Sunday, 25 May 2014

Scotland in Europe

Strangely, the first Prime Ministerial Hand I ever shook was that of a Tory, Edward Heath.

It was during the European Referendum campaign of 1975 and Heath was the main speaker at a rally in Paisley Town Hall. I was sixteen and had just left school but my Dad, who had only recently demitted office as Paisley's Provost, was in the Chair. So he made the necessary introductions.

I've always been a strong advocate of an ever closer Union. Certainly, the EU has its faults, its bureaucracy and its lack of democratic transparency, but these are surely nothing besides its shining achievement. Open borders and free movement and trade between countries that, within living memory, had engaged against each other in the most destructive wars of all time. (See Note 1)

So, amongst my major objections to Scottish Independence has always been the fear that we would put that membership at risk. Not merely in the technical way that Scotland itself would, at best, have to re-apply for membership but in a more symbolic way. If we could not demonstrate that, even after three hundred years of mutual peace and prosperity, it was possible for two neighbouring countries to remain in Union on one small island, does that not threaten the idea that twenty eight countries might reasonably expect their own much shorter alliance across an entire Continent to be of a more permanent nature?

It hardly seems the best way to advocate the merits of village life by personally moving into a remote farmhouse.

And be in no doubt, as I highlighted in my immediately previous blog, while I have no doubt that some in the SNP would genuinely prefer to be in the EU, not one of them has ever suggested that failure to secure membership would be a bar to proceeding to Independence. I am surprised sometimes that they are not more directly confronted about this for it seems to me that all precedents make their eighteen month timescale for this wholly unrealistic. (See Note 2)

But there is another, even more delusional argument made by the Nationalists. That is that  the major threat to Scottish EU membership lies with euro-sceptical opinion in England and the potential in/out referendum promised by the Tories if returned in 2015.

For what its worth, I do not think, even if there was an outright Tory Government and even if there was a referendum, Britain would vote to leave the EU. The vast majority of Labour voters wouldn't; nor would those remaining loyal to the Lib-Dems. And while I accept that the Conservatives do contain there share of little Englanders, they are also the Party of big business. Indeed that's one of our major criticisms of them! But British big business would be as overwhelmingly opposed to British isolation in Europe as Scottish big business is opposed to Scottish isolation in Britain.

And, in the end the vote would, as always, turn on "the economy stupid". And the economic imperatives of staying in are just too obvious, just as they will be on September 18th.

But of course two things would make a British vote to leave slightly more likely. Two things also at stake on 18th September next year. The first is that a Yes vote to Scottish Independence significantly increases the chances of their being an outright Tory victory next year. For not only would that remove Scottish Labour MPs from the Westminster arithmetic, it would remove Scottish Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs as well.

And of course, secondly, a "British" vote without Scottish input would also be more likely to produce a vote for "Britain" to leave. The differences in Scotland's degree of support for the European project might not be quite as wide as suggested in some quarters but they do indeed exist. If there was to be an EU referendum one would assume that the Pro-Europe campaign would start with the assumption that London, Scotland and Wales were the equivalent of their "safe seats".

"But none of this would matter to us anyway if we're free (and in)" protest the Nationalists. "If England left, we would stay!" (See Note 3)

This is arrant nonsense. Two thirds of all of Scotland's "foreign" trade is directly with the rest of the UK and almost all of the rest has to pass through England to get to its ultimate market beyond. A Scotland in the EU and an England without would mean tariffs on that trade. We (or even the English) might not want those tariffs between ourselves but THAT WOULD NOT BE OUR DECISION! For the external tariffs of the European Union are precisely the sort of situation where the views of twenty seven countries are required to be considered. We'd be a pretty small voice (to put it at its kindest) if we advocated free Trade with England. A frankly irrelevant voice if England proposed having the advantage of free trade with any part (and thus all) of the EU while free of the other regulatory requirements of the Single Market.

And then there would be the question of the open border. It would defeat the whole object of trade tariffs if English goods could evade them simply by driving up the M6 to Gretna. Certainly Europe does have open borders with certain other Countries: most notably Norway and Switzerland but that is because they are members of EFTA and thus part of the European Economic Area. No eurosceptic proposes that following a British exit, because participation in the EEA requires agreement to observe EU Rules without having a say in their terms. And paying a substantial fee for the privilege. No matter what one thinks of those campaigning for a British withdrawal, nobody thinks that either of these conditions are ones they would be likely to agree to. Their whole rationale is to escape rule from Brussels even when we do have an input.

So Scotland in and England out would mean a physical customs border and, what is more, likely restrictions on the freedom of English citizens to come and work in Scotland. Restrictions not made by us but rather by our European partners. And who would then be confident the English would not reciprocate? If they didn't want Romanians and Poles "taking their jobs", why would they want Scots?

But, in reality, would any of this happen? Of course not. The damage to Scotland's economy would just be too great. Just as Ireland, long wanting to be in the EU, realised nonetheless that because of similar trade and border considerations, they could not join unless Britain joined. It is no coincidence that Ireland first applied for EEC membership on exactly the same day as Britain in 1961 and did not actually join until exactly the same day in 1973. And, whether they like it or not, the continued desire for an open border with the North and the continued importance of Britain as their largest European export market would cast severe doubts over whether Ireland could remain in the EU if  Britain were to withdraw. Yet only 16% of Irish exports are to Britain. Less if you excluded Scotland. More than 60% of Scottish exports however are to the rest of the UK!

So let us be clear. If Britain votes to go, then, independent or not, Scotland would need to go as well. The only thing at stake on 18th September this year is whether we would have any say on that inevitable consequence.

Notes: 1. Albeit from a slightly different perspective, @effiedeans has blogged on this same topic this weekend here Much of what she says was in my original imagined draft of this piece so I haven't repeated it for fear of accusations of plagiarism! I would however commend what she says.

2. I was assisted in some of my thinking and history by reading "Enlargement and Accession to the European Union" by Christopher Peston which can be found here

3. Throughout the piece I have referred to "England" rather than to the alternative formulation rUK. Here I mean no slight to the Welsh or Northern Irish. It is however the case that their attitude to an Independent Scotland is largely irrelevant to Scotland's potential prosperity. The continued economic goodwill of England however would be essential. I've made the point before that those who dispute that are not simply in denial of the economics, they require to be in denial of simple geography as well. That is nowhere more important to appreciate than when it comes to Scotland's ability to export. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that - I'm an English Tory.

    One of the thing that baffles me about the Nats is the sheer idiocy of their position on EU and the Currency (I read another excellent article of yours on that subject).

    They don't seem to get that even if their followers will believe 'it's a bluff' and 'we'll stay in' very few Businesses will believe it and they will want either reassurance on Currency, European Trade, or both. Arm waving and accusing Ministers of bluffing won't do.

    A serious problem is that this will cause plans etc. to be drawn up (probably on the QT, any large business will have contingency plans for iScotland) and may well be executed whether the answer is Yes or No. Not good for Scotland.

    Tariffs of any sort would be a win/win for rUK vs iScotland. Given most of the business is here, any business that can would evade the tariffs simply by moving to England, Wales or NI. I don't doubt the governments would encourage this - special rates for migrating business and so on as has been done in the past.