Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The threat of an isolationist America makes this a terrible moment to contemplate Brexit

On 21 March something astonishing happened. Something which has a strong impact on the wisdom of a British EU exit. Donald Trump, the foul tonged demagogue who is leading the race to become the Republican Presidential candidate, questioned America’s commitment to NATO. This is close to unprecedented. Since 1949 NATO, which most significantly guarantees American protection to major European countries, has been vital to the defence of Europe.

NATO is an uneven alliance certainly, and I sympathise with those in America who conclude that European countries are the chief benefactors whilst they bear most of the cost. It must be particularly gaoling that, for as long as I can remember, a significant body of Europeans have responded not with gratitude, but with arrogance. Western European leftists boast of their nation’s welfare provision and quality of life, whilst frequently deriding America for its inequality, militarism and patriotism. But one of the chief reasons why Western European states have such generous welfare provision, and such non-militaristic cultures, is that they reside under the cloak of American protection. American leaders have, to their credit, put up with this hypocrisy. Democrat and Republican Presidents have stuck firmly to NATO, believing that it is one of the foundation blocks of liberty and democracy in Europe, and thus also strengthens American security and trade. This however, might be about to change. European nations might be forced to stand, to a greater extent, on their own two feet.

In an interview with the Washington Post editorial board, extracts of which were published on 21 March, the republican frontrunner Donald Trump challenged America’s current position as the world policeman. He asserted that ‘Nato is costing us a fortune, and yes, we're protecting Europe, but we're spending a lot of money’, and accused America’s allies such as Germany, of ‘not doing anything’ over Ukraine. Trump went on to state that America is ‘reimbursed a fraction’ of what it spends defending South Korea, and argued that the United States does not benefit from its current degree of involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. Trump followed these comments by stating, in an interview with Bloomberg, that ‘I think NATO may be obsolete’ and added ‘We’re paying too much’. These remarks, whilst as so often with Trump falling short of concrete proposals, are worrying. Coupled with Trump’s stated admiration for Vladimir Putin, they suggest that NATO could be a much less reliable alliance under a Trump Presidency.

In 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US spent $610bn on defence. This was vastly more than any other country, including Russia, which spent $84.5bn. The highest spending European nations, France, Britain and Germany, spent $62.3bn, $60.5bn and $46.5bn respectively. In short, without American assistance, European defence would be precarious, and would require close military and political coordination. Otherwise nations in Eastern Europe would be vulnerable to Russian aggression, and this could have a knock-on effect in terms of undermining liberal-democratic Government across the continent. Fortunately a useful framework for encouraging and codifying such cooperation exists in the European Union.

The EU is a value based organisation, which promotes economic and political cooperation between liberal-democratic Governments. In doing so it helps to promote the continuation of liberal-democratic Government, and develops greater mutual understanding and cooperation. With a Trump Presidency now a serious possibility, we have to consider the implications of an increasingly isolationist America on European security. Without American support, to stay safe, European countries would need to stick closely together. As such this would be a particularly foolish moment for the UK to leave the European Union. 

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The EU promotes peace and liberal democracy – more reasons for the UK to remain a member

On 12 October 2012 it was announced that the European Union had won a Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which grants the prize, asserted that the EU had aided the transformation of Europe ‘from a continent of war to a continent of peace’. They were right to do so. Rarely has a Nobel Prize been better deserved. Eurosceptics, of course, hit the roof. UKIP leader Nigel Farage inevitable and unfortunately had something to say, stating that the award brought the Nobel Peace Prize ‘into total disrepute’. But as we will see the evidence is to the contrary. The EU has done much to promote peace, and also liberal democratic Government, across Europe. This is of course a good in itself, but it is also in Britain’s national interest. A Europe made up of politically stable and prosperous nation states, sharing sovereignty in some areas, is clearly preferable to us to a Europe of authoritarian and aggressive entities. British Eurosceptics do tend to appreciate this stability, they are not aggressive imperialists, but they attribute this stability to NATO and American hegemony more generally. This has clearly been important, but is insufficient as an explanation. As we will see it’s been the spread of liberal-democratic values, attached to the juicy carrot of free market access, as well as NATO which has been so important for European security.

