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Scotland’s Story: here’s what you missed at our panel discussion

  • November 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

The CFEP held a well-attended panel discussion on the Wednesday 6th November at the Press Club Brussels on the topic of Scotland and independence: out of the frying pan and into the fire? If you weren’t able to attend, here’s a brief summary of what you missed.

Sheila Ritchie MEP began the event with a passionate defence of Scotland remaining in the UK. She cited her party’s preamble, stating that “Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries.” The Liberal Democrats oppose another independence referendum and support a referendum on Brexit. This is often challenged for inconsistency, but for Mrs Ritchie, it is about ending existing chaos and preventing additional chaos. She explained that the difficulties of undoing a 46-year old partnership between the UK and the EU would only be amplified in undoing a 416-year-old partnership between Scotland and England. For people new to Scottish politics, Mrs Ritchie provided an insight into what it was like to campaign against independence in 2014. She described it as the worst experience of her political life and the beginning of post-truth politics. Economics does matter, and she noted that Scotland’s deficit is above the 3% target required for EU members under the Stability and Growth Pact. People, however, matter the most: Mrs Ritchie highlighted that a lot of Scots are married to people from other parts of the UK, and raised concerns about building divides between those communities. Her party wants a “reformed, federal, and fair union”. She conceded there would be little chance of this under a Boris Johnson government, but noted that this was another reason why they were fighting to stop him in the December 12 General Election.

 

Christian Allard MEP naturally disagreed with Sheila, but the two MEPs had a good-natured debate. For Mr Allard, his identity as a French Scot demonstrates the openness of the independence movement for people from everywhere. It was important to him that people’s ideas were not castigated, but that people were given respect and space to talk about their ideas. He believes most people are not hardcore supporters of either side and they make their decisions on polling, noting that he knew people who voted for their chosen side and would have been content with the result either way. Indeed, he sought to oppose the notion of two camps as simplistic: there were people in Scotland who voted Yes and Remain, Yes and Leave, No and Leave, and No and Remain. Overall, what matters for Mr Allard is the future. He explained that the future that people want is what really counts, and they should have the democratic and legal chance to vote on it. He acknowledged it would have been easier to become independent in 2014 because back then both Scotland and the UK were fully aligned to and participating in the EU. That is what united the two MEPs: they differ on independence but are fighting to keep the whole UK in the EU.

Schams El Ghoneimi spoke next, mentioning his time at the European Parliament. Part of his role involved assessing what an independent Scotland’s foreign policy would look like. Would it be like Denmark? Would it have opposed the Iraq War, if that happened today? Would it agree to host migrants from Italy and Greece, and then follow through on those commitments like many other states did not? His aim during his interventions on our panel was to look at the nuances of the issue: there were obstacles, but also things that had changed since 2014. For example, Josep Borrell stated that Spain would not block Scotland from joining the EU.

Mr El Ghoneimi added that this is a totally unprecedented situation, and so the EU would likely find a way over the political hurdles. The economic ones may be more complex to deal with. He noted, however, that there are real economic hurdles and that the Scottish independence campaign has work to do to win over those who voted No in 2014. He added that the EU would enjoy a strong message that joining is still desirable – and another net contributor to the budget. Scotland has an inclusive vision of what it means to be Scottish, but its pro-Europeanness is not perfect. Neither Lib Dem or SNP MEPs supported harmonising corporation tax rates or transnational lists. Opposition to the Euro persists, due to Scottish integration in the UK currency union. The most important consideration for Mr El Ghoneimi is where the most pro-European dynamic lies: it would be unlikely for the UK to remain in the EU, but that would be good for the world. If it did not, Scotland could be tempted away in favour of the EU.

 

Finally, Larissa Brunner rounded off the panel with the EU’s perspective on an independent Scotland. She agreed that Scottish membership would give the EU a PR boost. Furthermore, Scottish participation in the Common Fisheries Policy really matters for the other Member States. The only way to guarantee that it will continue to take part is remaining in the EU. Spain, particularly, does a lot of fishing in Scottish waters. She also agreed it would not veto Scottish independence: it sees the Catalan and Scottish cases as distinct based on legality and cooperation with the central government. It is also politically costly to veto, and Member States are unlikely to expend political capital to do so.

