I stand with Catalonia

estelada photo
Photo by serguei_2k
Catalonia will hold its independence referendum on Sunday. It’s currently uncertain exactly how it will happen, but it seems clear that the Catalan government has prepared for all eventualities, so I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t go ahead in some form or other.

The referendum is illegal according to the Spanish constitution, so Spain is entirely entitled to ignore the result. Confiscating ballot boxes, raiding printing offices and prosecuting people is not a pretty sight in a democracy, however.

The European Union now has a problem similar to the ones it is facing in Hungary and Poland, namely that these member states aren’t living up to the democratic ideals of the Union. It has taken the EU a long time to start being tough on Hungary and Poland, so it’s no surprise that the speed the Catalan situation is developing at has left a lot of people in Brussels and in the capitals of the member states unprepared and struggling to find a good answer. However, the Spanish state is clamping down on a democratic process in a way that cannot be ignored for long.

My best guess is that Spain will manage to prevent the referendum from going ahead in many places (but by no means all of them), and that the results from the ones that do manage to stay open will be close to 100% Sí. I therefore expect the Catalan Government to declare independence within the next week.

It’s clear that Spain won’t recognise this independence declaration, and neither will any of the EU member states at first. I guess Russia might recognise it, and perhaps a few of the countries that Spain has refused to recognise over the years, such as Kosova.

What will Spain do then? Will they pretend nothing has happened (apart from trying to arrest a lot of Catalan independentistas)? If so, they cannot close the borders or stop the block grants. Or will they treat Catalonia as an rogue independent country, shutting the borders and freezing Catalan assets in Spain? Or will they do something in between?

Many observers seem to think the Catalan government will back down if they’re offered a few more powers. I don’t think so. It’s my impression that they have been immensely frustrated by the Spanish refusal to discuss independence in the past, and they’re now going to go ahead, no matter how difficult it turns out to be.

The EU – as well as all European countries and individuals – will therefore need to work out what to do if the situation doesn’t resolve itself. Telling the Catalans to get back into their box is unlikely to work, and it could create a lot of bad blood.

Personally I don’t think a democratic state should be able to declare that any question lies beyond the reach of democracy. If a controversial goal such as independence cannot be achieved democratically, frustrated individuals will eventually start using violence to achieve it. If Spain won’t accept a Catalan independence referendum, they need to specify another realistic way for the Catalans to achieve it – telling them that the constitution doesn’t allow it and that there’s nothing they can do about it simply isn’t good enough.

Finally, we need to talk about Russia. There are signs that they’re supporting the Catalans behind the scenes, just like they supported Trump, Brexit, AfD and Front National recently. (The Scottish independence referendum probably happened a bit too early, or the Russian influence would have been felt strongly here, too.) I’m sensing that some people are thus concluding that Catalan independence must be a bad thing, too.

However, what’s happening seems to be that the Russians are supporting anything that upsets the status quo – they’re clearly assuming that any sort of instability in the West will benefit Russia.

It’s therefore wrong to infer anything about the merits of Catalan independence on the basis of Russian support, apart from the obvious fact that it will be disruptive to a large EU country.

We have to make up our own minds about the political questions that face us. Simply taking the opposite position to Russia would be facile and potentially wrong.

In this case, I believe the Catalans must be allowed to decide their own future, and if they collectively decide they want to go for independence in Europe, we should all support them. What Spain currently is doing is a democratic outrage.

If you see disaster coming, it’s your duty to avert it

titanic photo
Photo by knolleary
Pete Wishart has written an article in The National today, which rather puzzled me. In it he writes this:

Brexit will be an absolute disaster for Scotland, cutting average pay by £2000 and resulting in the loss of 80 000 jobs. […]

With transitional arrangements in place, it is likely that the full impact of Brexit will start to become apparent just as we start to contest the 2021 election. We therefore have to seek a renewed mandate in 2021 and have the courage of our convictions to fight the next Scottish election on securing a renewed referendum mandate.

This is barking mad! If Pete Wishart thought there was a decent chance Brexit might be a success, I could understand why he might want to wait a bit, but if he’s convinced (as am I) that it will be “an absolute disaster”, why wait?

Have politicians lost their ability to change people’s minds? Is there a rule that they have to follow opinion polls slavishly without trying to influence hearts and minds?