Europe has of course experienced conflict since the European Economic Community was established in 1958. But generally not in EEC/EU member states, an impressive achievement considering Europe’s history of conflict and ethnic fragmentation. Let’s look at some recent European Wars. The 1991-95 Yugoslav Wars (the deadliest in Europe since WWII), the 1992 Transnistria War, the Chechen Wars of 1994-6 and 1999-present, the 1998-99 Kosovo War, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the 2014-present war in Eastern Ukraine. All these conflicts took place in the relatively limited parts of Europe which aren’t in the EU. It’s also worth noting that those European politicians who have approved of Putin’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine have tended to be ardent Eurosceptics, their sympathy for redrawing the borders of Europe by force suggesting that Europe would be a very different, and rather less nice, place if they ruled their respective countries.

Nigel Farage, for example, argued that the war in Ukraine was a result of the EU’s ‘imperialist, expansionist’ ambitions, and accused the EU of having ‘blood on its hands’. Le Pen of the Front National asserted that ‘I am surprised a Cold War on Russia has been declared in the European Union’, whilst Heinz-Christian Strache, Chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria, urged the EU ‘to stop playing the stooge of the U.S. in the encirclement of Russia’. Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders continued the trend by blaming ‘shameless Europhiles with their dreams of empire’ for the Ukraine crisis. In short, according to the Eurosceptic far-right, either the EU or that great liberal-democratic nation America, were responsible for the decision of a reactionary Russian Government to invade Eastern Ukraine.

But as I stated earlier, EU membership doesn’t just tend to make countries more peaceful, it also tends to make them more liberal-democratic, and better at protecting human rights. Let’s compare countries which started from a similar point following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the USSR. Those countries which were behind the ghastly Iron Curtain. Since the end of Communist Government they have gone in radically different directions in terms of democracy and human rights, and there is a strong correlation between the direction travelled and whether a country has joined the EU. Let’s start with Press Freedom. According to the 2015 Press Freedom Index, produced by Reporters Without Borders, out of 180 countries surveyed Estonia ranks 10th, the Czech Republic 13th, Poland 18th and Lithuania 31st in terms of media freedom. All are former Communist countries which have joined the EU. The picture in former Communist countries which have not joined the EU is less pretty. Moldova ranks 72nd, Ukraine 129th and Belarus 157th. This picture is reinforced by Freedom House’s 2015 Human Rights Index. This ranked Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Estonia as free, whereas Ukraine was ‘Partly free’ and Belarus ‘Not free’. Again the Democratisation Index 2015, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked Lithuania 38th and Poland 48th in terms of democratisation, whereas Ukraine only managed 88 and Belarus 127th. There is a clear association between EU membership and liberal democratic Government.

One of the most striking developments in European politics since 1970 has been the transformation of the political systems in a good number of European countries, many of which had little or no history of democratic Government, into stable(ish) democracies. In this category we can include the Mediterranean nations of Spain, Portugal and Greece, which escaped from military-authoritarian Governments in the 1970s, and parts of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe which lost their Communist Governments from 1989 onwards. Most have now joined the EU, with Greece joining in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, eight central and Eastern European countries joining in 2004, Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007 and Croatia becoming a member in 2013.

It’s clear why they all wanted to become members. EU affiliation provided free market access, the protection of a variety of fundamental rights and more generally the promise of a more ‘Western European’ lifestyle. To achieve EU membership however candidate countries are required to fulfil a number of criteria, mostly defined at the European council in Copenhagen in 1993. In brief, according to the European Commission’s website, to become a EU member state a country must have ‘stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities’, ‘a functioning market economy’ and ‘the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership’.

To be more specific, EU candidates are required to adopt and enforce all current EU rules in 35 policy fields (or Chapters). These Chapters include, for example, ‘Chapter 23: Judiciary and fundamental rights’ and ‘Chapter 24: Justice, freedom and security’, both of which deal with human rights. In short, to become an EU member an applicant country must demonstrate that its political model is broadly liberal-democratic, and considering the perks associated with EU membership, especially for poorer countries, it has a strong incentive to do so. Thus the prize of EU membership played an important role in encouraging Mediterranean and East European countries to move away from authoritarian Government following the overthrow of their respective dictatorships. It’s reasonable to assume that, in the absence of the EU, the political systems of at least some of such countries would be a good deal more authoritarian than they are at present. To the East of the EU are a number of authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian states, such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine. In the absence of the EU, other East European countries may well have developed similar Governments.

