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!

Share on social media:

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.

Share on social media:

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



Share on social media:

Don’t panic, and carry a towel: sustainable aviation

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Don’t panic, and carry a towel: sustainable aviation

Source: Pixabay

We don’t have to turn the clock back on flying – we have to move forward on innovation

In recent months, Greta Thunberg and schoolchildren across the world have led a striking – in both senses of the word – campaign to raise awareness and spark action on climate change. Her 14-day journey across the sea from England to New York to attend a UN climate summit was particularly impressive. Although she stated that it was not something everyone should do, it was hard not to be reminded of pre-aviation days where it took several days to cross the Atlantic and you could only go if you were wealthy.

What we have today are far shorter journey times and far more access to travel for less wealthy people. I got an email from Vueling yesterday offering me an €45 round trip from Bilbao to Seville, and I’m on their mailing lists because I was able to fly with them from Bilbao to Malaga back when I was earning €700 a month as an English Language Assistant. More recently, my friend and I once went from Paris Orly to Porto for €56 return: that was within our reach even as poor students. Beyond European internal flights, passenger numbers are also growing rapidly in Asia-Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures also show that restrictive measures would slow, but not stop such growth in passenger numbers.

Having provided people with these opportunities, it would be unfair and unworkable to try to close them off again. Clearly, however, the climate impacts of business as usual are also unsustainable. What, then, can be done? A September event in Brussels set out to discuss a ‘Sustainable Pathway to Future Aviation.’ One of the keynote speakers, Professor Max Hirsh, set out the options for advancing sustainable aviation.

Part of his argument can be found on his personal website, but to summarise:

  • EU-wide aviation taxes would damage national carriers the most, displace traffic outside of the EU and enable populist parties to accuse the EU of taking summer holidays away from the poor.
  • We need to change how we design aircraft and how we design fuel, but the demand and the technology are not yet in place.
  • Airports need to be seamlessly connected to high speed rail so people can easily combine the two.
  • Airport terminals must be redesigned, possibly including complete refurbishment. Many of them were built with poor insulation and low quality materials, before energy efficiency was a priority. They also often rely on car parks to make money and need alternative revenue sources. He cited the example of Singapore Changi’s ‘Jewel’ which replaced its central car park with improved check-in services alongside additional retail and entertainment space.
  • How people get to airports is a huge contributor to emissions, and innovative urban planning and transport solutions can help fix that.
  • We need to have an honest public conversation about what practical changes can realistically be made, to convince airports and airlines to prioritise sustainability, and to make upfront public investments in projects that need coordinating across sectors.

From Brussels to Brussels – A Case Study

What particularly resonated with me was the issue of onward connections. Right now, in Europe, there are certain journeys where the economic incentive is to fly because the green option is eye-wateringly expensive. I recently booked my travel from Brussels back to the UK for Christmas. On my return, I’m planning to stop off and see my dad. There are two ways to do this: fly from Aberdeen to Birmingham and have someone collect me at the airport or get the train from Aberdeen to Peterborough and have someone collect me at the station.
The cost of the flight – plus the cost of a train to London and the Eurostar back to Brusselswas less than the cost of that one train from the north-east of Scotland to the south of England. Is it any wonder people continue to take internal flights?

According to Professor Hirsh, there are technological ways to keep flying, but these are just beginning to develop and face barriers such as insufficient demand, technical hurdles, and sunk investments in current aircraft.  Governments can assist by putting public funds into research on these fledgling technologies. The EU has recently released a proposal for a European Partnership for Clean Aviation, designed to create a pact between the EU institutions and all other public and private stakeholders. The reasoning is that at the EU level, far more resources are available for truly revolutionary investment in new green technologies than a single company or country could provide. Although it’s the weird and wonderful designs that go viral, the EU proposal mentions the kind of electric ‘air taxis’ that have been a staple of sci-fi for decades and are now finally on the verge of becoming reality.

That is the problem in a nutshell: passenger growth is an unavoidable reality, but as yet, technological improvements might not keep up. IATA figures show that fuel burn can only be reduced by around 30-35% on current aircraft models without becoming difficult, and that 2035-40 would be an optimistic time scale for fully electric passenger aircraft carrying 100-150 people.

Overall, therefore, it is optimistic to place our hopes on technology’s transformative power – but equally (if not more) optimistic to hope that taxation could place aviation back in its box. It is not enough simply to declare climate emergencies and rail against the current state of affairs. There are realistic ways to make the system work – the EU, as a huge market power, can make transformative investments and incentivise green behaviours. We cannot and should not go back to a time before aviation. However, we can and should move forward to a new kind of aviation.

Share on social media:
Next >>