Scotland’s policy stances on the EU and on global foreign policy, even without independence, are set to be of growing importance and influence – but have received remarkably little attention during the election campaign.
And, while the outcome of the 2015 general election could transform the UK’s EU and wider foreign policy, one of the few similarities in the very different campaigns in England and Scotland is that the focus of debate in both has been primarily domestic.
The likely greater impact of Scotland on UK foreign policy is in part due to the increased devolution of powers to Scotland, set out in the Smith Commission Report. It means Scottish views on a raft of EU policies – from agriculture to finance to renewable energy – will need to be represented more in Brussels. And there will be growing, quite likely controversial, demands from the Scottish government for a greater role in determining key UK EU policies.
At the same time, if the SNP ends up with 50 or so MPs at Westminster as the polls predict – a seismic shift in Scottish and UK politics – they would certainly have important influence over the EU and foreign policies of a minority Labour government. Even a minority Tory government might find that winning some foreign policy votes on sensitive issues – that might split their own party -could be won or lost depending on the SNP’s stance.
One reason Scottish foreign policy views have received little attention is that there is a general but mistaken view that devolution covers domestic issues only, and that even under ‘devo-max’, foreign policy and security would be immune from Scottish influence. Yet, with the UK part of the EU, this domestic-foreign distinction makes little sense. With the EU passing laws from health and safety, age discrimination, competition and trade policy to sanctions, renewables targets and so on, what is domestic or ‘foreign’ is blurred and overlapping; many EU policy areas lie within Scotland’s devolved areas of policy.
Scotland and the EU
Catching up on the campaign trail with rising young Scottish politician, Humza Yousaf, Minister for Europe and International Development in the Scottish government, and a SNP MSP for Glasgow, he is clear about the important role the SNP has in promoting Scotland’s interests in the world.
But he admits readily that Europe and foreign policy rarely come up on the doorstep during this campaign. This is in contrast to Scottish Green candidate for Edinburgh East, Peter McColl, who says he has been asked about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) at all the hustings.
Yousaf thinks there is generally strong interest in Scotland in Europe and the wider world. Without exaggerating differences in Scottish and English opinion, he says “there is a more pro-European stance here.” There is also much more outside interest in Scotland and its views on Europe and the world, he adds, with ambassadors and other visitors coming in much greater numbers since the referendum, despite the ‘no’ vote, or asking when SNP politicians are next in London.
But does Scotland have enough influence on British positions regarding key EU policies? “No, definitely not enough,” says Yousaf. He explains there are quarterly joint ministerial meetings between the UK and Scotland but “there isn’t enough discussion on policy formation … Smith left the door open a bit and said we would need to discuss more how to represent Scotland’s views on the global stage.” It’s a big issue that has been left hanging.
The SNP, according to Yousaf, will definitely be looking for more influence over EU policies and on wider foreign policy. He complains strongly that even where Scotland has the most competent and experienced minister – for instance on fisheries – London will not let Scottish ministers speak for the UK in Brussels councils, pulling in unelected Lords or British diplomats instead when UK ministers are absent. It’s a long way from the Belgian approach where both Flemish and Walloon ministers regularly step in at EU meetings; pressure for a fairer and more rational approach for Scotland and the UK is likely to grow.
Asked about Greece’s struggles to escape austerity, something the SNP might be expected to agree with, Yousaf is sympathetic but cautious: “I don’t believe it is necessary for Greece to leave [the euro] for stability, any member leaving would be a disaster for the EU … I have faith they will find a manageable compromise.” He talks about Syriza having to “navigate” the promises they made to their voters en route to a compromise.
Scotland produces about 25% of total EU wind energy, and has the most ambitious renewables targets in the EU – a critical policy area where Scotland may well differ from English approaches or levels of ambition. Peter McColl thinks 100% of electricity (though not all energy) in Scotland will be from renewables by 2030. The Scottish Greens see future benefits from independence in being able to lead on such issues in the EU and defend Scotland’s own interests more effectively than as part of the UK. Some tough questions, though, on combining the shift to a low carbon economy in Scotland with policy on North Sea oil reserves remain to be answered by both SNP and the Scottish Greens.
EU Referendum and ‘Brexit’ – only for England?