At present, in the likes of Ukraine, Moldova and those Balkan countries which aspire towards EU membership, the EU is a powerful pull-factor encouraging some steps towards liberal-democratic Government. The current Serbian Prime Minister, for example, is from the Serbian Progressive Party, a Conservative Party which supports Serbia’s EU membership. In the absence of the EU it seems likely that Serbia and others would affiliate more openly with Putin’s Russia. The EU also places some restraints on those of its own members who are oscillating in a more authoritarian direction. Hungary under Orban, for example, or Poland under its new nationalist Government. Indeed on 13 January of this year the European Commission launched an inquiry into whether new Polish laws, which weaken the Polish Constitutional Court and increase Government influence over public media, break EU democracy rules. 

The evidence is clear that the European Union has done much to promote liberal-democratic forms of Government and peace and international cooperation across the European continent. I hope you share my conviction that this has benefited the citizens of the newly democratised European nations. But, on a more selfish note, it has also benefitted the UK. The reduction in European conflict has stopped us getting dragged into European Wars, as we were in the non-EU nations of Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Moreover the proliferation of responsible Government which obeys market rules has aided trade and British business, whilst the spread of liberal-democratic political systems has helped to share the burden of protecting democratic Europe onto more nations, whilst reducing the number of potential threats. Considering all that the EU has done to promote civilised Government, and all this has done for Britain, it would be folly to take any steps which might undermine this. Brexit would be just such a step. As a result geo-political factors provide yet more reasons to support Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Is Norway’s EU relationship a model for the UK?

If you’re in a rush, the short answer to the title question is no. Absolutely not. If you’re not in a rush, allow me to elaborate on why this is the case. ‘Leave’ supporters are generally quite reticent to say what the UK’s relationship with the EU would be in the event of Brexit. They are far, far, more comfortable criticising our current membership, than on setting out an attractive alternative. There’s a good reason for this. None of the alternative relationships currently in existence, as enjoyed by other countries, would be particularly attractive for the UK. In this piece we will examine one such alternative, the one experienced by non-EU member state Norway. And it’s certainly not the relationship ‘Leave’ supporters imply we could achieve after a Brexit.

Brexit supporters talk a lot about reducing immigration and ‘controlling our borders’. Well Norway is part of the European free movement of labour scheme, and has even joined the passport-free Schengen zone. Brexit supporters talk about how much we could save if we didn't contribute financially to the EU, and how European law undermines our sovereignty. Well as we will see Norway still makes a sizeable contribution to the EU’s budget, and implements a good proportion of EU law despite only minimal influence on its formation. In brief, if you’re a Brexit supporter trying to secure votes, I wouldn't recommend the Norwegian model.

As mentioned previously Norway is not an EU member. Her populace rejected EU membership twice via referendums, albeit by a small majority, in 1972 and 1994. Norway, along with fellow non-EU countries Iceland and Liechtenstein, is however signed up to the European Economic Area (EEA). This gives Norway equal tariff free access to the EU’s single market, but this access comes at a price. For a start Norway has to accept EU regulations on the free movement of goods, persons and capital. This means that EU nationals have the right to work in Norway, and Norwegian nationals have the right to work in other EU countries. In short, if the UK votes to leave the EU and then signs up to a Norwegian style deal, it will make precisely no difference to EU migration. EU nationals would still have the right to live and work in the UK. EEA countries also make a significant financial contribution to the EU, in return for single market access. Brexit supporters enthusiastically point out that the UK is a net contributor to the EU, yet the same is true of Norway which isn’t an EU member. Indeed, according to the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, between 2009 and 2014 Norway provided almost €1.8 billion to the EU, as a result of her EEA membership and participation in various EU programmes.

