All posts by thomas

Will the EU take a leap forward without the UK?

Instapic: the EU flag statue inside the European Parliament
Instapic: the EU flag statue inside the European Parliament.
What many people in the UK don’t realise is the extent to which the UK has held back the EU. When I still lived in Denmark, I was an active member of my party’s EU politics committee, and when we discussed with people from Brussels why the EU didn’t do this or that, very often the answer was that London had vetoed it. Of course other countries sometimes insisted on things too, such as France’s insistence on keeping the European Parliament in Strasbourg, or Greece’s veto on accepting relations with Macedonia under that name, but Westminster politicians got their way in many and varied ways.

It’s instructive to note that even before Brexit takes place, the other countries are already starting to think about the prospects of creating an EU army (and if it’s something Germany can live with, I don’t think it’s going to be a bad thing).

Another example of something that might change is Schengen, the passport-free travel zone encompassing most EU countries as well as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. It is a real blessing that has made a huge change to people living close to borders. (I’m aware that it ran into massive problems recently because of the massive amounts of refugees, but things seem to be calming down again.)

Schengen started out separate from the EU. Why was that? Because the UK vetoed it, of course. And today only the UK and Ireland want to remain outside it – the other non-members (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania) want to join as soon as possible, I believe.

So once the UK leaves, what will happen to Schengen? In the short term, nothing much. But in the slightly longer term, there will be a desire to create an equivalence between the EU and Schengen (so that, for instance, one can talk about an EU visa rather than a Schengen one). Allowing for a few extra countries such as Norway or Iceland shouldn’t be a problem – they’re practically EU members without a vote anyway.

The problem will be Ireland. I predict that Ireland will come under pressure to abandon the Common Travel Area with the UK and join Schengen instead. It will have many advantages for Ireland, too, and to be honest I think their only real concern will be Northern Ireland.

The Euro is yet another part of the EU that might get integrated better with the rest of the union over time. Apart from the UK, only Denmark has a formal opt-out, so once the UK leaves, it will be tempting to start merging the normal policy-making forums with the parallel ones controlling the Eurozone.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the EU suddenly starts functioning much better without the UK? And imagine if the UK regrets Brexit after a few years and suddenly has to join Schengen, the Euro and other projects Westminster fought tooth and nail for decades?

A soft Brexit that slowly gets hard

frosty rocks...
frosty rocks….
I’ve been reading a lot over the past few weeks about the potential consequences of Brexit (I can recommend this post on the Jack of Kent blog and especially the many comments underneath), and I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it’ll be even harder and take longer than I had anticipated (and I was more pessimistic than most people I know).

If the UK government really enacts a hard Brexit in early 2019 – which seems to be what the Brexiters from the Leave campaign (such as Johnson, Fox and David) have in mind – then the consequences will be truly catastrophic, because the new trade agreements and other requirements of being a succesful state outwith the EU simply can’t be put in place that quickly. Some agreements can be in place sooner than others, but the consensus seems to be that some might take as long as ten years to do well.

At the same time, the UK government seems to believe that a soft Brexit doesn’t fulfil the promises of the Leave campaign (in particular because a soft outcome means continued free immigration for EU nationals).

As far as I can see, the only way to cut through this Gordian Knot is by implementing a soft Brexit here and now but to put an end date on it, for instance ten years later. So basically the UK government would ask the EU to remain part of everything for ten years after leaving, including the free movement of people. The UK would also contribute as much money to the EU budget as before, and continue to be bound by decisions by the European Court of Justice. The only difference would be that the UK would pull out of all the decision-making forums, such as the European Parliament and the European Council, and there wouldn’t be a British Commissioner any more. However, after the end date, the UK would be able to pull out of everything.

