All posts by thomas

Repopulating the Highlands will be necessary after Brexit and ScotRef

Durness
Durness.
In her speech to the SNP’s spring conference yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon said:

Scotland isn’t full up. If you are as appalled as we are at the path this Westminster government is taking, come and join us.

Come here to live, work, invest or study. Come to Scotland and be part of building a modern, progressive, outward-looking, compassionate country.

I think this was a wonderful thing to say. Firstly, it’s true, and secondly, it shows the world that Scottish nationalism (or sovereigntism or independentism as I prefer to call it) isn’t racist in the slightest, but progressive and open to the world.

If the rUK continues moving towards a hard Brexit, and Scotland as a consequence votes for independence within Nicola’s window of late 2018 to early 2019 to escape the madhouse, I find it quite likely that many people from the rUK (both natives and EU citizens desperate to remain within the Internal Market), will take up the offer to join us in Scotland. They’ll be joined by many companies that need to remain within the EU and reckon the move to Scotland is easier than moving to a place outside the old UK.

As a consequence, Scotland's population might grow rapidly soon, perhaps by 10% in less than a decade.

That’s great in a lot of ways, but where do we house them? The Central Belt is already busy and congested, and although I'm sure there'll be space for a few more, I think a more radical solution will be needed.

At the same time, the Highland Clearances were a horrible and dark part of Scottish history, and it would be nice to right the wrong by reversing them in some way.

So I'm thinking we should start planning for a few new towns and cities in the Highlands. In some cases, existing towns can be expanded a bit, but sometimes it’d be good to think big.

For instance, I was looking at a map, and I thought Durness would be a nice candidate for expansion: It’s a beautiful place, there isn’t any large town in the vicinity, and from a historical point of view, it was the location of the Durness Riots of 1846 (when the women of Ceann na Beinne area defied the Sheriff's Officer sent to deliver the summons of eviction as part of the Clearances).

If we built a new town there the size of Milton Keynes (population 230k), the Highland council area would double in size, practically overnight (the current population of the whole area is 230k, too).

A new town could be built in a modern way, incorporating the area’s stunning nature as green areas, and building modern infrastructure such as trams at the same time as everything else. The houses should be built to environmentally friendly standards, and of course every house should have ultra-fast Internet as standard. The city should also be designed to be carbon-neutral from day one.

There has been a lot of talk about English universities setting up campuses abroad to maintain a presence within the EU, and Durness could become the best location for them, because their campuses could be designed and built at the same time as the rest of the city.

Given that Durness is almost as close to Reykjavík as it is to London (1050km vs 900km as the crow flies), it could also easily become a very attractive location for American companies needed a foothold in the EU if it had its own airport.

Some people would perhaps say that Durness would be a ridiculously northern location, but of course it’s further south than both Oslo and Stockholm.

If done right, the City of Durness could become one of the most attractive places to live in Scotland, and a real magnet for people moving to Scotland after independence.

Independence changes everything. We need to think big.

Oh, so you won’t allow it, Theresa?

Theresa May Scrabble
Theresa May Scrabble.
Theresa May seems to have said today she’s decided to prevent Scotland from holding a new independence referendum until Brexit has happened. It’s not entirely clear that’s what she meant (she was being vague and repetitive as usual), but that’s the interpretation most people took from it.

It’s absolutely unacceptable. In Scotland, the sovereignty belongs to the people, and an unelected prime minister cannot simply tell us to shut up.

Theresa May might be naïve enough to think that we’ll now just go back to eating our cereal because we don’t have any choice, but of course we have many options:

  1. Nicola Sturgeon can try to change Theresa May’s mind. Given that she was being very vague today, she can quite easily climb down simply by saying that ‘now’ simply meant ‘not in 2017 or 2018, but early 2019 is fine’.

    With any other prime minister, I would have thought it had a decent chance of success, but Theresa May has shown many signs of being a control freak, so I think the chances are rather slim. However, perhaps some clued-up Unionists can make her change her mind.

  2. The Scottish Government can go to the Supreme Court and argue that there is precedence for a Section 30 order being issued automatically whenever the Scottish Parliament asks for it.

    I’m not a lawyer, so I’ve no idea whether this would have any chance of succeeding.

  3. The Scottish Government can call a non-binding referendum. As far as I know, it’s only legally binding ones that require a Section 30 order.

    It’s not certain that the Unionists would participate in such a referendum, which could create problems with its legitimacy.