Perhaps the most inappropriate part of Norway’s relationship with the EU, as a potential model for the UK, is the impact it has on sovereignty. Brexit supporters tend to place great emphasis on the importance of British sovereignty, which they argue is being undermined by European bureaucrats. They frequently allege that our EU membership weakens our democracy. Now of course this is unfair, and indeed is insulting to those who genuinely live under non-democratic systems of Government. It’s also ironic. Prominent Eurosceptics frequently criticise the EU for its lack of democracy, but never suggest measures, such as a directly elected EU President or giving the EU Parliament the power to introduce legislation, which would help to remedy this problem. Indeed, when the main parties in the European Parliament agreed to support the candidate of whichever party got the most seats in the 2014 European Parliament elections, a step which made the EU more democratic, it was Eurosceptics like Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan who objected most fervently.  

What then, would the implications of a Norwegian style relationship with the EU be for UK sovereignty? The answer I’m afraid, is terrible, and certainly significantly worse than our current relationship. Norway’s EEA membership requires her to adopt EU laws which relate to the common market. Norway has also agreed to align itself with the EU in a number of other policy areas, and so implements EU laws in these areas as well. However Norway has almost no influence on any of these laws, which it agrees to enforce, having little input beyond the right to be consulted. The result, alas, is a democratic deficit. Once EU laws are ratified the Joint Committee of the EEA looks to extend them, usually without amendment, to non-EU members of the EEA such as Norway. As a result, according to the House of Commons library’s ‘Norway’s relationship with the EU’ report, Norway incorporates around three-quarters of EU legislation into its domestic law. EU law impacts around 170 out of a total of 600 Norwegian statues, and approximately 1,000 Norwegian regulations. Norway even adheres voluntarily to EU fisheries quotas and conservation schemes.

To examine its relationship with Europe the Norwegian Government set up an EEA Review Committee, which reported in January 2012. It’s worth quoting the part of the conclusion that notes Norway’s lack of influence over the EU law which it has to adopt:

‘Norway is in practice bound to adopt EU policies and rules on a broad range of issues without being a member and without voting rights. This raises democratic problems. Norway is not represented in decision-making processes that have direct consequences for Norway, and neither do we have significant influence on them’.

This point was repeated on 2 March, in an interview with the BBC, by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg who stated that ‘We are integrating the laws they are making for the single market…but basically we have left part of our democracy to Europe’. She went on to rubbish the notion that the UK could gain single-market access in the event of Brexit, without accepting free movement of labour, stating that ‘To believe you’ll get everything you want without giving something back does not happen in any political body’. Brexit supporters assert that our EU membership undermines our democracy. This is deeply simplistic, but Norway’s lack of EU membership certainly does undermine her democracy. Norway implements a large body of EU law, despite having no input into its formulation. From a democratic point of view, for the UK to leave the EU and adopt a Norwegian style relationship with its institutions would be a major step back. The former Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt recently described Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein as having a ‘sort of satellite status’ to the EU. Surely that’s not a relationship that would work for the UK?

To sum up, Norway may not be an EU member, but she does have to implement a good proportion of EU law, pay into the EU budget and accept free movement of labour. This model would clearly not be acceptable for the UK. It’s about time Brexit supporters stop accusing their opponents of ‘scaremongering’, and start asserting what relationship Britain should have with the EU if we leave, and how this can realistically be achieved. They will struggle with this, because there are no easy answers. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

‘Project Fear’ or Project Reality?

It’s curious how, in the last few weeks, a certain type of Brexit supporter has started to sound an awful lot like a certain type of SNP supporter. Not in every respect of course. They aren’t making repeated claims to ‘our oil’, or attacking Wastemonster (an oh so clever play on ‘Westminster’) and I doubt they will do much to mark the anniversary of Bannockburn. That being said, they’re mimicking them so convincingly I wouldn’t rule any of these things out. Both groups, if you challenge any of the assertions they make in support of their cherished dream, have a habit of accusing you of being part of ‘Project Fear’. For some SNP supporters this means challenging the SNP’s projections of an independent Scotland’s oil revenues, doubting that the remainder of the UK would agree to the formation of a currency union and questioning whether an independent Scotland could enjoy EU membership on anything like the UK’s terms (with Schengen and Euro opt outs and a sizable rebate).

