The UK may still be subject to the rulings of the European Court of Justice after Brexit, so perhaps flying the EU flag is a reflection of constitutional reality, writes Bill Jamieson.
Gesture politics of the cheapest sort – or an all-too accurate political statement? How appropriate that Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to keep the EU flag flying over St Andrews House in Edinburgh after the UK finally leaves the bloc at 11pm tomorrow.
Critics say this is playing politics over a statement of constitutional fact. But others argue the Scottish Government should have the right to choose which flags are flown on public buildings.
But there is another issue here – that, however objectionable it may be for the UK Government, the insistence on keeping the ring of EU stars aloft is set to prove a greater statement of constitutional truth than any ceremonial lowering on so-called “Brexit Day”.
It’s not just that the First Minister is an arch-Remainer and for good measure also wishes to celebrate what has been hailed as a landmark day in modern British history with another speech calling for a second vote on Scottish independence. (Another one? That makes it just another routine day in Scottish politics).
Nor is it a recognition that there will be no effective change in UK-EU relations until December 31 at the earliest – a date now routinely regarded as hopelessly impractical. It is that the EU is determined that its writ will hold sway long after this date.
Déjà vu for fishing industry
According to an internal Brussels diplomatic document seen by The Times newspaper, the EU is insisting that the European Court of Justice be able to enforce the terms of a trade, fishing and security deal. The document argues that the ECJ must have a role in ruling whether Britain has breached any rules to which it signs up. It notes that this goes beyond existing free trade agreements to “ensure consistent interpretation of the agreement and secure the role of the [ECJ] in this respect”.
It says the withdrawal treaty ratified at Westminster last week gives the ECJ a significant enforcement role, suggesting that the EU will make substantial demands linking access to Europe’s markets to judicial supervision by European judges – a position the SNP administration would presumably support.
More controversially for the SNP, the EU has also warned that successfully concluding a fishing deal with the UK is a prerequisite for any future trade deal – with France demanding fishing rights for 25 years – and the EU is pushing the UK to agree to this by the beginning of July. The UK fishing industry may well be excused a feeling of déjà vu, given the way that its interests were sacrificed to gain entry to the EEC in the first place. Many livelihoods were lost and communities destroyed by the Common Fisheries Policy.
Mr Johnson has come under domestic political pressure to deliver on Government promises made to UK fishermen in the run-up to the general election in December last year. Government ministers made repeated assurances to the UK’s fishermen that Brexit would deliver a golden bonanza, providing them with “hundreds of thousands of tonnes” of extra fish.
Constant stream of demands
The Prime Minister has only gone as far as saying that the UK will “take back control” of its waters after Brexit. But what does that mean, exactly? The issue of access to British waters is a major concern for the French government, already battling with disaffected trade unionists, and deeply reluctant to face a militant fishermen’s lobby.
But it is not just on fisheries policy where the EU is set to mount entrenched resistance. There is the prospect of massive fines should the UK deviate from the plethora of directives emanating every year from Brussels.
Even if an agreement is reached on strict quotas on products where we have a surplus, the EU is set to insist on strict oversight of tax, labour laws and industrial policy. Michel Barnier, whose negotiating prowess against the UK was greatly admired by anti-Brexit commentators, has been kept on to oversee the next phase of Brexit negotiations. He has been busy with a constant stream of demands the UK will have to agree before it will be offered a trade deal.
Brussels is anxious that no concessions will be granted to the UK that could be pounced upon by EU member states seeking a more favourable alignment with Brussels. So there is every likelihood that negotiations over the fine print of UK-EU trade and tariff negotiations could continue for years. And until a deal is agreed, the continued fluttering of the EU flag over public buildings here is likely to more fully represent our sovereign, constitutional reality.
EU migrants still coming
Another area where Scotland’s First Minister has sought differentiation from the UK was her demand (rejected this week) for a separate Scottish post-Brexit visa system. “A common, UK-wide approach to immigration simply hasn’t worked in Scotland’s favour,” she declared.
But is it really the case that the prospect of “Brexit Britain” has impeded the flow of EU migrants to the UK? ONS figures for the year to September 2018 show 202,000 citizens from other EU countries came to the UK and about 145,000 left – a “net immigration” of around 57,000. This confirms previous net immigration in 2017-2018.
The latest provisional estimate suggests net immigration from the EU in the year to June 2019 of 48,000, so there are now a couple of hundred thousand more people living here from other EU states now, than at the time of the referendum. Suggestions of a mass exodus or of new arrivals being afraid to come have proved wide of the mark.
While it is true that the rate of increase has slowed, this may be due to other factors. Figures for National Insurance show the numbers of immigrants from Poland in the year to last September down by 10 per cent at 43,000. But there were far more registrations from Romania, at 139,000.
Factors that might explain this difference in behaviour include: Poland’s rate of economic growth, which has been averaging four per cent a year; Poles under the age of 26 who earn less than 85,528 zloty (£18,519) a year do not have to pay income tax at all; and youth unemployment is just 3.2 per cent. In Spain, it is 14.2 per cent, so no surprise that the number of Spaniards coming here to look for work has increased.
Perhaps the SNP administration would have more success in attracting workers from the EU rather than seeking to introduce separate visa cards, by keeping income tax and barriers to business formation low. For the continent’s café entrepreneurs and budding baristas, its support to maintain the Uniform Business Rate is a useful first start.