If you can see that the Titanic is going to collide with an iceberg and sink, your duty is to either change course or launch a lifeboat. It’s not to congratulate yourself that lots of people will flock to your lifeboat once the ship is sinking fast.

I realise that a lot of SNP people got a nasty shock in June, when the party did much worse than anybody had expected. However, what happened wasn’t a rejection of independence – it was a sign that many independentistas are getting fed up with the SNP, as happens with all parties that have been in power for a while. I find it very unlikely that Scottish voters will vote for the SNP in bigger numbers in 2021 and 2022 if the economy is falling apart under an SNP government (but ultimately due to Brexit and Tory austerity).

We already have two separate mandates for independence. It’s true that it’s hard to force Westminster’s hand when Yes is still hovering around the 45% mark in the opinion polls, but surely what we should be doing in those circumstances is to campaign for independence now in order to shift public opinion.

I have for a long time argued that we need a new independence referendum no later than the autumn of 2018, in order to get out before Brexit happens. However, if the UK gets a two-year transition deal, as asked for by Theresa May (and whether this gets accepted by the EU is by no means certain yet), I guess we can perhaps wait till September 2020, if we’re happy to negotiate independence within six months. If we want 18 months to put everything in place (which is what Alex Salmond’s plan was last time), we need to hold ScotRef no later than September 2019.

That is entirely doable. The EU will not implement a transitional arrangement unless they know where the UK is heading, so by March 2019 it should be be clear what Brexit means, and that then allows for a six-month campaign before a September 2019 referendum.

Much as I can see the rationale for this, I still personally think it is too late. As I’ve said many times before, a lot of people and companies will start moving to the continent in 2018, and they won’t come back no matter what. And new companies trying to make money out of Brexit (for instance by selling substitutes for EU products that suddenly get too expensive) will not place themselves in Scotland if there’s any possibility that Scotland will leave the UK soon afterwards, so Scotland is likely to end up in a nightmare scenario, losing people and companies but not gaining any, basically because we’ve been staring into the headlights for too long.

Also, the longer we wait, the more likely it becomes that the English Remainers will finally get their act together and cancel Brexit. That would be great in many ways, but it will kick Scottish independence into the seriously long grass. It certainly won’t benefit the SNP.

If I was being evil, I would say that Pete Wishart’s idea of a referendum during the 2021–26 parliament is based on the idea that asking for a mandate for independence might be the SNP’s only chance to win that election. However, if that’s the thinking behind it, it’s for the sole benefit of the SNP and to the detriment of the independence movement and of the people of Scotland.

Why we’re in a hurry

mauerfall photo
Photo by Gertrud K.
History seems to develop in sudden bursts (the punctuated equilibrium theory) – nothing happens for decades, and suddenly everything changes at once. For instance, the map of Europe changed very little between 1949 and 1990, and then a lot of borders changed in the space of three years. After that, things went fairly quiet again.

The financial crash, austerity, rising inequality and other factors are now turning the world unsteady once more, and there is a potential for quite a few changes to the map of Europe. (We’ve already seen Crimea and parts of Georgia getting occupied by Russia, and Catalonia might be independent in a month’s time.) However, at some point in the near future, this window of uncertainty will close again, and the status quo will reign supreme again for a long time.

It was probably the financial crash that in 2014 convinced a lot of people in Scotland that independence was a better option than remaining within the UK, and Brexit is now a great opportunity to make even more people come on board. This doesn’t happen on its own, of course – somebody needs to explain to former Unionists why Brexit means that Scotland is a safer way forward.

However, at some point Brexit will get resolved, and things will stabilise again – the companies and people that couldn’t accept it will have left, and the rest will have found a new to live. Even if the new status quo is clearly worse than the old one, people’s livelihoods will depend on the new state of affairs, and they will not want to rock the boat. At that point it will again get much harder to interest people in independence.

For instance, if the UK has left the Internal Market and the EU’s customs union and instead entered an association agreement with the US, leaving the UK and rejoining the EU (or Efta) will seem like an enormous change, a step too far for the vast majority of people whose jobs depend on trade with the USA, even if they vaguely remember that the jobs they had before Brexit were better.