There would be many advantages to this. From the point of view of those preferring a hard Brexit, it would give them the time to negotiate good deals with other countries; those wanting a soft Brexit could hope to prolong the soft phase indefinitely; and the Remainers would get ten years to reverse Brexit – don’t forget that there’ll be two general elections during the ten years. It would also give Scotland up to ten years to plan a new independence referendum carefully, in full knowledge of what Brexit actually ends up meaning.

Interestingly, Yanis Varoufakis suggested something similar today, although he doesn’t think ten years are needed:

My advice is simple: activate Article 50, use those years as best you can and then strike a deal for the three or four years after Britain should be associated in a Norway-style agreement, and then use that period to have a robust debate on what’s to come later.

It’s all eminently sensible, which is probably why I have my doubts it’ll happen. Most of the tabloid press have been so busy telling their readers that Brexit is wonderful and uncomplicated and that it’ll cause us nasty EU migrants to get sent home very soon, so they’ll have a hard time explaining why suddenly nothing will change for a long time.

The Irish border post-Brexit

Eire N1 Northern Terminus - UK A1 Southern Terminus
Eire N1 Northern Terminus – UK A1 Southern Terminus.
I don’t know much about Ireland, I’m afraid. However, the Brexiters seem to understand even less, and that worries me.

On the one hand prominent pro-Brexit ministers such as David Davis state they don’t want a hard border post Brexit, but on the other hand the very same people are in favour of a hard Brexit, whereby the UK (incl. Northern Ireland) will leave the Internal Market, incl. the free movement of people and the common customs area. Something doesn’t add up here!

Firstly, if for instance the UK wants to control the number of Poles entering the country, how does that work if they can freely travel to Ireland as EU citizens and then get the bus to Belfast, unless there is a hard border?

Perhaps the Brexiters will reply they don’t want to ban Poles from traveling to the UK at all, but that they just want to control the numbers moving here permanently. Fair enough, but that requires a much more thorough system of work permits than what is being discussed at the moment. Different from what they promised during the Brexit referendum, they effectively wouldn’t really control the border, but instead keep a tab on people once they’re here. I don’t have a problem with that, but they should tell us if that’s the plan.

Secondly, if the UK and Ireland aren’t in the same customs area, surely lorries can’t just drive across the border. Even if the UK didn’t care about EU products getting smuggled freely across the Irish border, I have a feeling the EU would have a problem with UK products getting through without import duties. In other words, even if you don’t need to show your passport, you’ll get your luggage checked.

Thirdly, almost all EU countries are part of Schengen, the passport-free zone. The UK and Ireland have so far refused to join, but it’ll become much harder for Ireland not to do so when the UK isn’t an EU member state any longer. If at some point in the future Ireland joins Schengen, a border becomes almost unavoidable unless the UK joins Schengen too (like Norway and Iceland).

The Brexiters often say that the UK and Ireland also had an open border before we joined the EU, which is true, of course. What they forget is the Ireland wasn’t an EU member either at that point. This will be the first time ever that the EU’s external border will divide the Emerald Isle. Stating that you don’t want to create a hard border is simply not good enough when you’re simultaneously campaigning for a hard Brexit.

The Yellow Tribe of Scotland

Minions Singing In The Rain
Minions Singing In The Rain.
I thought I’d have a closer look at the four tribes of Scotland as described in my two earlier blog posts.

I defined the Yellow Tribe as “the 11% who want Scotland to be a completely independent country outside both the UK and the EU [mnemonic: yellow as the background on the lion rampant flag, which this group in my experience is very fond of]”, and I speculated that they typically voted Yes to independence and Leave in the Brexit referendum. It’s also the group that Wings over Scotland recently called “the unhappy 11%“.

They’re obviously not a homogenous group. Some members are ultra-idealistic lefties who denounce both the UK and the EU as being neo-liberal conspiracies, others are ethnic nationalists who are romanticising about Scotland’s glorious past, and others again are completely average voters who just don’t see why either union is needed.

