// archives

United Kingdom

This tag is associated with 10 posts

A Short Generation in Scotland

Maybe they reach sexual maturity very young in Scotland. What else could explain the fact that they are going to have another referendum on Scottish independence only three years after the last one?

The Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation event. That was the one thing that then-British Prime Minister David Cameron and then-Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond agreed on: even a one-vote majority would settle the matter for a generation.

In fact, the majority to stay in the United Kingdom was close to half a million. It couldn’t have been a clearer outcome. There was none of the obfuscation for which Quebec’s referendums on independence from Canada were famous (like the 106-word question in the 1980 referendum that did not even mention the word “independence”).

The referendum in Scotland simply asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country” – and the Scots said No by a 55%-45% majority. But only thirty months later, the next generation of Scots must already have arrived.

Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond’s successor as leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of the Scottish government, announced on Monday that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence in late 2018 or early 2019. She didn’t even have the grace to say best two out of three.

It’s Sturgeon’s job to promote the idea of independence, of course, but she needed a plausible pretext to demand a re-run of Scotland’s own referendum so soon. The English nationalists who committed the entire United Kingdom to leaving the European Union in last June’s referendum gave her that pretext: 53 percent of the English voted to leave the EU, but 62 percent of Scots voted to stay.

Why such a difference? Because the “Little Englanders” who voted to leave were seduced by the neo-Elizabethan fantasy of a swash-buckling, free-trading England that would stay rich by living on its wits. (Unlike the real Elizabethan England of 400 years ago, whose major foreign source of income was piracy.)

Scotland was never a great power, and it views the European Union as an economic and political safe haven. A large majority of Scots have no desire to leave the EU – especially if they are being dragged out of it by the gravely deluded English.

So Nicola Sturgeon can reasonably say that there has been a “material change of circumstances” since the first Scottish referendum, and claim that this change justifies another one. However, her claim is seriously undermined by the fact that Scots are opposed to another referendum, even under current circumstances, by a three-to-two majority. The whole referendum process is just too painful and divisive.

Moreover, there has been another “material change of circumstances” that hurts the case for Scottish independence. Low oil prices and the gradual depletion of the North Sea oil fields have cut the Scottish government’s tax take from North Sea oil revenue from $14.2 billion in 2008-09 to only $2.2 billion in 2015 and a mere $73 million this year. The oil income that subsidised Scotland’s high social spending is finished.

Then there is the fact that the European Union is made up of sovereign states, and that such states instinctively cooperate to discourage and punish separatism in any of their members. Brussels has plainly stated that an independent Scotland would not automatically retain EU membership.

This is the “Barroso doctrine” – that if any part of an existing EU country becomes an independent state it has to apply for membership – and the European Commission has just reconfirmed that Scotland would be subject to this rule. The application process for new members normally takes many years.

So an independent Scotland could find itself outside the EU single market because of Brexit, and outside the British single market as well because of its secession from the United Kingdom. Scotland exports four times as much to the ROUK (Rest of the United Kingdom) as it does to the EU, so this could spell economic disaster.

At the same time Scotland would also find itself outside NATO, the main Western alliance. As Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato Secretary General, told Sky News: “By leaving the UK, (Scotland) would also leave Nato. Of course it is absolutely possible to apply for membership and then the allies will decide.” But that would certainly take years.

The future looks distinctly unpromising for an independent Scotland that breaks away from the United Kingdom just as the UK pulls out of Europe. (It hardly looks golden for England either.) The Scots didn’t vote yes for independence even when there was no Brexit in the offing. Why would they do it now?

One reason would simply be anger at the arrogance and stupidity of the Little Englanders who have presented them with this unpalatable choice. But there is little enthusiasm in Scotland for independence on these terms. Most Scots just wish the whole question would go away.
______________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 14. (“In fact…independence”; and “At the same…years”)

Brexit: The Apocalyse

How’s this for apocalyptic? “As a historian I fear Brexit (a British vote to leave the European Union in the referendum on 23 June) could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety,” said Donald Tusk, the President of the European Union, in an interview published on Monday in the German newspaper Bild.