She described Scotland’s potential EU role as being part of the group of small Northern European liberal Member States that do not have the Euro. Such states used to hide behind the UK so they would not have to voice their own concerns but will need to speak up for themselves after Brexit. There is the danger of being marginalised by the Franco-German concentration of power, but these countries will all still have a vote and a Commissioner. She disagreed with commentators who suggest there is a ‘queue’ for membership but noted that Scotland will still have to go through the steps (albeit that this will be a short process.) Ms Brunner suggested EFTA could be a good holding place for it: Scotland being ‘small and humble’ enough to accept being a rule-taker and paying into the EU budget.

Audience questions were varied, discussing everything from the state of the Scottish border after independence to the nature of democracy as we know it. At the CFEP, we aim to facilitate discussion about the future of Europe and help people in the Brussels bubble learn more about the stories they see in the news. Our audience asked some insightful questions about the details of devolution in Scotland and federalism, and our panellists used some terms you might not have come across before.

Scotland has a system of devolved and reserved powers. This gets complex. The Scottish Parliament has an infographic summarising which issues are decided there and which are retained at Westminster. How does this relate to the EU, you might be asking? As Mr El Ghoneimi mentioned, Scottish Government representatives participate in EU meetings in their areas of expertise. As set out in this guide for Scottish Government officials, it is almost assumed that they would want to attend Council Working Parties on environmental, agricultural and fisheries issues. Mrs Ritchie sought to explain Henry VIII powers: the issue with Brexit is that the EU Withdrawal Act allows the UK Government to use these powers to copy EU law into UK law without having to consult Parliament. One question our audience members asked relates to the internal debate about these competencies – once they are regained from the EU, there is a controversy about when they will be devolved to the Scottish government.

 

Finally, we ended our event by imagining the future. If Scotland became independent, in its first Council Presidency, our panel generally agreed it can and should prioritise leading on climate change. Mr Allard added that he wanted to refocus Scotland and Europe on wellbeing, plugging Nicola Sturgeon’s TED Talk on the topic, and Mrs Ritchie wanted Scotland to take advantage of the EU’s tools to assist its smaller, more remote regions.

 

We hope you enjoyed our event, and that you learned something about Scotland and its potential futures. Watch this space for our next discussion event in December!

The CFEP Hosts an Event to Discuss the Questions Surrounding Scottish Independence

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Source: Pixabay

 

We have decided to organise a panel debate on one of the hot topics being discussed in Brussels in these pre-Brexit days, as a follow-up to our previous analysis on Scotland and the questions surrounding its future. We have managed to invite four distinguished panellists, Sheila Ritchie MEP (Liberal Democrats), Christian Allard MEP (Scottish National Party, TBC), Schams El Ghoneimi, former Brexit advisor at the European Parliament, and Larissa Brunner, Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre. We’ll put some tough questions to the politicians and independent experts and give you the chance to ask some of your own too. The event will be held on Wednesday, November 6th, starting at 17:30 at the Press Club in Brussels (Rue Froissart 95, 1040 Brussels).

The Brexit decision has made life more complicated for both sides of the Scottish independence debate. Just as Brexit raises questions about ideas and values as well as about logistical and practical issues of the UK’s departure from the European Union, the Scottish independence discussion raises similar questions about what role a 21st-century Scottish state would play and how it would be structured.

According to the most recently published poll on the issue, the Scottish public is split on whether they want independence or not. In response to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” 46% said Yes and 47% said No, with the remaining 7% ‘Don’t Know’. Looking at only those likely to vote and removing undecideds yielded a 50/50 deadlock. That same group, when asked how they would vote in the event of a No Deal Brexit, split 54/46 in favour of independence. Brexit has, then, had an impact on independence-related opinion, but the size of that impact remains to be seen.

What’s more, the question used above is the same as the one used in the 2014 referendum: Should Scotland be an independent country? The Electoral Commission tests referendum questions on the grounds of clarity, understandability, and neutrality. It approved a Yes/No response for the Scottish independence referendum in its assessment. However, in its assessment of the Brexit referendum question, it moved away from Yes/No questions because the members of the public it consulted felt that Remain/Leave was simpler and more neutral. A second Scottish independence referendum may have a different question, which could also lead to a different campaigning dynamic. Last time, the two campaigns centred their branding around Yes and No.