For Brexit supporters this means challenging the notion that the UK, outside the EU, could continue to access the single market (including in financial services) without accepting free movement of labour, or making a substantial financial contribution, or implementing a substantial body of EU regulations. Many are also convinced that the UK would swiftly agree free trade agreements with a large number of other countries, that we could restrict access to UK benefits and healthcare for EU nationals whilst British ex-pats would continue to receive decent treatment, and that our influence on the world wouldn’t be reduced. This, I’m afraid, is the Brexit campaign’s Project Fantasy.

Brexit supporters, including the official ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, have gone further than just sounding a bit like SNP supporters. They are directly imitating and copying their terminology. Most significantly they are using the term ‘Project Fear’, beloved by the SNP’s online warriors and used by Alex Salmond to taunt Alistair Darling in one of the independence referendum’s TV debates, to describe their opponent’s campaign. In an article published in The Telegraph on 28 February Boris Johnson, the most prominent and popular politician supporting the ‘out’ campaign, attacked ‘The agents of Project fear’. This line has also been adopted by Vote Leave, the most mainstream of the two main ‘Out’ campaign’s, which published an article on it’s website on 1 March attacking ‘the IN campaign focus on running Project Fear’.

Brexit supporters are also responding to reasonable concerns, like their Scottish nationalist counterparts, by accusing their opponents of ‘scaremongering’. This is the charge which Vote Leave levelled at Peter Mandelson, also in an article published on 1 March. Mandelson raised serious concerns about the impact of Brexit on the UK’s trading relationship not only with the EU, but with other markets as well. Vote Leave didn't even bother to attempt to refute these. Instead they described Mandelson as like a ‘man wearing a sign saying the “end is nigh”’, and described his comments as scaremongering. The British people deserve better. They’re unlikely to get it any time soon.

The reason both Brexit and Scottish independence supporters have been so quick to describe concerns raised by their opponents as part of ‘Project Fear’ and ‘scaremongering’, is because otherwise they would have to address and refute the concerns. And this, alas, they would struggle to do. Let’s start with the SNP Government. They claimed Scotland could force the rest of the UK into a currency union in the event of independence, by threatening to take their share of the national debt. They argued that Scotland would continue to remain an EU member on the UK’s generous terms, and they greatly overestimated how much income an independent Scotland could expect to derive from oil. They couldn't prove any of these assertions, and all three were probably mistaken. So rather than deal with legitimate arguments they attack their opponents.

Similarly Brexit supporters are claiming that the UK could negotiate a deal to access EU markets, including in financial services, tariff free in the event of Brexit. Many are even claiming that we could do so without accepting free movement of labour, paying into the EU budget or implementing a good deal of EU regulation. No matter that Norway, which is not an EU member, does all three. The UK will be different, for some reason. Presumably EU member states will be crying out to give the UK an excellent deal following Brexit. It’s not like they would feel offended by our departure, nor wish to make sure that other EU member states weren't tempted to leave. In short it’s time the leave campaigns start responding to reasonable criticism with argument and analysis, nor wild accusations of ‘Project Fear’. If not, they should reasonably be dismissed as promoting Project Fantasy.  

Friday, 26 February 2016

Britain doesn’t have to choose between Europe and the Commonwealth

Many of those who want Britain to leave the EU argue that, by prioritising European relations, the UK has turned its back on our traditional allies. Instead of close relations, and some degree of integration, with the European continent, they argue we should prioritise ties with the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere more generally (especially the United States). The argument is that the UK has more in common culturally, historically and linguistically with commonwealth nations, and that in 1973 we abandoned them to join the EEC. Sometimes this is reinforced by the view that our EU membership ties us commercially to European counties experienced sluggish economic growth, rather than thriving to Commonwealth countries such as India. There is however a problem with this argument. It’s wrong. Worse than that in fact, it’s not just incorrect, it’s the opposite of the truth. The mirror image of the truth. 180oc from the truth. In short, Britain’s EU membership doesn’t undermine our relationships with Commonwealth countries and America, rather it enhances then. So Britain doesn’t have to choose between membership of the EU and close ties with the Commonwealth and America. On the contrary, if we left the EU, we would also be undermining our relationships with Commonwealth states and America.