Tusk is not alone in his worries: last weekend Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, fretted aloud that the British referendum could trigger an avalanche of demands for special treatment or in/out referendums in other EU member countries.

“Other EU member states [may] say: ‘Well if they can leave, maybe we should also have referendums and maybe we should also leave,’” Wallstrom told the BBC. Like Tusk, she actually fears that the whole 60-year experiment in European unity may start to fall apart if Britain leaves.

EU politicians are not much interested in what happens to the United Kingdom after it leaves (which it may well do: an opinion poll last Friday gave “Leave” a ten-point lead). Britain was usually whiny and often downright obstructive in its dealings with the EU, and if it now chooses to commit a spectacular act of self-mutilation, the general European view will be that it deserves everything it gets.

That is likely to be quite a lot. If the UK loses duty-free access to the EU’s “single market” of 28 countries and 500 million people, it becomes far less attractive to non-European investors who want access to that market. It also loses every trade deal it has with other countries, since they were all negotiated by the EU as a whole. Britain could spend ten years trying to renegotiate them on its own, and end up with much worse terms.

The resultant collapse in national income might be avoided if Britain remained a part of the single market, which is theoretically possible. Both Norway and Switzerland belong to it without being EU members – but they have to pay in just as much as if they were members, and they have to accept the EU rules on freedom of movement, which means that any citizen of any EU member can live and work in their country.

That’s not going to go down well with the leaders of the “Leave” campaign, since their strongest selling points are stopping immigration, and “saving money” by ending payments to the EU. They simply could not survive politically if they openly abandoned those goals. Nor would EU leaders be willing to fudge a deal: in order to deter other members from leaving, it will be politically necessary for them to punish Britain economically.

You might wonder how any sane British politician, knowing this, would risk holding a referendum, let alone advocate a “Leave” vote. The answer is a foolish miscalculation (on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron), and reckless ambition (on the part of his would-be successor, Boris Johnson).

Cameron promised the referendum three years ago merely as a device for preserving the unity of the Conservative Party. It would pacify the right wing of his party, which wanted out, but he thought he would never have to hold the referendum because his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would veto it. Unfortunately, the Conservatives won a narrow majority in last year’s election, the coalition ended, and Cameron was stuck with his promise.

So far, so stupid – and then Boris Johnson, Britain’s somewhat better-mannered answer to Donald Trump, took the leadership of the “Leave” campaign. Johnson was not even a dedicated anti-EU campaigner, but he was certainly dedicated to taking the leadership of the Conservative Party and the prime ministership away from David Cameron.

Leading the “Out” campaign to victory, forcing Cameron’s resignation and taking his place was the only way Johnson could achieve his ambition, so he took it. He has been utterly ruthless in his campaign tactics, telling lies he knows to be lies (like how much Britain pays in to the EU), and using anti-immigrant rhetoric that reeks of racism. So he may win.

But he wouldn’t enjoy being prime minister much, given what would happen to the United Kingdom if he wins. Scotland will certainly vote “Remain”, and it would probably hold a second independence referendum and leave the UK rather than be dragged out of the European Union by English votes. And the truncated Britain that Johnson led would be dealing with a world of economic woe.

But what about the EU? Would it fragment? Would that lead to the destruction of “Western political civilisation in its entirety”, as Tusk suggested? (By that he presumably meant the end of the trans-Atlantic cooperation between the United States and a more or less unified Europe that has characterised Western strategy for the past sixty years.)

Probably not. The EU is in the economic doldrums, and the prospect of several million refugees coming in has facilitated the rise of nationalist parties, some verging on neo-fascist, in a number of member countries. But the advantages of the single market would probably be enough to hold the EU together, especially if the members had the horrible example of Britain’s fate as a warning.
________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The resultant…economically”)

Brexit: What If?