    There are also a real risks that many countries wouldn’t respect the outcome. Spain has for instance been very clear that they’re happy to recognise newly sovereign countries that obtained their independence through a legal, constitutional process (e.g., Montenegro), but otherwise they’re not (e.g., Kosovo).

    However, the Brexit referendum was non-binding, too, and yet the Westminster parliament was ridiculously keen to treat the result as gospel, so they might of course do the same after a non-binding #ScotRef.

  4. An alternative to a non-binding referendum would be to call new Holyrood elections with independence as the main question. If the Yes parties then have a majority afterwards, that can be seen as expressing the will of the Scottish people without the need for a subsequent referendum.

    It does raise the question whether it would be sensible for the Yes parties to run individually, or whether they should form an electoral alliance for this election to make it more certain they’ll win a majority that cannot be contested by anyone.

  5. Finally, we could of course just accept Theresa May’s order, shut up and go away and do something different for a few years. I personally think that’d be disastrous – it would simply embolden the Tories, and Brexit will cause a lot of damage to the Scottish economy in the meantime.

    There’s also a risk that the Tories would prevent EU citizens from voting in the #ScotRef post-Brexit (if there are many of us left at that point).

I reckon the most sensible option is to try (1) first, perhaps followed by (2), and then move on to (3) or (4).

EFTA is not a stepping stone to EU membership

EFTA-logo
EFTA-logo.
Before the UK joined the EU (or rather the EEC as it was called at the time), it was a member of EFTA, and when Norway twice voted No to joining, they remained in EFTA. Because of this, I think many people think that it would be easier for Scotland to join EFTA than the EU after independence. It’s not as simple as that, however.

Let’s define a few terms before we start:

  • EFTA consists of four countries: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. EFTA was originally a rival to the EEC, but today it basically contains a few countries that never joined the EU for various reasons.
  • The EEA (the European Economic Area) consists of all EU countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. It is the area in which the Agreement on the EEA provides for the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital within the European Single Market. All EEA countries adopt most EU legislation concerning the single market, however with notable exclusions including laws regarding agriculture and fisheries.
  • The EU Customs Union (the EUCU) is a customs union which consists of all the member states of the European Union (EU) as well as Turkey (apart from agricultural goods) and a few micro-states. The EFTA countries do not form part of the EUCU.

When people talk about joining EFTA, they probably mean joining the EEA, too (like Norway) – I don’t believe there are many fans of the Swiss solution in Scotland.

It makes sense to think of EFTA + EEA (the Norwegian/Icelandic solution) as being a reduced version of the EU – it basically means being part of the Internal Market, but being in charge of trade agreements, agriculture and fisheries yourself. Also, EFTA/EEA countries don’t take direct part in the EU’s decision-making processes (no members of the European Parliament, no European Commissioner, no EU employees, and so on).

If Scotland were currently a fully independent country, it would make perfect sense to join EFTA/EEA as a stepping stone to full EU membership. It would basically mean joining in two rounds instead of one, which might be easier for people to adjust to.

However, Scotland is not a fully independent country, and neither is the UK. We have been part of the EEC/EU for fully 44 years, and that changes everything.

If Scotland went for a Norwegian/Icelandic solution after independence, we would need to develop policies for agriculture and fisheries from scratch, and we’d need to set up trade deals, customs schedules, WTO membership, and many more things. Many of those things would take a very long time to set up – the standard assumption is that new trade deals take about a decade to negotiate. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why Brexit is likely to become such a disaster — Westminster simply cannot set up these things quickly enough, so without a ten-year-long transitional period in place (which they’re refusing), the UK will fall back on the WTO’s standard terms, which will be disastrous, not least for agriculture.

In other words, if the people of Scotland wanted a proper Norwegian solution, it would probably take about a decade to set up after independence. During that decade, it would be really important for Scotland to remain inside the EU’s Customs Union.

By the way, it might be worth pointing out in this connexion that most Norwegian and Icelandic politicians don’t really like the EFTA/EEA solution. They can live with it, but they’d rather be in the EU. The main reason why Norway never joined the EU is because they’ve decided to spend a lot of their oil money on keeping their villages full of people, which implies subsidising their farmers (and keeping food prices higher) than the EU would allow. Iceland is so dependent on fisheries that it overshadows everything else; however, they’re now talking again about joining.

Anyway, back to Scotland. It’s quite possible that the EU will require us to apply for membership formally after independence, and although this is likely to be the fastest application process ever (because Scotland already ticks all the boxes for membership), it could still take a year or two. If Brexit happens a few months after the Scottish Referendum, we cannot be in limbo for that long. So Scotland should aim to to get membership of the EEA and of the EU Customs Union as a matter of priority after independence (hopefully it can be pre-negotiated informally beforehand).