Eurosceptics have consistently made the argument that Britain’s EU membership weakens our relations with our more natural allies in the Commonwealth. In an article published in the Daily Express on 18 July 2015, UKIP leader Nigel Farage argued that ‘We must reactivate our close relationship with the Commonwealth countries which we turned our back on when we joined the Common Market’. This point echoed that from the vocally Eurosceptic Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who in a piece published by the Daily Mail on 25 January asserted that ‘We surrendered our trade policy to Brussels on January 1, 1973, and in the process turned our back on close trading partners such as Australia and South Africa’. Hannan is well known proponent of an Anglosphere, the belief that certain values and attitudes positively define the English speaking nations of the world. He promoted this case most prominently in his book, published in 2013 ‘Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World’. In an article published on his website he asserts the virtue of ‘Anglosphere values’, stating that ‘If there’s one thing that distinguishes English-speaking civilization from all the rival models, it’s this: that the individual is lifted above the collective’.

There is however a problem for Farage and Hannan. Anglophile countries, that is Commonwealth countries and the United States, don’t share their attitude to the UK’s membership of the EU. On the contrary, they enthusiastically embrace it, and in some cases are not afraid to say so in public. Let’s start with the United States of America, which is, after all, only the most powerful and influential country in the world. Senior American politicians have been very clear that they want the UK to remain in the EU, and that the UK’s EU membership enhances the ‘special relationship’. In an interview with the BBC in July 2015 Obama linked the strength of the UK’s relationship with the US to our EU membership, asserting that ‘Having the UK in the European Union gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union’. More recently US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that America has ‘a profound interest…in a very strong United Kingdom staying in a strong EU’. If Britain’s EU membership was undermining our relationship with the US you would expect American politicians to be urging us to withdraw. But it isn’t, so they’re not. In addition in October 2015 United States Trade Representative Michael Froman stated that America is ‘not in the market for FTAs [free trade agreements] with individual countries’ and that as a result the UK could be subject to the same tariffs as China, Brazil and India in the event of Brexit.

So American leaders aren’t urging Brexit, but how about their counterparts in India, the rising Commonwealth power with a GDP growth rate countries in Europe can only pray for. Bad news again for Brexit supporters I’m afraid. In November 2015, during a visit to the UK, Indian Prime Minister Modi described the UK as ‘our entry point into the EU’. In other words Indian firms like doing business in the UK, which has strong cultural and linguistic ties to India, partly because it allows that to access the common market. This point was reinforced by a warning from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which warned that a British EU exit could reduce investment from Indian business to the UK. India is our third largest source of foreign direct investment, so I suspect we would notice.

But what of Australia and Canada, surely two of the nations with which we have the most in common culturally. Well it’s hard to argue that our relationship with either country is undermined by our EU membership. The UK is the second largest source of foreign investment to Australia, and the Australians return the favour by sending more direct investment to the UK than any other foreign country bar one. Meanwhile Canada has just concluded a free trade agreement with the EU, which could come into effect this year if it is ratified by the European Parliament, and would rather not have to consider engaging in another round of negotiations with the UK post-Brexit. In short, our economic relationship with both countries is strong despite our EU membership, and politicians from neither country are calling out for Brexit. David Cameron asserted in the House of Commons on 22 February that ‘The Prime Ministers of New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and the President of America, could not be clearer in thinking that Britain should stay in a reformed European Union’. Thus far all the evidence suggests that this is indeed the case.

So in short Britain doesn’t have to select between our EU membership and close relations with Commonwealth countries and America. We can have both. Commonwealth and American leaders aren’t speaking out for Brexit. On the contrary, when they do intervene they urge us to remain in the EU. Far from strengthening our relations with the Commonwealth and America Brexit would undermine them. And as noted in a previous Youth4In article Brexit makes the threat of the UK breaking up very real, further weakening our relations with both America and our Commonwealth allies.   

