The chairman of the EU Committee of the Regions has said that leaving the EU would be “a huge mistake” for the UK and Shetland.
Speaking after a meeting of the committee in Mareel today (Friday) Raffaele Cattaneo, who is president of the Lombardy region, also pinpointed proper broadband provision throughout remote regions as the most important development for such areas.
Mr Cattaneo said: “Let me be very clear on Brexit, in my opinion Brexit has been a great mistake for the United Kingdom. But, till now, in absence of an agreement between the negotiators, under the actual legal framework, the United Kingdom is completely part of Europe.
“The Committee of the Regions is and will be completely committed to co-operate with the UK authorities. So I think we have to show the best face of Europe, not the worst face. One of the reasons of the seminar here today is to show the Europen Union has been, could be, and will be a help for the development of the remote islands in the United Kingdom too.
“Concretely speaking we are looking to the European budget in the cohesion fund period 2014 to 2020. This budget was approved by the UK government in 2013 so we expect the UK government will respect the agreement and our opinion is to use this period to support the policies for the United Kingdom and most of all for the places like Scotland the Shetland Islands that support to remain and not leave.”
Committee of the Regions member and Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson, who was hosting the meeting, said there was still not clarity on where Brexit was going or indeed what leaving the Uk would mean.
Mr Robinson said: “I don’t think at this stage that we know what Brexit is going to be, or indeed if Brexit itself is going to be. We heard the Brexit minister speaking in parliament this week and the following day Theresa May came back from China and said ‘no Brexit isn’t what the Bexit minister said it was going to be, it’s something different’.
“I think it is something that is going to run for a long time but it is certainly my hope that we can, if not remain in the European Union, ultimately certainly retain very strong links within Europe because I think it would be an absolute disaster for any other scenario to come about.
“We have traded with Europe historically going back hundreds of years so to suggest that we can cut ourselves off from Europe and start trading with the Australians instead, is to my mind ridiculous. It is madness.”
“I think there is a very clear message from people in Scotland that they want to remain within the European Union and to remain critically within the Common Market. They say that 44 per cent of the UK’s exports are services and 40 per cent of our exports of our exports in services goes to the EU. It is very, very significant. I couldn’t consider anything that would leave us with access to the European market.
“Brexit is looming but I take the view that we are in the EU until such time as someone tells us we are not. If that day ever comes, I don’t know.
“But we have to consider that there are other options being looked at.”
One such option that has been rejected is the “Norwegian option”, according to Mr Robinson. “Even in the Norwegian situation they participate in some aspects of cohesion policy and they have to respect many of the regulations that Europe puts in place. The unfortunate thing in Norway’s position, is not being a member, they have to accept these without having any say in what the European Union decides.
“What the European Committee of the Regions is there to do is make sure that the voices of places such as Shetland and all the other local and regional authorities right across Europe is heard at that level.”
Mr Robinson said that the fact the European delegates had to travel o Shetland had given them an insight into the challenges that come with remoteness. Mr Cattaneo hadsuffered delays to his travel on Thursday.
Mr Robinson said: “Transport has been a fairly consistent theme through our discussions this morning.”
Mr Cattaneo, making his first visit to Shetland, said: “I have seen some similar problems in Europe but today have seen some specific problems for places like the Shetland Islands. We need to recognise at European level the existence of these remote areas.”
He said that there were 1500 small islands in the EU with half a million population “so it is not so small. We must recognise them recognise their existence and recognise the challenges.
“This morning I understood that we have some well-known challenges; the weakness of the economy, the structure of the economy; the ageing population and the accessibility and transportation problem.
“The purpose of our visit today, of our seminar, is precisely to understand the existence of these problems, face the challenges and to find solutions, then propose a complete solution to the European institution. In this sense it has been a very useful meeting.”
Mr Cattaneo said that that broadband provision was the most pressing issue facing Shetland and remote areas. He added: “Physical distances are not so easy to close and if you live in an island in the middle of the sea, you need ferries and an airport but the problem for the commuters remains.
“It is possible to close the gap of the technologies, but this morning I had no wi-fi connection here and it is more easy to solve the problem of the wi-fi connection than the ferries – it costs less and it’s easier.
“To create better conditions for future development the good quality of the connections to broadband facilities is in my opinion a starting point. The contribution of the EU funds must be directed most of all to that issue.”