Membership or not of the EU is the most critical question around and can’t wait long to be answered, writes Bill Jamieson
A central concern in the approach to the independence referendum is our relationship with the European Union. Were we to secede from the UK, would our membership of the EU also cease, or would it continue? Above all, who would be making the decisions in the EU for Scotland and the rest of the UK?
These are huge questions. And they have already roused fierce controversy. Both the Yes and Better Together camps have cited authoritative sources to support their arguments – either that our membership would cease on independence, requiring re-application and negotiation, or that we would remain as a member pending recognition as a separate state.
Whatever the position, it needs to be clarified quickly. Thousands of Scottish businesses exporting to the EU and the banks and financial sector accountable to EU regulation will need immediate clarity if their affairs are not to be plunged into chaos.
As it is, we are approaching critical inflection points: a decision on whether to break with the UK (the independence referendum, 2014); the UK’s representation in the EU (voting for the European parliament, 2014); a general election in the UK (2015); possible negotiations to reconfigure our relationship with the EU, and a possible referendum on whether the UK should secede from the EU. We are thus about to enter one of the most complex and potentially game-changing periods in our post-war history, about as straightforward as three dimensional chess.
It is against this backcloth that one of Europe’s most prominent academics has put pen to paper on the protocols and consequences for those, like Scotland and Catalonia, who choose to secede from states that are EU members, the implications for the rump member states and the questions facing the UK should it seek to leave the EU. Roland Vaubel is Professor of Economics at Mannheim University and a member of the Advisory Council to the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. His paper on Secession in the European Union has just been published by the Institute of Economic Affairs.
His dense and closely argued paper begins with a philosophical preamble setting out the right of recession, democratic legitimacy and questions on the protection of minorities within seceding states. History, he points out, “leaves us in no doubt that federal states tend to centralise”, a process driven by the desire of politicians and bureaucrats “to increase their power by establishing tax and regulatory cartels. In addition, bureaucrats and organised interest groups try to escape the attention of voters by shifting political decision-making away from the local or provincial level to the central government or international organisations”. The share of central government expenditure in total government spending is lowest in Canada, where Quebec has been powerful enough to prevent centralisation.
The Treaty on European Union, he points out, explicitly mentions the possibility of leaving the EU after a period of notice of two years, but the EU institutions do everything they can to discourage secession, not only of but also within member states.
Ahead of pending referenda on independence in Scotland and Catalonia there has been no lack of such discouragement. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, declared last year that “a region which secedes from a member state, automatically ceases to be part of the European Union”. Romano Prodi, his predecessor as EC president, gave the same response to an MEP in 2004: “When a part of the territory of a member state ceases to be part of that state, eg because the territory becomes an independent state, the treaties will no longer apply to that territory.”
Not to be outdone, Viviane Reding, commissioner in charge of justice and vice-president of the Commission, wrote to the Spanish government last year insisting that “Catalonia, if it seceded from Spain, could not remain in the European Union as a separate member”.
But according to the Treaties, the EU Commission has no say in who ceases to be a member or becomes a member. This, says Vaubel, is entirely left to the European Council (the body that comprises the heads of state or government of the EU member states) and the European parliament.
Now Herman van Rompuy, the president of the EU Council, said last year of Scotland: “Nobody has anything to gain from separation in the world of today… How can separatism help? The word of the future is ‘union’… Scotland will need to re-apply for EU membership.” And Elmar Brok, chairman of the EU parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, has described regional disintegration as “poison to Europe”.
But neither the council nor the parliament has voted on the issue, a vital consideration but one that, consistent with the culture of the EU to which the SNP leadership wishes to be part, can apparently be swept aside with insouciance.
Vaubel points out that “the legal position taken by Barroso, Reding and van Rompuy has no basis in the European treaties. Nor is there precedent in EU law”. But why do they insist on the exclusion and re-accession of Scotland? Vaubel cites the argument of McLean, Gallagher and Lodge in Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards, “that the EU institutions want to renegotiate the terms of Scottish membership: Scotland would be asked to join the euro and the Schengen Agreement and it would have to give up its part of the ‘Thatcher rebate’.”
Few outcomes more stretch the political imagination than the prospect of a Thatcher-hating SNP administration seeking to defend its share of the Thatcher rebate. Perhaps it may need to be renamed “Scotland’s independence mitigation” for our sensibilities.
The key point is that negotiations over secession ought to be conducted with member states, not with the central government of the EU. This, says Vaubel, “is because the anti-secession bias is more pronounced among national politicians who would lose power than among other, regional politicians who may want to be able to secede as well”. It was, he adds, a mistake to empower the European parliament to veto any negotiated withdrawal from, or re-accession to, the EU.
The paper, while putting the European Commission, Herman von Rompuy and others firmly in their place, may be of little comfort to those in the SNP who imagine that the institutions of the EU would be necessarily sympathetic to Scottish interests, beyond, that is, the self-interested concerns of the EU itself and its relentlessly centralising dynamic.
It is surely to Norway that an independence-aspiring Scotland should look, a country that has prospered outside of the EU and has suffered no manifest loss of presence or influence on the world stage. On the contrary. It enjoys a sovereignty that would be denied to Scotland by the EU, an institution whose leaders have already made well manifest their inbuilt and self-serving anti-independence bias. In the coming era of three dimensional chess, take care not to consign your most precious piece to captivity.