Their preferred way forward was described rather well by Alex Neil in The Telegraph (I’m not saying that he is a member of the Yellow Tribe himself — he might or might not be):

Top of the list of Scottish demands should be the transfer of the powers being repatriated from Brussels, as they relate to Scotland, to the Scottish Parliament; not Westminster. […] The accumulation of all these new powers and finances would bring about “neo-Independence” for Scotland, creating the ideal platform for advancing to full sovereignty for the Scottish people in the early 2020’s.

It might sound tempting at a first glance. What is not being said is that it would make it time-consuming and cumbersome to rejoin the EU, because Scotland would in that case have to build a huge apparatus to deal with these power only for them to get delegated back to the EU a few years later.

Because of this, this is a very off-putting prospectus for those voters who prioritise EU membership, including those who voted No to independence two years ago because they thought continued EU membership was secured in that way. This is exactly the group of voters that will be needed to build a winning coalition for independence, so following this piece of advice kicks independence into the very long grass.

Interestingly, I think Theresa May might be eying up the Yellow Tribe, trying to convince them that independence won’t even be needed after Brexit. Here’s what she wrote in Holyrood Magazine:

As we strike that deal, we have an exciting chance to forge a new role in the world. Scotland’s status will not be diminished by that; it will be enhanced.

Although the Yellow voters only make up 11% of population, they’re rather more important within the Scottish National Party for historical reasons. Archive footage of the early SNP events looks like Yellow Tribe meetings. It was probably only when the Independence in Europe policy was adopted in the 1980s that the Blue Tribe began to dominate. However, my gut feeling is that there are many more Yellows amongst the old-timers of the party than amongst those of us who joined more recently.

This is significant because as Wings pointed out, it’s a group that desperately wants to avoid an early Indyref2. They want Brexit to be fully implemented before calling a new referendum, and they most definitely don’t want to see a ballot paper that asks the obvious question: “Should Scotland be an independent country within the European Union?”

Because they dominate amongst the long-term members of the SNP, it’s of course very difficult for the leadership to call an early referendum, because if they do so, their inboxes and voicemail will get inundated by complaints from people who have supported and mentored them since the day they joined the party.

Every political party has a strong instinct to stay united, so if the only way to keep the Yellow Tribe on side is by delaying the referendum till 2025 or so, there’s a strong incentive to do so, even if it means the Green Tribe won’t be converted to independence and Scotland faces economic ruin in the meantime.

At the end of the day, I find it inconceivable that many members of the Yellow Tribe will vote No to independence next time. They might huff and puff, and they might not pull their weight during the campaign, but at the end of the day they should know that campaigning for an independent Scotland to leave the EU will be easier than convincing people to back independence once Independence in Europe is no longer on the table. However, it will take guts for the SNP leadership to call an early referendum when the Yellows are so strongly against it.

Is Scotland going for the worst possible solution?

Hard & soft
Hard & soft.
I’m seeing more and more independence supporters saying that we should wait and see what Brexit brings before launching Indyref2, so perhaps delaying it till 2020 or even later.

For instance, Iain Macwhirter wrote the following in The Sunday Herald today:

I don’t think we’ll see another Scottish referendum until well into the 2020s because the implications of Brexit will take many years to sort out. Article 50 hasn’t been declared yet and isn’t going to be for some time. It will take more than two years to disentangle Britain from the EU, and the years immediately after formal departure will be as chaotic, if not more chaotic, than now.

Robin McAlpine has expressed similar thoughts in the past, for instance at the recent Independence Rally on Glasgow Green.

I’m afraid I totally disagree with such ideas. Getting dragged out of the EU and then rejoining a couple of years later is insane, as anybody who knows the complexity of the modern EU will tell you. It means going through enormous amounts of change and then reverting everything immediately afterwards.

Of course it depends what kind of Brexit we’re getting.

