Jim Sillars, Colin Fox, Christina McKelvie and Chris Bambery give their views on Scotland and the EU
ARE you a democrat? Are you pro-EU? The majority of people in Scotland would answer ‘yes’ to both of these questions, but some argue that the two are becoming incompatible. Democracy is never going to be simple in a transnational system covering 28 nation-states and over 500 million people, the third largest body of people in the world after China and India.
What really puts any democracy to the test is its ability to respond to crisis. Can it fulfil the wishes of a people whose political consciousness is shifting quickly?
That is what has happened in Greece. Syriza, a fringe radical left group when austerity began five years ago, was the clear victor of the 25 January general election. No one doubts that Greeks voted explicitly for an end to austerity, rejecting the established parties that have run Greek democracy since the end of dictatorship in 1974.
However, the EU has not bent to the will of the Greek people. An end to austerity has not come. After weeks of tense negotiations, the Troika – declared “dead” by Syriza President Alexis Tsipras on the day of his election – has forced the new Greek government to accept a new short-term bailout in return for “primary fiscal surpluses” – in otherwords, austerity.
At one stage it looked like a compromise position would come to fruition, but it became clear that Germany, the dominant power in the EU, was giving the Greek Government two choices: accept our terms or leave the EU.
Paul Mason, a Channel 4 journalist who has been covering Syriza’s election closely, reported that billions of euros had poured out of Greek banks as the prospect of a ‘Grexit’, as it has been dubbed, became increasingly possible. The Greek Government was left with the choice of agreeing a deal or “limit both ATM withdrawals and movement of money abroad”, Mason said.
“We’re a debt colony,” a tired Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, told Mason.
“What Germany did to Greece on Friday can be done to any country: obey or leave.”
Mason reflected on the wider ramifications of the way in which the Greek Government came to sign up to a deal it didn’t want: “Though it’s happening to a stricken country, on the edge of Europe, the choices presented to Greece are being understood throughout Europe – and will resonate with the British electorate,” he observed.
“What Germany did to Greece on Friday can be done to any country: obey or leave. And it can apply not just to the eurozone but to the European Union itself, or to the Schengen and Dublin Treaties on migration, or to the Court of Human Rights.”
Will it resonate with the Scottish electorate? Consistent polling evidence shows a narrow majority in favour of EU membership in Scotland, compared to a narrow majority against in the rest of the UK.
For the SNP, the shift by the Tories towards a referendum on EU membership could be the catalyst for a second Scottish independence referendum, as, the party argues, it would constitute a sufficiently significant shift in the politics of Britain to ask Scots again if they want to remain in the UK state.
Indeed, party leader Nicola Sturgeon has gone as far as saying each nation within the UK should require a majority for a ‘Yes’ vote for any EU exit to pass.
The dedication of mainstream Scottish nationalism to the EU comes under little scrutiny in Scotland because euroscepticism has been dominated in UK politics by the right, as the rise of Ukip and the growing power of the Tory right has shown.
Opposition to the free movement of people and to human rights legislation have been two driving forces behind anti-EU sentiment, something that no progressive in Scotland would want to associate with.
But could the Greek situation create a left euroscepticism based on an anti-austerity and pro-democracy impulse?
“When ‘Independence in Europe’ was adopted by the SNP in 1988, what we now know as the EU was a much smaller organisation.” Jim Sillars
Jim Sillars, former SNP MP, was behind the nationalists’ pro-independence and pro-EU slogan at the end of the 1980s, ‘Independence within Europe’, but now does not believe in the EU project.
“When ‘Independence in Europe’ was adopted by the SNP in 1988, what we now know as the EU was a much smaller organisation,” Sillars tells CommonSpace.
Sillars adds that the growth in EU membership (from 13 to 28 member states) has coincided with a rise in “the power exercised by the central institutions”.
“The Lisbon Treaty and the creation of the Eurozone were centralising factors not thought of in 1988. Lisbon gave the EU ‘state status’ in that it can sign international treaties and agreements as would any other sovereign,” Sillars says.
The Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2009 to replace the Maastricht Treaty, was rejected in two referendums in France and Holland, before it was re-constituted, then rejected again in Ireland, before the Irish were asked to vote again on the same issue, and finally voted yes.
Sillars adds the treatment of Scotland by EU leaders – most memorably the former president of the European Commission Manuel Barroso – to the growing list of problems that make up the EU’s democratic deficit.
“The true test of democracy is when people vote for something that you are opposed to, but you accept the people’s decision. The EU failed that test with Scotland, as indeed they fail the test with Greece,” Sillars says.
Chris Bambery, author of A People’s History of Scotland, agrees with Sillars, arguing that the EU is now “profoundly undemocratic”.
“The European Central Bank is the key economic decision maker, and is unelected and free of democratic control. It operates in close tandem with the German government, as we see in the current negotiations with Greece,” Bambery says.
“The ECB and European Commission have been the driving forces, working where necessary with the International Monetary Fund, in inflicting austerity on countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, riding roughshod over democracy and sovereignty to the extent of imposing unelected ‘technocratic’ governments on Italy and Greece.”
In 2011 in Greece and Italy, the major political parties accepted EU proposals for a “technocratic” government led not by elected politicians but by key figures in the financial world to steer them through their debt crisis for an “interim” period.
In Greece, a former banker, Lucas Papademos, was brought in as president, while Italy went even further as Mario Monti, an economist, was drafted in as an unelected president to lead an almost entirely unelected cabinet of professionals, all with the full backing of the EU.
“It is hard to see any means for internal reform of the EU,” Bambery concludes.
For Colin Fox, co-convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party, who travelled to Greece at the time of the election of the Syriza government, the treatment of Greece by the Troika is evidence of the need for widespread “reform in favour of 500 million people to take control out of the hands of the ECB/Commissioners”.
“I have no illusions about the difficulties inherent in this pan-European approach,” Fox adds. “But at the same time leaving the EU offers even less attractions to working class people in Scotland or Greece in the long run.”
Sillars believes there is a viable alternative to the EU: the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
EFTA “guarantees that we get out of the EU what we basically need – access to its markets free from tariffs,” Sillars says.
“Opponents of Scotland in EFTA argue that EFTA countries have to sign up, willy nilly, to anything the EU decides in relation to the operation of the single market,” Sillars says. “They disparage EFTA on the basis that it obeys the faxes sent to it from Brussels.
“It doesn’t work that way. The EU is bound to consult EFTA on any single market policy, because it is dealing with sovereign states.
“Outside of single market issues, EFTA states follow their own international trade policy, foreign, defence and home affairs policy.”
EFTA “guarantees that we get out of the EU what we basically need – access to its markets free from tariffs.” Jim Sillars
The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the EU and the US have sparked controversy in Scotland as campaigners have warned it could open the door to the privatisation of the NHS and other public services, and Sillars believes TTIP is another argument for why EFTA is preferable to the EU.
“Right now Scotland has no say in the TTIP negotiations,” Sillars says. “We shall get what we are given. TTIP has implications for EFTA. It is outside of the negotiations as they are between the EU and USA.”
SNP MSP Christina McKelvie, convenor of the European and external relations committee at the Scottish Parliament, has been dealing with the issue of TTIP and its impact on Scotland at close quarters, and has stated her reservations clearly about the impact the trade deal could have. But she is a convinced European Union supporter.
McKelvie tells CommonSpace that the crisis in Europe can be resolved if there is “the goodwill to make it happen”.
“It is in no one’s interests – not Greek, UK, Scottish or anywhere else in Europe – to squeeze a member country into the wall of austerity,” McKelvie says. “The Greeks, too, have responsibility for the EUR323bn debt it carries even though this government did not create it.
“We have to ensure that democracy is not the victim,” McKelvie adds.
The issues that surround membership of the EU are clearly complex and varied, and there is nowhere near the same coherence on the left as there is on the right as to whether the EU is a good thing or not. With a possible referendum around the corner, and with the Greek economic and democratic crisis unlikely to disappear, the debate is re-igniting in Scottish politics.
Picture courtesy of (Mick Baker)rooster