The Johnson government has run into the wall in its talks with the EU on future UK relations with Europe, not least because of its deliberate breach of international law through the Internal Market Bill. Westminster is also at war with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over that bill’s undermining of the devolution settlement (and with English mayors).
So, maybe it’s time for Scotland to strike out in its own relations with Europe, argues our co-editor, who reported for the Guardian out of Brussels for many years and is an executive member of the European Movement in Scotland for which he wrote this short paper.
On January 1 2021 Scotland’s relations with Europe, the European Union and the world will change: it will no longer have institutional relations with the EU, either as part of the United Kingdom or on its own, but be just one element of the UK and its chosen relations with the rest of the world.
Paradoxically, perhaps, this rupture with 48 years of enmeshment in EU institutions is an opportunity as well as a threat. Scotland can choose to develop its own relations with Brussels, Berlin, Paris and the other 24 EU capitals and forge its own European/international identity by using its (admittedly narrow) scope for striking out on its own.
Of course, foreign policy, including policy towards the EU, will continue in the early years to be set by Whitehall/Westminster. And the sorry saga of the Brexit negotiations over the past four years has exposed the scant regard the UK Government has for specifically Scottish interests. The four-nation Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), including in its Europe iteration, has effectively been reduced to an empty shell. The Johnson administration is dead set on a recentralisation of UK policy-making and undoing much, if not yet all, of the 20-year devolution settlement.
EMiS and Europe
The European Movement in Scotland remains constitutionally and politically committed to the values of the EU – and to Scotland rejoining the EU whether as part of the UK or in its own right, post-independence, if that comes to pass. We campaign for renewed membership but are neutral on the independence question.
Within this constellation, EMiS is forging its own relations with other parts of Europe, notably through the European Movement International and with the European Movement in Ireland, whilst remaining an autonomous part (‘Scottish Council’) of EMUK. Scotland voted almost 2-1 to remain part of the EU. It welcomes as full citizens the 250,000 or so EU nationals who have settled here – and would be glad to see more. It is, by tradition, culture, thinking, a profoundly European nation. EMiS reflects this.
This commitment found expression in a special webinar EMiS ran on July 30 this year, “starring” Sir Graham Watson, ex-LibDem MEP and leader of the Liberal/ALDE group in the European Parliament, and Stephen Gethins, ex-SNP MP for NE Fife and Europe spokesman in the Commons, now a professor at St Andrews University. And again, in a separate webinar, co-hosted with Edinburgh4Europe, on October 8 with the honorary consuls in Scotland for both Latvia and Estonia, Christopher Kenmore and Peter Ferry.
What emerges from these and other instances is that, as Gethins set out in a relatively recent article, Scotland is “a part of the UK that feels both pro-European and disconnected from the political bubble at Westminster.” And Watson, a strong Unionist, does not disagree in essence: “I’m a Liberal Democrat and I share fully my party’s policy of opposition to a break-up of the UK. I identify as a Scot, a Brit, a European and a global citizen. I believe, however, that Brexit will lead to the break-up of the UK and to an independent Scotland which will seek to rejoin the EU. And I see no reason to fear that, provided Scotland is prepared for it.” (He doesn’t think it is…).
Certainly, in the months when the UK-EU future relations talks repeatedly ran into the buffers, the mood music towards Scotland in EU institutions and EU-27 capitals changed as Gethins pointed out: ” There is now an understanding and sympathy towards Scotland that didn’t exist in 2014 or in the years when I lived in Brussels during the noughties. Across Europe politicians have expressed solidarity with Scotland…” That does not mean, of course, it can rejoin: it is simply not a sovereign state and lacks essential attributes such as a central bank and its own currency.
But the question can still be asked…
Quo vadis, Scotia?
As we have seen all too clearly in the second half of 2020 with the Internal Market Bill and related legislation, what Prof Michael Keating calls “the European mode of policy-making” – whereby the Scottish Parliament enshrined EU legislation/regulation in Scottish law/regulation – “will give way to foreign policy and traditional diplomacy, in which the devolved governments have no role whatever.”
But that leaves plenty of scope for para-diplomacy (‘soft power’): “promotion of trade and investment, culture, education, policy learning and the promotion of desirable causes like environmentalism and human rights” (Keating). Or, as Watson told us, “promoting Scotland in Europe and Europe in Scotland” – and ascribing a central role here to the Scottish Government’s hubs in Europe (and North America and China).
Besides Scotland House in Brussels, there are hubs in Berlin, Dublin and Paris (and London…). Watson would envisage new hubs in capitals such as Bratislava, Copenhagen and Helsinki (in similar sized countries) while Kenmore and Ferry would welcome a similar presence in Riga and Tallinn where Scottish business could learn and/or give mutual lessons on the digital economy. Gethins, who chairs the new #me+eu campaign, urges business, universities and local authorities to invest in Scotland House – much like, say, the German Länder or the bigger French, Spanish and Italian regions. Another Watson idea is a Scottish Königswinter (Anglo-German policy wonks’ conference).
Perhaps one could go further: if joining the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Area as a sub-state is ruled out, how about the New Hanseatic League (“Gang of Eight”) or the Nordic Council (which has 87 members and includes non-EU countries). The jury is out on the latter option….
As the EU embarks upon policies/measures to enhance Europe’s “strategic autonomy” in industry and trade, technology and green energy, can Scotland go beyond para-diplomacy to step up what Keating calls “proto-diplomacy” (pre-independence external relations) in the post-Brexit landscape? In other words, can the Scottish Government and Holyrood effectively by-pass Westminster/Whitehall and align policies directly along the same axis as adopted in Brussels and elsewhere in the EU? Notably in human rights, the environment, but also in trade and industry where the Johnson government is pursuing an entirely different (US-friendly) course. Can it seek regulatory divergence from Whitehall and mirror European measures? As a prelude to rejoining….
The Scottish Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that, in the end, it aligns itself quite closely with the rest of the UK, notably England. The bruising experience over exclusion from the future relations talks plus the hollowing out of the JMC (and Sewel Convention via the UK Supreme Court) do not augur well in this regard. Or is it just a matter of boldness? and/or strength of will?
Featured image of Nicola Sturgeon meeting EU diplomats on 216 nFebruary 2017 via Wikimedia Commons/https://firstminister.gov.scot/reassurance-eu-citizens/; image of Sturgeon with MEPs via Rebecca Harms, flickr.com/Wikimedia Commons, CC By-SA 2.0
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