For the No campaign, there’s a certain irony about potentially being rebranded as the Remain campaign. A key issue in the campaign will naturally be Scotland’s EU Remain vote. 2014 No campaigners are going to face several questions arising from the Brexit decision:

  • Is it realistic to claim that Scotland is ‘stronger together’ with the UK when Brexit is predicted to seriously damage the Scottish and British economies?
  • For people who believe in a Scottish national interest which differs from that of the wider UK, Brexit is clear evidence of Westminster’s inability or unwillingness to uphold that interest. How can you convince them that remaining in the UK would be good for Scotland?
  • The ‘Project Fear’ concept was initially coined in 2014 in response to the No campaign’s focus on potential independence-related problems. Is it still feasible to convince Scots independence is too risky? Alternatively, is it possible to construct a positive narrative for a UK led by a drastically unpopular Prime Minister who shows little care or attention to Scottish interests?

 

 

However, the Yes campaign – or, the Leave the UK campaign – will also face questions, despite the potential to benefit from the Brexit fallout. Although their case that Scotland is politically different and its views overlooked has been given a useful case study, they faced difficulties in convincing voters on the practicalities of independence. Those practicalities face additional Brexit related complications.

  • Under the Stability and Growth Pact, EU member states have to keep to a budget deficit of 3% of GDP and a national debt of 60% GDP. According to Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures, Scotland’s deficit (including North Sea oil revenue) was 7%. What would you say to a voter who wants to know how an independent Scotland would meet those criteria?
  • The European Union is taking Brexit as an opportunity to move forward on integration, without the UK’s opt-outs. How would an independent Scotland handle the obligation to join the Euro and Schengen?
  • Scotland wants to be in the EU, that much is clear, but what can it bring to the EU? In its first Council Presidency, what would its priorities be? Potential fellow Member States would want to know its positions on the big issues of the day: migration, security and defence, Eurozone budgeting, etc…

 

All this assumes a second independence referendum would be forthcoming. The process of holding a referendum is not straightforward. A Section 30 order allows the UK Government to temporarily or permanently give law-making powers to the Scottish Parliament in particular issues. In 2012, the UK and Scottish governments agreed a Section 30 order allowing the Scottish Parliament to hold a single-question referendum before the end of 2014. The powers then expired, requiring the Scottish Government to ask for another order if it wishes to repeat the referendum. The Scottish Parliament authorised such a request in March 2017. Such a request has not yet been made, but the First Minister has signalled she will do so ‘in a matter of weeks’. For its part, the (current) Prime Minister has signalled that he will reject such a request. The Scottish independence movement has learned from the failings of the Catalan independence movement, and both Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie (the pro-independence Scottish Green co-leader) have ruled out any unilateral actions in favour of pressing for a legal, democratically valid referendum.

This debate is likely to run on and on, and at the Centre for European Progression we hope we can bring some clarity to the issues surrounding the future of Scotland.

 

See you at the Press Club on Wednesday evening.

Une erreur fatale: France and the Western Balkans

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Une erreur fatale: France and the Western Balkans

Source: Pexels

France’s short term political calculations store up serious trouble for the future of Europe

 

Ursula von der Leyen spoke of a ‘geopolitical Commission’ while setting out her future objectives. Emmanuel Macron may have just killed that vision off before her Commission even begins. His decision to block starting the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania makes it difficult to take the EU seriously as a foreign policy actor in its own right.

In terms of foreign policy, there are two main schools of thought: the liberal internationalist school, and the realist school. A simplified explanation of the difference is that realism is about the importance of state power and interests above all else, liberal internationalism highlights compromise and cooperation as an alternative to pure power politics. Whichever theory you subscribe to, Macron’s action is damaging.

Firstly, liberal internationalism. The EU itself is a key example of this theory: states fight for their different interests in meeting rooms instead of battlefields. For many European states emerging from authoritarian governance, the fledgling European project meant peace, democracy, and prosperity. That is still the case today, with aspiring members having seen the EU’s transformative effect and so willingly making sacrifices and reforms to join the club. North Macedonia and Albania have made radical, dramatic changes to reach this point: the former even changed its name, and the latter has agreed to have all its judges vetted by an independent panel. Both states have normalised their relations with other countries in the region, which is of paramount importance in the Balkans, the “powder keg” of Europe.  As of yet, they have little to show for it.