Membership of the EEA and of the EUCU is not the same as the Norwegian solution, and it doesn’t really require membership of EFTA, either.

Once Scotland is a member of both the EEA and the EUCU, time is not of the essence any longer. We can afford to discuss membership terms with the EU in great detail, including getting a much better deal for the Scottish fishermen than what Westminster got, and if the deal on the table isn’t good, Scotland can look at negotiating its own trade deals and eventually leave the EUCU a decade or more after independence.

I’m perfectly happy for us to aim for EEA + EUCU membership as a stepping stone to EU membership, but we shouldn’t call it EFTA membership or a Norwegian solution, because it wouldn’t be.

Once we’re independent, it will be right and proper for the Scottish Parliament to discuss the pros and cons of EU membership versus mimicking Norway, and perhaps we should even have a referendum to settle the question. However, we need EEA + EUCU membership in the meantime.

Doing the same as Norway might be possible eventually, but it wouldn’t be a quick and easy solution, because we would need to develop policies for trade, agriculture and fisheries first.

I believe full EU membership would be much better for Scotland, but I’m quite happy to postpone this discussion till after #ScotRef. What is important at the moment is not to start aiming for a Norwegian solution already because we think it will be easy. Negotiating trade deals is extremely complex, and we shouldn’t leave the EU Customs Union without a full and frank discussion of the consequences.

What we should do is to aim to remain inside both the EEA and the EU Customs Union from Day 1, and then decide what we want to do. I hope and expect the EU will offer such a good membership deal that the choice will be obvious, even for Scotland’s farmers and fishermen.

This time it’s personal

IMG_20160730_102409
Selfie with weans.
I was a keen and eager participant in the first independence referendum campaign, and I was as devastated as everybody else on Friday the 19th when we realised we had lost.

Campaigning was about creating a fairer Scotland that would be a great place for my weans to grow up in, but I didn’t really expect the result to have massive implications for my family and myself in the short to medium term.

This time it’s different, however: My family depends on this country remaining in the EU (or at least in the EEA) because we are a truly European family. I am a Danish citizen, my wife has a UK passport, the kids we have together are Danish/UK and the kids from my wife’s previous marriage are French/UK (however, for the under-18s getting a French passport might depend on cooperation from her ex, and this might not be forthcoming).

Brexit means that I could lose my right to live here (or at least lose some rights, such as access to the NHS and getting a pension), but at the same time my wife could lose the right to live in the EU. There could also potentially be problems moving my stepkids to the continent if their father doesn’t cooperate. Furthermore, my parents would lose the right to come and a live with us in Scotland when they get frail, and the same would happen to my mother-in-law if we move abroad. Furthermore, permanent residence gets nullified after more than six months abroad, so I would also lose my right to work abroad temporarily, or to spend more than six months with my parents if their health requires it (they’re staying in a tiny village in the mountains of Italy). It could also make it financially impossible for the kids to study abroad if they so desire. Retiring abroad together would probably also become an impossibility for us.

My wife and I have thus been feeling utterly distraught because of Brexit (and not least because of the UK government’s decision to use me and others in my situation as bargaining chips), and if it hadn’t been for Nicola Sturgeon’s wonderful speech the morning after Brexit, we might have left for the continent already.

I therefore felt absolutely delighted that Nicola yesterday announced that the new Scottish referendum will be held before the UK leaves the EU. Finally somebody is offering us a solution to our worries.

This might be our last and only chance to keep our family together, so it’s hard to describe in words how important it is for us to win this. All I can say is that if we lose, the consequences are too horrible to contemplate.

So it’s no game. We have to win it. Scotland in Europe has to happen before the Tories wreck our family.

This time it’s personal.

Delaying the new independence referendum will help the Unionists

Delayed Departure
Delayed Departure.
There are two groups of people who want to postpone a new Scottish independence referendum till after Brexit: Yes–Leave voters and Unionists.

Many Yes–Leave voters (the Yellow Tribe, as I’ve described them in the past), such as Jim Sillars, want to postpone it because they hate the EU at least as much as the UK, and they hope Scottish EU membership can be averted by waiting till Scotland has fully left the EU together with the rest of the UK.