If the Tories opt for a soft Brexit (essentially a Norwegian solution, which means that the free movement of goods, capital, services and people will be maintained), I agree it makes sense to take a deep breath and think hard about the timing of the next independence referendum. The main downside to delaying is perhaps that all of us EU citizens will have lost our right to vote in it, but it shouldn’t affect other people or businesses drastically. I still think there would be many advantages to Scotland remaining within the EU when the rUK leaves, but we can sit down and have a civilised discussion about the pros and cons.

On the other hand, if the Westminster government goes for a hard Brexit, taking us out of the Internal Market and all the other parts of the EU in order to restrict migration, we need to get out in time. Sadly, all the smoke signals emerging from Westminster seem to be pointing towards this being the preferred solution.

A hard Brexit will be a like a wrecking ball taken to the Scottish economy, and saying that we might leave five years later if we don’t like it will only make things worse. This is because a hard Brexit will be both a disaster and a business opportunity. Lots of companies are going to relocate to the rEU, shedding a lot of jobs here in the process. However, once that is done, there will presumably be opportunities to create products and services to replace those that suddenly cannot be sourced from the rEU profitably. For instance, if it becomes clear that the UK will slap a 20% import tax on Manchego cheese from Spain, it might become a business opportunity to create a clone here for the British consumer. My gut feeling is that there won’t be enough of these new jobs to replace the ones lost to the rEU in the medium term, but at least there will be a few of them. However, if you’re a business person thinking about setting up a company making a British Manchego clone, will you place it in Scotland if there is a possibility that Scotland will five years later leave the rUK and rejoin the EU? No, of course not. You’ll place the company south of the border. If it’s clear that Scotland will remain in the EU if the rUK goes for a hard Brexit, many of the EU-oriented businesses will potentially relocate to Scotland, but if it isn’t clear what Scotland is going for, we won’t get any of them – they’ll go to Ireland, Germany or some other rEU country instead. We need to make it clear whether we’re going to stay within the Internal Market or remaining within the UK no matter what, or we’ll end up in the worst of all possible worlds, getting neither relocating EU businesses nor new post-Brexit companies. It would be a disaster of Darien Scheme proportions.

I’m not saying we need to call the referendum just yet. But Nicola Sturgeon needs to go out and say that Scotland will remain within the Internal Market, and if Westminster are going for a hard Brexit, Scotland will hold a new independence referendum in time for Scotland to leave the UK before Brexit happens. This would also provide the kind of message control that Robin McAlpine has correctly called for.

The morning after Brexit, when Nicola took charge and promised EU citizens and their families in Scotland that we’d be OK, we were all ready to kiss her. The impression I and others got was that she would explore the options for keeping Scotland within the Internal Market (e.g., whether a Reverse Greenland would be possible), but that she would definitely call a new independence referendum if that was the only was to achieve that. You can always discuss the finer legal and linguistic aspects of her statement, but that was definitely the impression I was left with. Because of this, if she follows the advice offered by Messrs. Macwhirter and McAlpine and allows Scotland to be taken out of the Internal Market just because the opinion polls aren’t favourable enough (and let’s face it, they’re much better now than when Indyref1 was called), she will have broken the promise she made to us that morning, and I will be tearing my SNP membership card apart.

Hopefully I’m just worrying needlessly, and all that is happening just now is that the SNP leadership are trying to ascertain whether the Brexit will be soft or hard before fixing a date for the next independence referendum. Salmond’s prediction that it’ll be held in two years time sounds OK to me, although I don’t like the fact that Boris Johnson has started saying that the negotiations might be concluded in less than two years, in which case we might have less time than we think.

The reason for the lack of movement in the opinion polls, as well as for the laid-back attitude with regard to Brexit exhibited by the Indyref2-after-2020 crowd, is perhaps the general feeling in the UK media that Brexit isn’t going to be that bad after all, based on the fact the economy is still ticking along nicely. However, Brexit hasn’t happened yet, and many businesses will be waiting to find out whether it’s going to be soft or hard before relocating, so we ain’t seen nothing yet. This is likely to change soon, however. I’ve started hearing about the first redundancies due to Brexit amongst my acquaintances this week, and if that continues, the general mood might change abruptly. We need to be ready to seize the moment when that happens.