 

Rewarding other states for ‘good behaviour’ only works if they believe the rewards will materialise. If you are promised cake as a child for doing your chores well and then the cake never comes, why would you keep making the effort? More importantly, your parents would not be able to convince you with incentives ever again. Macron’s decision does not just alienate North Macedonia and Albania. He has also signalled to every other country in the enlargement procedure that their reform efforts may have been in vain. Partners beyond the Western Balkans also have no way of knowing whether any commitments made will survive contact with the Council. Macron has not just seriously jeopardised the EU’s enlargement strategy: he has dealt a blow to the concept of liberal internationalism as a whole. For the  Balkans, that means a potential resurgence of nationalist forces. North Macedonia’s rescheduled elections could end up being the canary in the coal mine. For the EU, that means a serious loss of credibility overall. Liberal internationalism is its lifeblood, and if that theory cannot bear fruit in the real world, the EU cannot be an effective international actor.

From a realist perspective, perhaps France has its own interests that would make such a risk worth it. When questioned by Euractiv, Macron’s close ally Natalie Loiseau MEP cited concerns about Brexit and the resulting EU budgetary gap as needing to be resolved before opening enlargement processes, but claimed that France was still committed to closer relations with the Western Balkans. Unofficially, their motivation lies in the fear of public opposition to enlargement, and an attempt to secure compromise from Germany on other EU-related files. Franco-German transactional deals are a key example of how persistent power politics can be. Although France may have legitimate problems with the enlargement process, reforms could be enacted even when North Macedonia and Albania are in the process of their accession negotiations. In reality, France is seeking a figleaf to cover its naked indulgence in power politics.

However, it’s not just the existing members of the EU who may be drawn to the allure of power politics. Serbia, which has already been drifting off the European path, has taken this latest decision as vindication of that move. President Vucic’s statement to the FT that “We need to take care of ourselves. That’s the only way, that’s the only approach. Everything else would be very irresponsible[.]” is the epitome of power politics. For the Western Balkans, “caring for themselves” involves decisions that will drastically undermine EU influence in the region.

This is where Von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical Commission’ will run into difficulties. Geopolitically, the EU is not the only fish in the sea. There are other places that Western Balkan states can look, as they grow frustrated with unmet promises. China, and its Belt and Road initiative, is only too happy to step into the economic investment gap left by the EU. Again, it is  not only EU foreign policy and enlargement goals that have been sacrificed at the altar of French power plays. China just provides finance without the conditions: it will happily fund energy and transport projects, some of them environmentally damaging, while the EU tries to push in the opposite direction. Turkey is eyeing the region, building its influence not only with the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians, but also the key player in the Balkans, Serbia. Russia – as usual – will react to such developments with thinly disguised glee. Ending the presumption that all roads lead to Europe is Moscow’s key Western Balkan policy aim. It seeks to become one of several ‘managers’ in the region, and so will happily take advantage of the EU’s lack of political will.

What may have seemed like an effective political strategy for France in the short-term will come back to bite it in the future. Even if it ends up securing the internal reforms it has demanded, it will have done so at great cost externally. The EU will face a loss of credibility, and a loss of stability in its neighbourhood. Any future promises it makes to countries in the Western Balkans would be met with a simple “Thank you, but we know the French will sabotage us in the end – we will stick with our reliable new partners in Moscow, Beijing, and Ankara.”

 

It is not France who faces the brunt of the consequences of its actions. The people of the Western Balkans will be put at risk by resurgent nationalism, and the European project will be blamed for failing to meet citizen demands. Together, those two risks are the potential sparks for the next big crisis.

1 in 6: Mental Health in Europe

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

1 in 6: Mental Health in Europe

Source: Pixabay

European institutions and countries have to keep up the momentum on mental health

This post will discuss suicide prevention and mental health. There is help and support available for anyone who’s been affected by these issues, in Belgium and further afield:

Crisis centres in Europe

Helplines for young people

Community Help Service Belgium

 

(more…)

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