They might sing a siren song about needing more time to prepare a Yes majority, but when you dig a bit deeper, their main focus is clearly to prevent Scottish membership of the EU, and they dismiss any concerns that Independence Outwith Europe will attract much fewer voters than Independence In Europe

I’m finding it curious why they had no problems voting Yes last time, given that there clearly was an expectation that Scotland would apply for continued EU membership immediately. I guess they might have been hoping Project Fear were right that Spain would veto it.

It’s clear this group will do everything they can to delay the next independence referendum. What is less clear is whether they’ll actually vote No or abstain if it does happen sooner rather than later.

On the other hand, the Unionists clearly want to postpone the referendum because they think they will lose if there’s any prospect of uninterrupted EU membership for Scotland, but that their chances of keeping Scotland on board are much better once Brexit has happened. I tend to agree with them. It’ll be much easier to organise Project Fear II if Scotland has to spend years after independence re-harmonising its laws with the EU before membership becomes an option. Let’s face it – if Theresa May wants Indyref2 after Brexit, it’s not because she wants to help us

What is clear is that the two groups can’t both be right. Either holding Indyref2 after Brexit will increase the chances of a Yes, or it’ll do the opposite. My money would be on the Unionists here; after all, they just want to prevent Scotland from leaving, whereas the Yes–Leave crowd have two conflicting priorities: Obtaining independence and staying out of the EU.

We therefore have to dismiss the Leave–Yes plea for postponing next new independence referendum. Our best chance is to hold it before Brexit becomes a reality, for instance in the autumn of 2018.

UK vs EU

People who voted Yes and then Leave (the Yellow Tribe, as I’ve described them in the past) often talk of the UK and the EU as if they were almost the same, and they’re thus often keen to postpone Indyref2 till Brexit is done and dusted. “Why leave one union just to join another?” as they like to say.

However, is this fair? To what extent are the two unions alike? I thought it’d be useful to compare them topic by topic:

UK EU
The Houses of Parliament consist of two chambers. In the House of Commons, 59 out of 650 MPs are representing Scotland (9%). It’s hard to calculate the equivalent for the House of Lords because they don’t represent constituencies, but the Scotsman put the number at 61 out of 760 (8%) in 2015. This should be seen against the fact that Scotland makes up slightly more than 8% of the population of the UK. The European Parliament consists of 571 members. As an independent country, Scotland would probably have 13 MEPs (like Denmark), rather than the current 6, because small countries are over-represented. That would mean that Scotland would have 1.7% of MEPs on a population share of 1%. In the European Council, Scotland would have equal representation with all other member states (1 out of 28), so the same as Malta, Denmark and Germany.
There isn’t a specific number of Scottish ministers in the UK government. At the moment there is only one (David Mundell), but even that isn’t guaranteed (for instance, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland isn’t Irish). The European Commission consists of one commissioner from each member state, so Scotland would always have one.
Westminster is sovereign, so if they want to change Holyrood’s powers, they can do so without consulting Scotland, although in the past they have done so. For instance, abolishing Holyrood altogether would be entirely within their powers if they thought that would be a good idea. The powers of the EU are described in the Treaty of Lisbon, and it requires unanimity to change it. This means that Scotland as a member state would have to agree before handing over any more powers to Brussels. There is absolutely no way that the EU could get rid of Holyrood.
Using the Pound Sterling is obligatory. In theory, Scotland would be required to adopt the Euro, but in practice it would be easy not to fulfil the criteria and thus stay out indefinitely, like Poland and Sweden.
It would be politically difficult for Westminster to refuse a new Scottish independence referendum, but they would be entitled to do so. The EU allows any member state to leave using Article 50. As we’re finding out at the moment, this is not easy, but at least it’s a guaranteed right.
The UK has one single foreign policy, and Scotland is not allowed to have its own. EU member states have their own foreign policy, but they have lots of meetings to coordinate their efforts. The EU has a nascent foreign policy, too, but this is in addition to the member states’ own policies, not instead of them.
The UK hasn’t negotiated its own trade agreements for many years and will have to do this from scratch after Brexit. The EU has great trade agreements with most of the world, and these apply automatically to all member states.
Westminster raises most taxes in the UK and then sends block grants to the devolved administrations. Each member state raises its own taxes and pays a membership fee to the EU.
The military is a British institution, and it’s completely controlled by Westminster. NATO membership is very important to the UK. As an EU member state, Scotland would be responsible for its own military forces. EU countries cooperate a bit. NATO membership is not obligatory.
The Tories are talking about walking away from the European Declaration of Human Rights and the jurisdiction of the ECHR. EU countries have to sign up to the ECHR, and the European Declaration of Human Rights forms part of the EU treaties.
The UK has over the centuries invaded most countries of the World. The EU hasn’t invaded any countries at all.
The UK used to do its best to get rid of Welsh, Gaelic, Scots and the other indigenous languages of the British Isles. It seems to have been mainly European influence that has led to improved support for minority languages. Linguistic diversity is in the EU’s DNA. As a full member state, Scotland will be able to designate either Scots or Gaelic as a full working language of the EU with translation of all texts and interpretation of all speeches in the European Parliament.
All oil revenues go straight to Westminster. EU member states keep their own energy revenues, and the EU might help member states build energy infrastructure, such as pipelines between member states.
British citizenship completely replaced Scottish citizenship in 1707. EU citizenship is additional to citizenship of a member state.
Anthem: God Save the Queen. Anthem: Ode to Joy.