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem at all certain that there will be a pro-independence majority at Holyrood after 2021, and that could make it impossible to call a new referendum, even if the opinion polls at that time find a majority of Scots in favour of independence.

This means that if ScotRef hasn’t happened by 2021, the window of uncertainty is likely to have closed by the time pro-independence parties gain a majority again, and then the ball will have been kicked into the seriously long grass.

However, this doesn’t mean that waiting till 2021 is a good idea at all. In fact, I’m getting increasingly worried that time is already running out, and I’m getting increasingly frustrated with the Scottish Government – they seem to be focusing mainly on getting the best possible Brexit deal from the UK, instead of spending their time campaigning for independence. I’m not saying anybody should really be talking about a referendum at this stage – there’s a lot of referendum fatigue in Scotland – but if nobody explains why Scotland will be better off as part of the EU than as part of the UK, former No voters won’t change their mind.

The thing is that people and companies are moving. I’m aware that relatively few people have left yet, but that’s because it takes time to make such a big change.

To take my own family as an example: My wife holds UK citizenship, and nothing else. Moving to the rest of the EU will thus be much harder for her after March 2019, so if we move, it’ll need to happen sooner than that. We have kids in both primary and secondary school, and making such as fundamental change during a school year isn’t a great idea. The best time to move is thus the summer of 2018. It’ll take us at least six months to plan such a move – we’ll need to find new jobs, sell the house and many other things – so we’ll need to make our decision by Christmas this year. This doesn’t mean that Scotland will need have to have left by then, but if it’s still looking like the UK might be going for a hard (or even a cliff-edge) Brexit, and if there’s no concrete plan for Scotland to be doing anything about it, we’ll have to execute Operation Flit.

I imagine that many other people and companies are working to similar time scales. What’s important here is that once the house has been put on the market and new job contracts signed, it’ll get very hard to reverse the decision, even if ScotRef suddenly gets announced next summer.

There is a mandate for independence both in Holyrood and in Westminster (counting only the Scottish seats). We need to act while Scottish independence can act as a solution to Brexit, not as yet a further upheaval once things have finally calmed down. And we need to signal what the plan is before lots of people and companies have relocated themselves permanently to the rest of the EU.

We’re in a hurry.

The leaked paper: What will Scotland do?

immigration photo
Photo by markhillary
The Home Office’s leaked paper on EU citizens was sadly rather predictable. They clearly want to deal with EU citizens in the same way as all other foreigners – and as Pavel Iosad has repeatedly reminded us on Twitter, nobody has ever seemed to mind that much.

However, it will have huge repercussions for the UK. Most EU citizens have ID cards only (no passports), and if that’s not good enough any longer, a large number of tourists and business people will go elsewhere.

Also, whereas people from outwith the EU will expect to jump through various immigration hoops if they want to work anywhere other than in their home country, EU citizens will still have nearly 30 hassle-free destinations to choose from. For instance, when I accepted a job offer in Bishopbriggs back in 2002, I was weighing it up against another opportunity in Norway. If the Scottish job had required a time-limited visa, I don’t think I would have been interested in it (or at the very least, they would have had to offer a much higher salary to make me consider it).

Although it’s possible the new rules will only apply to new arrivals from the EU after Brexit, nothing is certain at this stage, and practically all EU citizens are watching developments with fear and dread. Lots of people have already left, and many more are frantically searching for a job on the continent (or two jobs, if their partner expects to work, too) to allow them to leave, too.

A year ago, Nicola Sturgeon’s reassuring words made a lot of EU citizens in Scotland relax – it felt like she was standing up for us, and that she wouldn’t allow Scotland do be dragged out of the Internal Market.

However, after June’s general election, things feel different. Although we still feel welcome on a personal level (which is very different from the stories EU citizens in non-metropolitan England are reporting), it now feels like the Scottish Government has lost its ScotRef mojo, that their plan now is to exit the EU with the rUK, trying to gain some powers over fisheries and agriculture in the process (something which I couldn’t care less about), and hope that the Brexit clusterfuck will make the people of Scotland rise up and demand independence within a few years. But if that’s the plan, I’m most likely to leave, together with a great many other EU citizens.