Humza Yousaf sees ‘Brexit’ as not beyond the realms of possibility, if the Tories can put together an informal coalition with two or three other parties. He says “it [a referendum] is playing with fire, exit could have devastating consequences for the whole of the UK.” He sees no groundswell of public opinion for a referendum on the EU, in contrast to what was there for the independence referendum.
But Yousaf is cautious about the impact of a ‘no’ vote in any EU in-out referendum – something that Nicola Sturgeon has said could make the case for a new independence referendum: “This election is not about another [independence] referendum … If Scotland voted to stay in the EU and the rest of the UK to leave and we were about to be dragged out against our will that might be a trigger, and people would say we would rather be an independent country and in Europe.” For the Scottish Greens, McColl is more emphatic: “If there is a ‘no’ in an EU referendum, there would be a very strong case for a new referendum [in Scotland]. I think it would be a very easy referendum to win.”
Yousaf refers to Irish anxieties about a possible Brexit (given shared borders and other common interests) and obviously sees similar concerns potentially for Scotland. He thinks it is better for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU. There is a conundrum here since while an EU referendum with an English ‘no’ vote might be a positive catalyst for Scottish independence, it would in many ways be better for an independent Scotland, if England too remained in the EU. Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a ‘double-lock’ on any EU referendum – so that all four countries of the UK should say ‘no,’ not just a majority of voters, for Brexit to happen. This proposal has already been slapped down by David Cameron – and in the absence of a UK federal constitution spelling out such issues and powers, the answer is likely to remain ‘no’ should an EU referendum go ahead.
Asked who might be the main allies of an independent Scotland in the EU, Yousaf says: “Primarily the [rest of the] UK would be a natural ally and Ireland, first and foremost, we would work closely with them, and yes with some of the Nordics – Sweden, Finland and Denmark.” In fact, he says, Scotland already has a Nordic and Baltics strategy – not least due to all these countries being of similar size, geographical position, sharing a number of common security and other policy concerns.
Yousaf says he is sure if they had won the Scottish referendum, Scotland would have stayed in the EU: “Brussels would have found a way, there is no doubt in my mind. The EU is a pragmatic organisation as it was when East Germany joined. We have been in for 40 years and our laws reflect the acquis, we have 100,000 EU citizens here in Scotland, 25% of EU wind energy….so you could imagine the practical problems if we weren’t in the EU for a day, the disruption.”
Asked about planning that is said to have been done ahead of the referendum vote on how to establish a Foreign Office for an independent Scotland, Yousaf explains that they wouldn’t have had to start from scratch. There are, he says, existing Scottish trade and investment offices around the world that could have become embassies, with priority given to the most important partners – the EU and US. A newly independent Scotland might have asked for help in the transition years to a fully diplomatic network from the EU’s own pan-European offices around the world, from other EU member states, including even the UK, and UN advice would have been available to Scotland as a newly independent country.
Wider foreign policy
Most attention on SNP foreign policies has been on their aim of getting rid of Trident. Yousaf says it has no moral, political or economic purpose. But he goes on to stress “we are not a party of pacifists” and attacks the current government for giving frontline soldiers their P45s and not investing enough in conventional forces. Yousaf also emphasises the SNP’s commitment to UK development aid spending. Yousaf describes with enthusiasm the particular focus Scotland already has on aid to Malawi, involving “lots of churches, faith groups… schools, there’s probably not a school in the country that has not had a link.”
Amidst the chaos and conflict surrounding Europe – from Ukraine to Syria to Libya – Yousaf emphasises in particular the SNP’s commitment to recognising Palestine as a state: “We said we would push to recognise the state of Palestine, if you believe in a two state solution…it is a very vocal issue [for us].”
Migration is another issue where the SNP has positioned itself in a progressive position compared to the UK’s main parties. Yousaf talks of needing a ‘tier and points’ system for migration and insists it is positive and necessary for Scotland given its ageing population. He admits it is an issue where people can feel strong concerns but says it has not damaged them at the polls: “it is a policy that doesn’t always get the most positive reception but I hope being positive can also help to shape attitudes.”
A minority Labour government looking for support in the Commons on foreign policy issues is likely to find the SNP a partner they will need to find compromise with – the SNP is more progressive than Labour on migration and Palestine, might even be more cautious on defence cuts (outside of Trident) but more ambitious on climate change and renewables, and a straightforward partner on international aid.
This is an edited version of an article first published on Open Democracy’s Our Kingdom section and reproduced here with its consent.