The European Debate has only just begun for Scotland and the UK
Sunday Mail, November 15th 2015
Europe has returned to the centre of British politics. The phony war within the Tories is over as David Cameron revealed his want list from European leaders.
It wasn’t exactly long or substantial. He wants change in four areas – exempting the UK from ‘ever closer union’, boosting economic competitiveness, protection of the non-euro countries from further integration, and restrictions on EU migrants drawing UK benefits.
These requests are not far-reaching, leading Tory MP Bernard Jenkin to ask ‘is that it?’ and others dismiss them as a ‘rag bag’. Only the last negotiating point is going to cause Cameron problems. But the debate and referendum won’t be about these small details.
The coming Euro referendum could be held as early as June next year – just one month after the Scottish Parliament elections. It won’t be about minutiae. It will be about whether you feel you will better or worse off in or out of Europe?
Many have assumed a stay-in vote is a foregone conclusion. This has resonance with the complacency of pro-union opinion in last year’s Scottish vote. Rather – even more than our debate – all sorts of permutations are possible with very fluid public opinion. The latest poll has leaving ahead by 43% to 38%, so this could be a much closer affair.
There are Scottish/English differences. Another poll this week had England with a 3% lead for leaving (43:40) and Scotland with a 25% for staying (55:30). If Scotland voted to remain and England to leave, what would happen if the Scottish result determined the overall UK outcome? This could happen on a 58% Scottish stay-in vote, while an English leave vote of 53% could over-ride Scottish and Welsh more pro-European opinion. What would happen to a union where England felt denied leaving by Scottish votes?
There is the possibility of an exit vote and of Scotland – along with Wales – being taken out of the EU against public opinion. The SNP have indicated that such an eventuality would be a trigger for a second independence vote.
This could get messy. A British exit vote could lead to three simultaneous complex negotiations. There would be the rest of the UK finalising EU withdrawal, the Scottish/rest of UK endgame, and the Scottish-European discussions. The interplay between all of these would affect each other and influence the terms the rump UK got leaving the EU and independent Scotland staying.
If such a situation came about, the Scottish-English border would become the EU’s frontier. But so would the Northern Irish-Irish border – much to the alarm of the Irish Government.
Referendums are rarely ever just about the question asked. This vote will be influenced by whether people are attracted or repulsed by Euroscepticism? What kind of Britain do Tory and UKIP exiters want? Is there a different Labour vision of withdrawal? What do they feel about an EU dominated by Germany’s economic muscle? What is the view of the humiliation of Greece?
There is the issue of how people see Britain’s role in Europe. Across the continent, EU leaders would prefer that the UK remained rather than left, but there is a deep-seated weariness about Britain’s constant carping, lecturing of others, and self-imposed marginalisation.
Europe isn’t exactly in a good place. The refugee crisis has brutally exposed continental fragilities and absence of solidarity. Twenty-six years after the Berlin Wall fell across Europe, from Hungary to Croatia and Serbia governments are closing frontiers and erecting new barriers. Not to mention the problems of the Eurozone, youth unemployment at 49% in Greece and 47% in Spain, and the democratic deficit that is the European Commission.
David Cameron wants to get the European referendum over as soon as he can. He assumes that he can hold an early vote, disorientate the Eurosceptics, win, and then return to ‘normal politics’. This won’t happen because Cameron himself has called time on his Prime Ministership, announcing in the recent election campaign, that he won’t stand again in 2020. That means the moment the Euro vote is out the way the clock begins to start ticking on his premiership.
With all this Cameron has embarked on a high-risk strategy – one which became explicit the moment he announced his policy of an in/out European referendum in January 2013 to appease Tory Eurosceptics. He has gambled once before – allowing the Scottish independence referendum to take place and won.
Yet the lessons from Scotland have not been learned. Cameron was on the winning side in the vote last year, but neither he nor Better Together made the positive case for the union, and lost the wider argument.
It is highly likely that history could repeat itself and Britain will reluctantly and narrowly vote to remain in the EU, but the positive case for Europe will be conspicuously absent. This means that the UK, even voting to stay in, will not reconcile itself to being a European country and will place itself at the margins of continental debates.
That is the union Scotland voted to remain in last year. One where at best – after a brief interlude – this entire debate will set off again. This is the ‘neverendum’ we should worry about.