Robin McAlpine: Scotland and Europe – time for hard facts and soft power

18/08/2016
angela

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says Scotland can do better than photo ops with European politicians to make its commitment to Europe matter

IT is now two months since the Brexit vote. Is that long enough that I can lay out what I think are some cold, hard realities without infringing on people's individual grief? What if I leaven it a bit with a proposal for a realistic pro-Europe plan that the Scottish Government could actually get on with?

Because I'm getting worried that among the most EU-enthusiastic parts of the Scottish Government the denial phase is dragging on for too long. And in the five stages of grief, denial is often the most damaging.

Let me outline why, from day one, the idea of Scotland having a meaningful formal relationship with the EU while still inside a post-Brexit UK seemed to me to be a non-starter.

I'm getting worried that among the most EU-enthusiastic parts of the Scottish Government the denial phase is dragging on for too long.

The idea that we might seems to stem from an impression which has rather infused parts of Britain's pro-EU population – that the EU is primarily a kind of symbol, a statement of internationalist and universalist values to which like-minded nations can sign up.

But that's not right. The EU is not like a kind of British Council for Europe, funded to promote European identity and culture and to encourage interaction and exchange. It's not even a parallel with the more explicitly geopolitical propaganda function of the British Council.

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No – the EU is a series of treaties, binding legal agreements and democratic (and distinctly non-democratic) structures. If you want to have a formal relationship with the EU, you need to begin by looking at which of these areas of legal agreement you want to sign up to.

And that's the first problem – Scotland can barely sign up to any of them. If you're signing up to the social chapter you're making a series of legal commitments on social security, employment rights, trade union regulations and so on.

If you want to sign up for a single market you need to make binding commitments on trade and macroeconomic policy. If you want free travel then you need to legislate on immigration. You'd need the power to arrange the election of MEPs. And so on.

The only way Scotland might have any kind of meaningful relationship with Brussels would be if there was another and much, much more radical round of devolution to the Scottish Parliament. And it is here that things I'm hearing are making me particularly jumpy.

So what do immigration, social security, employment rights, electoral law, economic regulation and macroeconomic policy all have in common? Scotland has no (or very little) legal power over any of them. We can't form relationships on the basis of legal commitments we're not constitutionally able to make.

And in any case, the second problem is that the EU is precisely not a pic 'n' mix sort of an organisation. The assumption among the 'save our relationship' faction that the EU will simply overlook its aversion to part-in, part-out deals because it is so desperate to show solidarity to Scotland looks like a shaky one to me.

I mean, Nicola Sturgeon flies to Germany and can't manage a meeting higher up the food chain than a junior minister? That's the sort of mood music you need to listen to carefully. (And incidentally, who in her team signed this off? National leaders do not travel to other people's countries to meet junior ministers. It looked demeaning if not a bit desperate and wiser heads should have intervened.)

The only way Scotland might have any kind of meaningful relationship with Brussels would be if there was another and much, much more radical round of devolution to the Scottish Parliament. And it is here that things I'm hearing are making me particularly jumpy.

Because one very senior figure in the SNP told me that if only Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar could get together and make enough trouble, perhaps we might get complete federalism and 'reverse Greenland' EU membership by the end of next year (or something of the sort).

Even right to the top of the party, people in the SNP now accept that they didn't handle the Smith Commission as well as they might have.

Even right to the top of the party, people in the SNP now accept that they didn't handle the Smith Commission as well as they might have – and, in particular, that in focussing so much on fiscal and tax issues which were of limited utility they took their eyes off borrowing powers which would have been much more significant.

There almost seems to be a 'we didn't quite get it right last time – can we have another shot?' mentality. Well, I'm reasonably sure I know what the answer to that question is. And I rather doubt it'll end up with immigration being devolved to Holyrood.

I'm told that I am not alone in my worries about this single-minded focus on some kind of Euro-deal. A reliable source tells me that there are tensions at senior levels in the party about just how much time and resource has been redirected entirely towards the EU question.