After months in which opinion polls showed a 6-10 percent lead for the “Remain” side in the referendum campaign on continued British membership of the European Union, the numbers have suddenly shifted in favour of “Leave”. The latest Guardian/ICM polls revealed that 52 percent of those polled favour Brexit (British exit from the EU), while only 48 percent want to stay in.

These numbers may even understate the probable outcome if the referendum were held today, and not in three weeks’ time (23 June). “Out” voters are typically older, whiter and less urban than the “In” supporters – and much more likely to vote on the day.

One “Remain” campaigner even fantasised about the ideal poster to motivate young pro-EU Brits to take the trouble of actually bothering to register and then vote. It would show an election queue of elderly, well-dressed white voters, all clearly unlikely to be around in 25 years’ time, and the tag-line would say: “Don’t Let These People Decide Your Future.” Needless to say, it will not decorate any actual walls.

So what if Brexit really does win the referendum? Even if the margin of victory is very small, the decision will in practice be irrevocable. And two things will certainly follow almost instantly.

One is the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, whose position will become impossible. It was he who promised a needless referendum three years ago, not in response to overwhelming popular demand but in a blundering attempt to placate the obsessively anti-EU right wing of his own Conservative Party. Then he led the campaign AGAINST Brexit – and lost it.

The other certainty is that Scotland will vote to remain in the EU, no matter how the rest of the United Kingdom votes, and will not let its wishes be overruled by the ROUK (as the rest of the country will doubtless come to be known). The Scottish National Party, fresh from an election victory at home, will call a second referendum on Scottish secession from the United Kingdom, and almost certainly win it.

After that, however, the glass gets darker. The new Conservative leader and prime minister would probably be Boris Johnson, Britain’s answer to Donald Trump. Perhaps no leader could negotiate a divorce settlement with the EU that protected Britain’s vital trade interests, but Johnson, at the head of a party mired in a civil war and with a working majority of only 18 seats in parliament, is least likely of all to achieve it.

Under article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, negotiations for the withdrawal of any EU member must be concluded within two years after the country in question says it intends to leave. The big issues would be continuing British duty-free access to the “single market” made up of the other 27 EU members – almost half of Britain’s exports go to EU countries – and continued free movement of labour across national borders

“It will be imperative to stop the Brexit contagion from gripping other countries,” said one EU official, so European negotiators will want to impose harsh terms on Britain in order to show other potential defectors that leaving is not cost-free. Since only 8 percent of EU exports go to Britain (and only two EU countries run a trade surplus with the UK), nobody will go out on a limb to preserve duty-free British access to the single market.

As for free movement of labour, ending it would require the expulsion of at least a million EU citizens currently working in the United Kingdom. Preserving it, on the other hand, would mean keeping the door open to uncontrolled immigration from other EU countries – but closing that door was a key promise of the Brexit campaign. This will not be a friendly divorce, and Britain’s negotiating position is not good.

Meawhile, Scotland would be having its own difficulties. A second referendum would certainly back independence from the UK, but it would not be easy for Scotland to retain (or rather, regain) its EU membership.

Legally, it would have to re-apply, and other EU members (notably Spain) that want to discourage parts of their own countries from seceding will have every reason to make things hard for the Scots. They could end up waiting outside the door for a long time.

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Scotland would just be collateral damage, and the Rest of the UK would deserve and get very little sympathy when the divorce negotiations turn nasty. What will worry everybody else is the risk to the unity of the rest of the EU.

It is a bad time for Europe. Economic growth is low, unemployment and debt are high, and refugees are pouring in from the Middle East and Africa. Hard-right populist movements like the Front National in France and Alternative fuer Deutschland in Germany, anti-immigrant and anti-EU, are growing everywhere in Europe, and are already in power in Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland.

