NEWS

More regional representation in the EU

The Olympics did much to dispel the impression of Greece as simply a land of beaches and antiquities as visitors were exposed to the modern city, its people and contemporary culture. One of the visitors, Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell, was here not only to enjoy the Games but to develop contacts with other countries to show that Scotland is much more than just the homeland of «Braveheart,» just as Greece is much more than its ancient ruins. During his visit, McConnell spoke to Kathimerini about devolution, relations with the UK central government and the place of regional governments within the European Union. What did you think of the organization of the Olympic Games? I think this has been a very great Olympics. Greece and Athens have managed to organize probably the most difficult Games and they have done it very, very well. It is very obvious that Greeks have been behind the effort. I’m sure that everybody who came to these Olympics will want to come back to Athens and Greece. The experience of the Commonwealth Games two years ago in Manchester was very interesting, because until then the city couldn’t really compete with London. However, they handled it well, and it transformed the image of Manchester as a modern, lively city where people can have a really good time. I think these Games will have changed that impression of Athens, that it will not just be known for its great history but for good organization. I think the organization here is at least as good as, if not better than Manchester and the World Championships in Paris [in 2003]. You have embarked on an effort to change Scotland’s international image. What is the reason for this campaign? We have a fantastic history and some very proud traditions. Scotland’s reputation across the world is of a country with a past and a beautiful landscape, as seen in films such as «Braveheart,» but not necessarily as a country which has modern dynamic cities, a young population, good universities, some extremely successful companies, new markets and new sectors in marketing and new media, technology, science and so on. I think we need to make this known internationally. So I am on a mission to do that. I am very keen to change our international image and let everybody know that Scotland is a modern country. Scotland today is no more like the Scotland of «Braveheart» than Greece today is like some of the old chariot movies. It’s a modern country and Athens is a modern city. I think we need to move on. We want people to come to Scotland, not just to study, to do business or visit as tourists, but a country to come and live and work in. Here we will be meeting with Greeks who have studied in Scotland to learn from their experiences – Greeks are the second-largest group of foreign students at Scotland’s universities – as well as Greeks who work for Scottish companies. We will be providing information locally, also advertising and providing information through Scottish companies, improving contacts with many thousands of people across the world who have studied at Scottish universities. In 1998, Scotland acquired its own Parliament and local government. What have been the political repercussions of the devolution? We now have control over most of our own domestic affairs. That has been a challenge but it’s also an opportunity to ensure that we have laws and government policies that are more relevant to Scotland. But we also have used the opportunity of devolution to revitalize our identity and cultural activities, to build a new relationship between politicians and business, which is much better than before. We are also looking at long-term issues such as attracting fresh talent to Scotland to help increase the population, improving healthcare and providing skills for young people. Scotland is a much better place to be than it was five years ago. What are relations like between the Scottish government and London? In Scotland we deal with education, housing, health, business development, the environment, the criminal justice system, civil justice system, all these important areas. The UK deals with issues such as foreign policy and macroeconomic policy. Relations are good with London, much better than I ever expected. We have developed good systems to maintain good relations. In Scotland we have a coalition, Labour and the Liberals, in London we have Labour in power. If that situation were to change, then that would be very interesting. These relationships exist elsewhere in the world, such as in Germany, and it is possible for them to exist in the UK too. Are there areas in which you disagree with London? Our education system is very different to the English system. In Scotland we have a powerful tradition of local education and a strong university tradition and we develop policies that support that system. I definitely have a very strong view about the relationship between ourselves and London, which is that they shouldn’t interfere in our decisions nor we in theirs. So we have a «concordat» that establishes that kind of relationship. But there are areas of foreign policy where we have an interest. We have a very strong interest in the European Union and we have a direct relationship with Brussels. We have a big office in Brussels, we work with the Commission and the Council. We work with the UK, but we also have some direct representations. We want the regional governments to have more influence at the center of Europe, not just the national governments involved… The Scots have always been very internationalist in their outlook. More money is raised for international charities in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, so when there is a need for support for international aid and development, then we are willing to help with that. How do you see the future of regional government? I have been a very strong supporter of enlargement as being very important politically and economically for the continent as a whole. But I think we have to make sure enlargement is a success. As we have 25-30 nation states that are members, then the EU has to give more recognition to local and regional identities, they need to work hard to ensure the small countries have their say and are not marginalized by the larger countries. The EU has to be more flexible.