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Brexit campaign’s Scotland problem

Many of those campaigning for Britain to leave the EU are already waving the Union Jack. Metaphorically in most, though not all, cases. David Davis, the backbench Conservative MP who is surely doing more to frustrate David Cameron than the official leader of the opposition, wrote on his website that he backs Brexit so that ‘the United Kingdom, the first great liberal democracy of the modern era…can recover control of her own destiny’. UKIP leader Nigel Farage asserted at a ‘Grassroots Out’ rally in Manchester earlier this month that ‘we want our country back’, and implored other politicians to put ‘country before party’.  Daniel Hannan, the influential Conservative MEP, has described Britain leaving the EU as our independence day, whilst UKIP stood at the last general election under the banner of ‘Believe in Britain’.

There is however a problem with pro-Brexit politicians appealing to British patriotism. More than a problem in fact, almost a contradiction. The objection is this, if Britain does vote to leave the EU, there’s a good chance that Scotland will respond by voting to leave the UK. In short, Brexit threatens Britain as a political entity, and the logical position for a British patriot to take, at least for the time being, is to back Britain’s continued membership of the EU. As a result Brexit campaigners don’t own the Union Jack, the flag of the country then could end up fracturing. On the contrary it would make more sense if they waved just about any other piece of cloth. An old tea towel perhaps, or the flag of Mauritania, but not the Union Jack. 

On 18 September 2014 the Scottish people voted, by 55.3% to 44.7%, that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. A significant, though far from overwhelming, victory for the unionist position. But the Scottish independence question didn’t go away.  In the May 2015 General Election the SNP took 50% of the Scottish vote, whilst the unionist vote was split three ways between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties. As a result, assisted by Westminster’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, the SNP secured 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. In September 2014 Alex Salmond described Scottish independence as a ‘once in a generation, perhaps even once in a lifetime, opportunity’. Since then the SNP have changed their tune. At the SNP’s 2015 conference in Aberdeen the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, made it clear that she would support a second referendum if she was confident of winning it, and has refused to rule out holding one during the next Scottish Parliament.  

The SNP need a grievance, to strengthen nationalist opinion and justify holding a second referendum so soon after the first. I doubt they care what the grievance is. If they though Leicester City winning the Premier League would persuade Scots to vote for independence they would doubtless denounce it as an ‘insult to Scotland’, and call a second referendum. In the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, so the SNP abhor an unexploited grievance. When legislation was passed in October last year, to introduce an additional stage in the passage of legislation which only applies to England, where it would be examined in Committee by only English MP’s, the SNP erupted in faux outrage. Pete Wishart, SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, described the change as a ‘Slap in the face to Scots voters which they are unlikely to forget’. Thus far there is no sign that Scottish voters agree. The change has now come into effect, and few people in England, let alone Scotland, seem to have noticed.

Brexit though would be different. Scotland might not be overwhelmingly pro-EU, but it is significantly more so than England or Wales. A Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times and Heart FM, conducted between January 8-14, found that 65% of Scots want to stay in the EU, and only 35% want to leave. The national polls are far closer. Moreover, the gap between Scottish and national polls may well widen further during the referendum campaign. Almost all of the major figures in Scottish politics, including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, look like they will back remaining in the EU. By contrast in England and Northern Ireland Wales serious political figures are already backing Brexit. In addition UKIP has a serious presence in England and Wales, giving the ‘Out’ campaign a strong grassroots network to draw on. UKIP in Scotland on the other hand, despite having one MEP, is not a serious political force. The ‘Out’ campaign in Scotland, to put it bluntly, is likely to be short in terms of both leaders and foot soldiers.

The SNP leadership have made it clear that, if Scotland votes to remain in the EU but the UK as a whole votes to leave, they will see this as justification for a second referendum. At the SNP’s 2015 conference Sturgeon described this eventuality as ‘breaching the terms of last year’s vote’ in which case ‘you may well find that demand for a second independence referendum is unstoppable’. This would be reasonable. If the UK votes to leave the EU it would become a very different country, for better or worse, than the one Scotland voted to remain part of in 2014. And if there was a second independence referendum under these circumstances, the nationalists would have a pretty good chance of winning it. The Panelbase poll mentioned earlier, carried out in January of this year, found that 47% of the Scottish electorate back independence. However in the event of the UK leaving the EU this rises to 52%. Thus Brexit would both provide the SNP with legitimate grounds for holding a second referendum so soon after the 2014 poll, and improve their chances of success.  