I'm worried because at a policy level I think it will fail. I'm worried because at a strategic level I think we've already reached the point where the 'exhausting every avenue' meme is becoming counterproductive. I am worried because of all the other issues that just seem to have been parked while this goes on.

But mostly, I'm worried that, whatever the good intentions, at the end of this process Scotland will get next to nothing and we'll therefore have spent a whole summer of exertion only to end up looking weak and possibly a bit irrelevant.

In particular, in focussing so much on fiscal and tax issues which were of limited utility they took their eyes off borrowing powers which would have been much more significant.

And this is a real missed opportunity. Despite my serious concerns about the EU as an institution, I remain very much and very strongly a Europhile and an internationalist. I passionately want Scotland to have strong, meaningful ties to the citizens and nations of our continent. I very much want to be a part of the idea of a connected Europe.

If Scotland wants to be part of that, its options don't stop at legal treaties. In fact, until Scotland becomes an independent country and is able to make its own mind up about EU membership, by far the most effective route we have to take is not hard power, but soft power.

If this is about messaging, there are better ways to send out messages about Scotland's commitment to Europe than some meaningless committee room meetings. If it's about exposing Scottish citizens to the peoples and cultures of Europe, the EU wasn't desperately good at it anyway.

If it's about being a leader in the continent, then we can probably do as much as an 'ideas leader' and broker of dialogue as a minor sub-nation with a meaningless memorandum of understanding with the European Commission (or whatever).

I'd like to see some serious effort going in to creating a vision of what Scotland really can do in Europe. Why don't we set up a 'Scotland House', a cultural centre with a focus on citizens and democracy, in every European capital? Why don't we think about a 'David Hume' scholarship to parallel the Erasmus scheme and send Scots students abroad to study while promising to fund the education of EU students in Scotland?

Until Scotland becomes an independent country and is able to make its own mind up about EU membership, by far the most effective route we have to take is not hard power, but soft power.

This week I've been talking to a group which does one-week residential training courses for activists and community groups from around the EU. Participants spend a week in rural Catalonia and the cultural exchange is as important as the formal learning. Why doesn't the Scottish Government commit to funding a constant stream of Scottish community groups who would go there and learn and meet?

Or why not do something similar here? Scotland has most of Europe's nukes – against our will. For decades now, Scottish CND and others have been proposing that the Scottish Government should put proper investment into a European Centre of Peace and Reconciliation to act as a kind of continent-wide think tank for peace. Surely that sends our a stronger message about our commitment to our neighbours than a selfie with Junker?

As the country which has been hardest hit by the grassroots revolt against the many problems with the EU as it stands, we'd be an obvious place to try and stimulate debate on the real reforms the EU needs.

We could go back and look at our school curriculum. We could try and form joint partnerships with individual European governments on big policy issues. We could be exploring joint economic ventures. We could encourage greater tourism into Scotland from the EU.

If this is about messaging, there are better ways to send out messages about Scotland's commitment to Europe than some meaningless committee room meetings.

And on this last point, since spending £150m every year forever on an APD cut will have little impact on inward tourism from the EU, why not think again and set it aside as a budget to pay for all our pro-Europe initiatives?

In fact, when you start to think about it, there is simply enormous scope for Scotland to send out an unequivocal message that it is an enthusiastic partner in a positive European project. If we got on with it, it could set us up in a very sympathetic position when we come to discuss EU membership as an independent country.

No, it may not provide Scotland's leaders the opportunity to be seen hobnobbing with other world leaders. But surely that isn't the aim? (And in any case, we're already being dingied in quite visible ways).

It's been a funny summer. At many moments I've found myself wondering, like Demetrius from A Midsummer Night's Dream; "Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream."

The quicker we're all fully conscious again and focussed on the social and economic reform of Scotland and the struggle for Scottish independence, the better.

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

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