK triggered article 50 without a plan, and the EU is not leaving the UK, it’s the other way around.
“If you’re Boris Johnson, you campaigned for Vote Leave, you’ve been foreign secretary for two years, but still not able to tell us what our relationship [with the EU] will look like, that is your failing.”
On 29 January, parliament voted to reject leaving without a deal by 318 votes to 310 but given that it was a non-binding amendment, a No Deal Brexit could still happen. Having campaigned before the referendum to remain in the EU, Mr Gethins said the best-case scenario now was to put a halt to the process by stopping Article 50, “just to give you space and time to get a solution.”
He then said, “Secondly, take no deal off the table. Then, personally, I am in favour of a People’s Vote where you have a second referendum on the final deal. I think that’s one way to undo it. One of the reasons why we are in this mess is that those who proposed [to] leave [the EU] did not set out a white paper, didn’t put out any alternatives and didn’t tell us what might happen.
“There’s a blank page there…For the Prime Minister to say unilaterally we know what everybody wanted doesn’t bear up to any kind of scrutiny.”
When asked about the prospect of a second independence referendum on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, Mr Gethins reiterated that his priorities were with Brexit and salvaging the UK’s relationship with the EU.
However, he did say, “before the EU referendum, the SNP campaigned on a manifesto commitment to have an independence referendum if there was a material change of circumstances such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will, it was a manifesto commitment. The SNP won that election.
“I think we do need to give Scotland the option to remain part of the EU since we voted for that and Scotland is a sovereign part of the UK because unlike other constitutions Scotland retains its sovereignty.”
While Mr Gethins’ pro Europe stance was clear, there was one aspect of his job that he was keen to stress. “Regardless of people’s political beliefs, what they think about Europe or independence, my day to day job is to try to help constituents…I’m here to be everybody’s MP. The student population is an integral, valuable part of our community.”
When asked what students could do, he said “get noisy, get active, make your voice known. If you are unhappy about things like ERASMUS being taken away, freedom of movement being taken away certainly for the UK citizens, but also those who want to live and work and remain here in St Andrews or in the wider UK, just get noisy about it.”