One of the main reasons why the nationalists lost the 2014 referendum was the uncertainty associated with independence. The SNP couldn’t conclusively answer a number of key questions, such as on Scotland’s currency and status within the EU, in the event of a yes vote. As a result most Scot’s chose the status-quo. However if we vote to leave the EU the status-quo won’t be an option. The various pro-Brexit campaigns can’t even agree with each other what the UK’s relationship would be with the EU, and indeed with our other trading partners, in the event of Brexit. It would also give Scottish independence campaigners a more compelling vision. They would be able to advocate an internationalist, outward looking and business friendly Scotland benefiting from being an English speaking country with full access to European markets, and good relations with other European countries. That’s pretty much what Scotland has at the moment, as a result of being part of the UK and of the UK being part of the EU. Clearly Brexit could threaten this, and push middle-class and moderate Scot’s, unimpressed by Sturgeon’s social-democratic rhetoric, towards voting for independence.

Other European leaders would also be less hostile towards Scottish independence in the event of Brexit. Most, and perhaps all, EU leaders were clearly backing the ‘no’ campaign in 2014, and it was made clear that Scotland couldn’t expect any favours if she voted to leave the UK and then reapplied for EU membership. As a result, to get into the EU, Scotland would probably have had to commit to join the Euro and the Schengen zone. My strong suspicion is that if the UK votes to leave the EU, and Scotland then votes to leave the UK, Scotland will be offered Eurozone and Schengen opt-outs as part of her EU membership. EU leaders will feel they owe the UK Government no favours, on the contrary there will surely be a level of antagonism towards the UK, and their fear of encouraging separatism movements in other European countries will be reduced, as they will be able to frame Scottish independence as a unique event in response to Brexit. European Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva has told the BBC that ‘We make every effort for the Scottish people not to have to face a choice between Britain and the EU’. I think it’s fair to interpret this as meaning that, if the UK votes to leave the EU, Scotland will be encouraged to remain in some form.

In short, if the UK votes to leave the EU in the near future, it looks more likely than not that Scotland will respond by voting to leave the UK. Thus the EU referendum is a battle for Britain, but not in quite the same way that some Brexit campaigners seem to think.   

Who will speak for England now?

‘Who will speak for England now?’ So thundered the front page of the Daily Mail on 3 February. Last Friday, at a Grassroots Out rally, we received an answer. Grassroots Out is one of the two main campaigns which are competing to be designated as the official ‘Leave’ campaign by the Electoral Commission. It’s backed by Leave.EU, the group funded by UKIP donor Aaron Banks, as well as Nigel Farage, Peter Bone, Kate Hoey and various other mostly Tory Parliamentarians. It’s hard to imagine that, short of the venue being hit by a freak earthquake, the rally could have gone any worse. Grassroots Out had been promising that a ‘special guest’ would make an appearance. And boy was he special. To almost universal shock, and prompting a walkout by some of the right-leaning audience, George Galloway took to the stage. Last year, following Farage’s notorious comments about the cost of treating migrants with HIV, Galloway tweeted that ‘Farage's Aids smear should disqualify him from any civilised company henceforth’. Presumably then, Galloway doesn’t regard himself as ‘civilised company’ as he happily joined Farage to rail against the EU.

Galloway is, to say the least, a controversial figure. This is the man who saluted Saddam Hussein’s ‘courage…strength…and indefatigability’, who in 2009 received a Palestinian passport from Ismail Haniya, leader of Hamas, and who in 2013 stormed out of a debate in Oxford when he discovered his opponent held Israeli citizenship. I suppose, in fairness, Grassroots Out could have chosen someone worse. Radical Islamist Anjem Choudary perhaps, or they could have communicated the words of Attila the Hun via a séance (which would at least have had the advantage of being amusing). It will be fascinating to see who, as part of their broad tent of pro-Brexit supporters, the Grassroots Out campaign will roll out next.