I might of course be wrong, and something might be happening behind the scenes. The Scottish Government might for instance have been told confidentially that the UK government will stay in the Internal Market (including free movement of people) forever more (but that doesn’t tally with the Home Office paper), or that Scotland will get full powers over immigration after Brexit. It might even be the case that Nicola is planning to declare independence without a referendum if need be, but that’d surprise me.

The main thing is that the EU citizens in Scotland increasingly feel like we’ve been forgotten. That we’ve been marched up to the top of the hill, and then abandoned.

If the Scottish Government has a great plan for how to protect us, they’d better start saying it out loud, or we’ll start leaving in great numbers. And the only two things that will really reassure us are either that the UK decides to remain within the Internal Market (either by ditching Brexit or by going for a Norwegian-style solution), or that Scotland declares independence before Brexit happens.

Ceterum censeo Caledoniam esse independentem

scotland roman photo
Photo by LightSweep
Everybody seems to be delighted by the Scottish Government’s legislative programme, which Nicola Sturgeon announced today. I’m not happy, though.

It’s not that I’m against much in the programme itself. It’s actually full of great ideas, such as setting up a Scottish investment bank and conducting basic income trials.

My problem is that it seem to be either either ignoring or accepting Brexit, and that’s not going to end well. It seems to be ignoring Brexit in the sense that many of the proposals are going to cost money, and if the economy collapses, that’s simply not going to be possible. And it seems to be accepting Brexit because it talks about repatriating powers coming back from Brussels, and that clearly doesn’t make any sense if Scotland isn’t leaving.

Cato the Elder, the Roman statesman, kept insisting that Carthage was still a danger to the Republic after two wars and needed to be destroyed in a third one. Most famously, he was known to add as a closing remark to any speech he made, whatever the topic, “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” (i.e., “furthermore, I am of the opinion that Carthage should be destroyed”).

Scottish independence is more important than ever, given the epic disaster that Brexit is shaping up to become, and yet it feels like the SNP has almost stopped talking about it in public, probably because they felt they got their fingers burnt in June’s general election.

I’m not suggesting that we should be discussing the timing of the next independence referendum all the time, but it is important to point out why we need independence in order to pursue the future we want, perhaps to the point of ending every speech with “Ceterum censeo Caledoniam esse independentem”.

In particular, Nicola should have spent a good part of her speech saying that it was dependent on Brexit getting cancelled or turning into a soft Brexit, remaining within both the Internal Market and the Customs Union (in which case, by the way, there won’t be any significant powers to repatriate). She should have said in no uncertain terms that a hard Brexit (or even worse, a cliff-edge one) would cause the whole programme to get cancelled and replaced by an emergency programme, including a new independence referendum.

As an EU citizen, I need certainty that Scotland won’t get dragged out of the Internal Market, and that was what Nicola promised the day after the Brexit referendum. I didn’t sense any urgency today, no attempt at explaining why Brexit has the potential to be such a disaster for Scotland.

Ceterum censeo Caledoniam esse independentem.

The road to EU membership

eu flag photo
Photo by European Parliament
How do countries join the EU? I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about this. In particular, there seems to be an assumption that you either remain within the EU and somehow alter the treaties, or that you leave and copy the accession route followed by other countries in the past (a process that can go on for many years).

Joining is all about closing chapters of the so-called acquis, which basically means that you need to show that you’ve implemented EU legislation in all the various areas. If you’re already an EU member, almost all the chapters can be closed immediately, because full convergence has already happened. All that remains is to negotiate things such as voting rights and fisheries quotas, and that shouldn’t take very long.

Leaving the EU together with the rUK would mean diverging from EU legislation, which would mean that Scotland would then spend years realigning itself with the acquis afterwards. It makes no sense, because it would involve years when it was aligned with neither the rUK nor the EU.

I still think my old timeline still seems reasonable, although it potentially conflicts with Nicola’s new position of not holding a referendum until it’s clear what Brexit means:

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. 13 Scots get 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).

This timeline is assuming the UK will leave the Internal Market and the Customs Union immediately. If Westminster and Brussels agree on a transitional period, it would give Scotland more time. On the other hand, if the UK government walks out and slams the door (something that the Tories might be planning to do, as I wrote yesterday), there could be even less time available.

It’s important that Scotland is ready for all eventualities. It’s finally starting to dawn on most people that Brexit will be an enormous disaster, so this is a good time to talk up independence as a solution.