Scotland does relatively little trade with the continental EU and political links between the ruling Scottish Nationalists and the Brussels political world are weak.
But it is normal for the SNP to make a colossal din as the EU establishment reels from the historic 23 June vote in Britain in favour of withdrawal from this pan-European project.
On Saturday Nicola Sturgeon, said that her autonomous government would be seeking to enter into ‘immediate discussions’ with Brussels to ‘protect Scotland’s place in the EU’.
What she is demanding is for Scotland to remain in the EU without separating from the rest of Britain – at least for now. There is even a precedent of sorts. Greenland, then as now, an autonomous part of Denmark, left the EU in 1985. Its population of 60,000 is barely one per cent of Denmark’s.
The SNP is arguing for ‘a reverse Greenland’ with the biggest part of the UK leaving and a smaller component staying. The EU would have a new sub-state member. As Douglas Fraser, BBC Scotland’s economic editor, pointed out, Scotland would continue to have fiscal, monetary and other policies set by the British government in London.
Still, Scotland would be Britain’s successor state in the EU. However remote the possibility still is, it may explain why an official spokesman from Slovakia, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, has said ‘we welcome the active and responsible engagement of the Scottish government’. If bilateral talks begin with Slovakia, ardent nationalists may be forgiven for hoping that the sky’s the limit. Already, there is talk among excitable separatists in the business world of decoupling a large part of the London financial sector from the banks of the Thames and relocating it instead in Edinburgh.
It was only two years ago that Scotland voted in a referendum to decide its relationship with the rest of the UK. 55 per cent of voters on an 85 per cent turnout showed they were in no hurry to sever the 309-year Union. And it’s easy perhaps to see why.
64 per cent of trade is with the rest of Britain. Under the longstanding Barnett Formula, Scotland receives an annual fiscal transfer of £9 billion from London. If Scotland were to retain the cardinal EU principle of free movement of labour, a hard frontier would replace the non-existent one between the Tweed and the Solway. Papers would be scrutinised for each person travelling and goods would be stopped at customs.
The BBC’s Douglas Fraser has indicated the scale of the likely complications: ‘… where would citizenship of the UK allow you to live? Would an English person have the right to live in Scotland, and gain from Scotland’s EU citizenship rights, including freedom of travel and work across the continent?
If there were rights unique to those living in England – in welfare or pensions, or the right to work, for instance – would a Scottish-EU-UK citizen have the right to claim them?
Sturgeon has been quick to claim that the Scottish people are behind her diplomatic offensive. But 38 per cent voted for Brexit. Polls suggest that there is still a clear majority in favour of interdependence within the UK and the alternative of interdependence within a crisis-prone EU may seem fraught with hazard.
It may turn out that freedom of union within the UK is more precious than freedom of movement with the continental EU and that people can live with tariffs on the 15 per cent of the trade that takes place but not the 64 per cent that goes on with the rest of Britain.
Ironically, the biggest segment of Brexit voters in Scotland belonged to the SNP, 29 per cent of its supporters defying the leadership and voting to leave the EU.The most prominent advocate of Brexit was also from that quarter. The case made by Jim Sillars, a veteran nationalist who has regularly challenged the conformity and group think that overhangs so much of Scottish politics, was on clearcut left-wing grounds. He argued that the EU was a rich man’s club and that the rights of major corporations were of far more concern to EU decision-makers than those of workers. He also argued that joining the single European currency would become unavoidable for a Scotland becoming entangled with the EU as the 19-member Eurozone became its central driving force. Already running one of the steepest budget deficits in the EU, major austerity would be unavoidable to enable Scotland to meet the EU’s fiscal targets. He also warned that the impending TTIP trade deal with the USA would adversely affect the socialist character of the NHS.
Wooing the EU is one of the chief ways that the SNP can bypass Britain and venture into international affairs as a serious actor. There has been plenty of posturing in the past but until now zero encouragement from anyone who counted in Brussels. The 2004-14 head of the European Commission JM Barroso, made it clear in 2014 that it would be ‘extremely difficult’ for an independent Scotland to join the EU. It would have to start from scratch and every other member would need to approve its application, he stated.
But now some top officials, stung by Britain’s decision, are no longer prepared to regard the SNP as noisy fringe figures. Martin Schulz,the influential head of the European Parliament is due to meet Sturgeon very shortly. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said there will be a meeting but he has grown vague about when it will be. Arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt, head of the European Liberals, has spoken warmly about Sturgeon’s plans despite the fact that the most Europhile British Liberal of recent times Charles Kennedy was relentlessly harassed by SNP activists shortly before his death in May 2015.
One of the SNPs two European Parliament members, Alyn Smith, received a standing ovation from many of the MEPs present at Tuesday’s session of the European parliament. He said: ‘I want my country to be internationalist,
cooperative, ecological, fair, European…But please, remember this: Scotland, did not let you down. Please, I beg you, colleagues, do not let Scotland down now.’
This emotional appeal came after Nigel Farage had dressed down the Europhile establishment for being arrogant and out of touch with public opinion across Europe.
There is an emerging power struggle within the EU about which part of the multi-layered entity directs the negotiations with Britain and how tough the line should be.The key figure in Juncker’s camp is his German chief of staff Martin Selmayr who, as a committed backer of full political union, will be appalled by Britain’s mutiny. He belongs to the strand of elite EU opinion which sees regions and communities, not nations, as the natural partners for the European institutions. SNP strategists may hope that this viewpoint will be pushed by Brussels in the withdrawal talks and that the EU might even be willing to argue that London and Northern Ireland (with majorities against Brexit) must be included in any talks process.
But plenty of other interests are unhappy about allowing the SNP in the front door rather than keeping it skulking at the EU’s tradesman’s entrance. These include countries with restive separatist movements or ones whose borders have been changed more than once or twice in the last century. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy released a blunt statement on 29 June declaring “Scotland does not have the competence to negotiate with the European Union…if the UK goes, Scotland goes too”. The European Council is another major pole of influence within the EU’s baroque decision-making system. It represents the views of the member states and its President Donald Tusk of Poland clearly has no appetite for facilitating the SNP’s PR offensive.
Sturgeon was told by him that he had no time to see her and statements from countries as diverse as Hungary, Estonia, Denmark and the Czech Republic indicate that the SNP’s eruption onto the post-Brexit stage is ‘premature’ or ‘theoretical’
But Sturgeon is having the time of her life strutting the European stage as UK policy-makers try to work out a road map for starting Brexit talks. The melodrama has turned the heads of parts of the Scottish media previously pro-Union in outlook as well as many in Scotland’s 15 universities who believe academia will wither and die without the EU largesse that comes with a high political price.
Pro-Brexit folk should not be riled by the populist antics of the SNP. They reveal a party that is really happier in opposition than in government, campaigning and agitating rather than mending the numerous things that are broken in Scotland.
The fact that EU worthies are prepared to be swayed by Nicola Sturgeon also shows that their supposed abhorrence of populism actually has rather surprising limits.