Indyref postmortem V: Critical mass

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the fifth and last of several indyref postmortems.

Yes rally Glasgow ahead of #indyref Independence Referendum
Yes rally Glasgow ahead of #indyref Independence Referendum.
Most people like to go with the flow. If you get the impression that everybody around you is in favour of X or against Y, it takes a lot of willpower to say the opposite.

This is of course why independence for so long was going nowhere – the establishment and the media managed to portray independence as a whacky idea that only lunatics would support, and it wasn’t until mainstream media started their decline that things changed. It is interesting to observe that the SNP only scraped into power in 2007, one year after Twitter was created, three years after Facebook was launched, and four years after WordPress came into being.

Online support is all well and good, of course, but people also take a lead from their family, friends and neighbours. It’s much harder to come out in favour of independence – even if you’ve been convinced by the arguments online – if everybody around you maintains it’s bonkers.

Because of this, it’s critically important to reach a certain critical mass that ensures that independence feels normal, perhaps even to such an extent that unionism feels old-fashioned and quirky.

This sort of critical mass was reached in Glasgow and Dundee in 2014, but probably not in many other places. If you spent a bit of time in FreedomGeorge Square the day before the referendum, you couldn’t help feeling that all of Scotland were in favour of a Yes vote. However, I’m sure things felt very different in the areas that voted No.

Could the Yes campaign have done more to achieve critical mass in other places? I can’t help thinking the strong focus on local campaigning (activists were almost never bussed around, or even just encouraged to help out elsewhere) made it very hard to break through in areas with a strong No majority.

Campaigning for a Yes in Newton Mearns in East Renfrewshire was definitely a lonely job for the first two years of the campaign. It would have been nice if groups of activists from different types of areas had come round to do some mass canvassing earlier in the campaign – and it might have been good for those helping out to realise not all areas were like their own home patch. Also, it would have been great for me and the other local activists to spend a day in a Yes area to realise how close we were to winning.

Of course bussing people around wouldn’t have solved everything. Some areas were always less likely to vote Yes than others because of local issues or because the national campaign materials weren’t tailored sufficiently to specific places (as discussed in the first postmortem). It would have helped, though.

In Indyref2 I’d like Yes Scotland II to keep track of whether critical mass is being reached in different neighbourhoods across Scotland, and if an area is getting close to getting there, other areas (especially those that already appear to have a Yes majority) should help out to carry them across the line.

We’ll only win if there are more than two Yes cities next time.

The Great Scottish Bake Off

Often you hear independence switherers worrying endlessly about losing their favourite TV programmes, such as the Great British Bake Off, Big Brother or The Apprentice. The reply is often that Ireland has made a deal with the BBC to make their channels available in the Republic, at a lower price than Scotland currently pays through the licence fee, and of course Scotland will be able to do the same.

That’s true, of course, but something that’s often overlooked is that most successful TV show concepts these days get bought by foreign TV channels. Scotland wouldn’t be restricted to watching the Great rUK Bake Off (if it’ll still exist by then), but a Scottish TV channel would probably buy the concept and broadcast The Great Scottish Bake Off.

Just to illustrate how accurately the concepts get copied, here are a few foreign Bake Off clones:

Den Store Bagedyst from Denmark:

Das große Backen from Germany:

The Great Australian Bake Off:

Bake Off — Ale Ciacho form Poland:

The Great Irish Bake Off:

Le Meilleur Pâtissier from France:

You can see a complete list of international version on Wikipedia.

It would have the advantage for Scots that it would be much easier to get onto these shows because they would be recruiting from a population of 5½m instead of 64m, and as far as I can tell, the quality of the cakes isn’t any worse in the Danish version (Denmark has roughly the same number of inhabitants as Scotland).