If I’ve forgotten anything, please leave a comment underneath, and I’ll add it.

Scottish independence can still happen before Brexit

Scottish euro coin
Scottish euro coin.

During the first independence referendum campaign, the Scottish Government announced that Scotland would become independent 553 days after the referendum (on 24th March 2016). This was widely criticised at the time for leaving too little time for all the negotiations.

Most people seem to assume that would be the case this time as well. For instance, in an article by STV News about fast-tracking Scotland’s EU membership application, they suggested the following possible EU membership timeline:

  • Autumn 2018 – Scotland votes Yes to independence
  • March 2019 – Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, leaves the European Union
  • 2020 – Scotland becomes an independent nation
  • 2020 – Scotland applies to join the EU
  • 2021 – The European Commission and the Council give the green light and negotiations begin
  • 2023 or 2024 – Majority of MEPs, all EU member states and Scotland ratify the treaty of ascension and the country joins the EU

And yet, if we look at other countries that have gained their independence recently, they have invariably become independent much more rapidly. As Alister Rutherford has pointed out, “Slovenia held a referendum on 23rd December 1990 and declared independence on 25th June 1991. Montenegro needed even less time. The referendum was held on 21st May 2006 and independence was declared on 3rd June of the same year. Some countries moved to independence without a referendum. Slovakia for example passed an act of independence in their parliament on 17th July 1992. There followed five months of negotiations which ended with the dissolution of Czechoslovakia on 31st December 1992. Slovakia then became formally independent on 1st January 1993.” The longest delay I’ve found so far was the 260 days it took Georgia to gain independence from the Soviet Union.

Of course it’s impossible to sort out very much during such a small amount of time. Lots of questions would remain unresolved for a while and would get settled later. The time before independence would be spent putting in place sensible transitional arrangements. For instance, Scotland and the rUK might decide that Scotland will continue to use the Pound Sterling for two years after independence day, and the EU might agree that we’ll remain within the EU’s Customs Union until EU membership has been agreed on (or rejected).

It actually makes sense if you think about it. Why should Scotland be dragged out of the EU for a year only to join immediately afterwards? Potentially this would involve setting up a new customs regime only to revert to the previous on as soon as it’s been implemented. It’s much more straightforward to become independent sooner rather than later and then sort out the details afterwards. It’s just like a divorce: People normally separate first and then sort out the details of the divorce afterwards, rather than staying together until they’ve divorced.

I therefore imagine a more sensible and realistic timescale would be as follows:

31 March 2017 Theresa May triggers Article 50
30 August 2018 Second independence referendum
28 February 2019 Scottish independence day
4 March 2019 Scotland sends a membership application to the EU and asks to remain within the Internal Market and the Customs Union in the interim.
4 March 2019 Scotland sends a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations expressing the intent to remain a party to all treaties signed and ratified by the United Kingdom.
14 March 2019 The European Commission and the European Council agree that Scotland can remain within the Internal Market and the Customs Union without voting rights while the membership application is processed.
31 March 2019 Brexit takes place – the rUK leaves the EU. Scotland is not yet a member state but remains within the Internal Market and the Customs Union.
26 September 2019 Formal EU membership negotiations begin.
28 February 2021 The new Scottish currency is launched, linked to a basket of Euro and Pound Sterling.
9 May 2021 (Europe Day) A majority of MEPs, all EU member states and Scotland ratify the treaty of ascension and the country joins the EU. Alex Salmond becomes Scotland’s first ever EU Commissioner, and 13 Scots are elected to the European Parliament (not 6 as before independence, but the same as Denmark).
28 February 2024 The rUK leaves Faslane, taking their nuclear weapons with them.
28 February 2034 The last of many independence treaties between Scotland and the rUK is signed (this one finalising the maritime border).