The real fear is that the “Brexit contagion” will spread, and that other EU members will also acquire governments that just want out. That’s actually not a very high probability, but nobody wants the old pre-EU Europe back.
________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“One…walls”; and “Under…borders”)

Migrants, Euro, Brexit: The EU at Risk

A recent headline on the leading Franch newspaper Le Monde said it all: “Migrants, the Euro, Brexit: The European Union is mortal.” And it’s true, the EU could actually collapse, given one or two more years of really bad decisions by the 28 national governments that make up the membership.

The most immediate threat is Brexit (British+exit), the possible result of the Yes/No referendum on British membership in the EU that is scheduled for 23 June. Prime Minister David Cameron promised this referendum three years ago to placate an anti-EU faction in his own Conservative Party (Cameron himself wants to stay in the EU), but it is coming at a particularly bad time.

Cameron doubtless calculated that the referendum would produce a large majority for staying in, and force the nationalist “Little Englanders” in his own party to shut up for a while. But the vote is actually being held at a time when many English people are upset by the large flow of immigrants into the United Kingdom and blame it on the policy of free movement for EU citizens.

That is only half-true: only half the foreign-born people settling in Britain are EU citizens who come by right. The rest are legal immigrants from other parts of the world, also attracted by the relatively prosperous British economy, and if the locals don’t like it they are free to change Britain’s own laws. But the half-truth that it’s all the EU’s fault has been vigorously promoted by the right-wing papers that dominate the British media scene.

The million-plus wave of refugees and economic migrants that has surged into the EU in the past year feeds the British panic even more, although Britain still controls its own borders and none of those migrants can enter the UK without London’s permission. The result is that the polls now show the “Leave” and “Remain” votes almost neck-and-neck.

The refugees and illegal economic migrants really are a problem for most other EU countries. The vast majority of them enter the EU through Greece and Italy, but they almost all want to travel on to the richer EU countries – which, with the admirable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, want nothing to do with them.

This is rapidly leading to a breakdown of the “Schengen” agreement, by which all the EU members except the United Kingdom and Ireland abolished their border controls with other Schengen countries. New border fences are now springing up everywhere as EU members try to keep the migrants out.

Dissent with EU policies is growing as some Eastern European countries refuse to accept any refugees at all, and ultra-nationalist parties are growing in strength almost everywhere. In Hungary, and now in Poland, they have even come to power.

Then there is the euro, the common currency shared by 19 EU countries including all the big ones except the United Kingdom. It was a bad idea from the start, because a single currency without a single government behind it cannot deal effectively with big issues like debt and inflation. It was bound to end up in crisis as the economies of the member states diverged – and they have.

The EU was transfixed all last year by the threat that Greece would crash out of the euro. The Greek crisis has been put on hold for the moment, but it is clear by now that Italy, Spain and Portugal, at least, would also benefit from leaving the euro zone. This is a currency that has no future, although its demise is not necessarily imminent.

So: three separate problems, none of them likely to be fatal to the EU on its own. The EU survived with separate national currencies for four decades before it adopted the euro; it could do so again, although the transition back would be painful and probably chaotic. The Schengen treaty was a nice idea, but not essential to the Union’s smooth functioning. And Britain’s departure could be nothing more than a spectacular act of self-mutilation.

It’s the fact that all these crises are hitting together that endangers the EU’s very existence. The only immediate and certain consequence of Brexit would be Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom (so that it could stay in the EU), and nobody would have much sympathy for England’s post-Brexit difficulties. But the walk-out of the country with the EU’s second-biggest economy would trigger a political earthquake.

The various populations of the EU are seething with dissatisfaction about immigration and refugees, about the euro, about all the compromises and bureaucracy that must be tolerated to keep a 28-country “community” going. Mini-Trumps are cropping up everywhere, offering radical solutions that usually include an explicit or implicit commitment to leave the Union.

It could snowball. Where Britain (or rather, England) breaks trail, others might follow. We could end up with a severely shrunken EU, back down to the original six members plus a few others, while the countries of Eastern Europe try to get used to being once more the buffer between Russia and the West.
___________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and . (That is…scene”; and “Dissent…power”)