Friday, 26 February 2016

Britain doesn’t have to choose between Europe and the Commonwealth

Many of those who want Britain to leave the EU argue that, by prioritising European relations, the UK has turned its back on our traditional allies. Instead of close relations, and some degree of integration, with the European continent, they argue we should prioritise ties with the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere more generally (especially the United States). The argument is that the UK has more in common culturally, historically and linguistically with commonwealth nations, and that in 1973 we abandoned them to join the EEC. Sometimes this is reinforced by the view that our EU membership ties us commercially to European counties experienced sluggish economic growth, rather than thriving to Commonwealth countries such as India. There is however a problem with this argument. It’s wrong. Worse than that in fact, it’s not just incorrect, it’s the opposite of the truth. The mirror image of the truth. 180oc from the truth. In short, Britain’s EU membership doesn’t undermine our relationships with Commonwealth countries and America, rather it enhances then. So Britain doesn’t have to choose between membership of the EU and close ties with the Commonwealth and America. On the contrary, if we left the EU, we would also be undermining our relationships with Commonwealth states and America.

Eurosceptics have consistently made the argument that Britain’s EU membership weakens our relations with our more natural allies in the Commonwealth. In an article published in the Daily Express on 18 July 2015, UKIP leader Nigel Farage argued that ‘We must reactivate our close relationship with the Commonwealth countries which we turned our back on when we joined the Common Market’. This point echoed that from the vocally Eurosceptic Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who in a piece published by the Daily Mail on 25 January asserted that ‘We surrendered our trade policy to Brussels on January 1, 1973, and in the process turned our back on close trading partners such as Australia and South Africa’. Hannan is well known proponent of an Anglosphere, the belief that certain values and attitudes positively define the English speaking nations of the world. He promoted this case most prominently in his book, published in 2013 ‘Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World’. In an article published on his website he asserts the virtue of ‘Anglosphere values’, stating that ‘If there’s one thing that distinguishes English-speaking civilization from all the rival models, it’s this: that the individual is lifted above the collective’.

There is however a problem for Farage and Hannan. Anglophile countries, that is Commonwealth countries and the United States, don’t share their attitude to the UK’s membership of the EU. On the contrary, they enthusiastically embrace it, and in some cases are not afraid to say so in public. Let’s start with the United States of America, which is, after all, only the most powerful and influential country in the world. Senior American politicians have been very clear that they want the UK to remain in the EU, and that the UK’s EU membership enhances the ‘special relationship’. In an interview with the BBC in July 2015 Obama linked the strength of the UK’s relationship with the US to our EU membership, asserting that ‘Having the UK in the European Union gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union’. More recently US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that America has ‘a profound interest…in a very strong United Kingdom staying in a strong EU’. If Britain’s EU membership was undermining our relationship with the US you would expect American politicians to be urging us to withdraw. But it isn’t, so they’re not. In addition in October 2015 United States Trade Representative Michael Froman stated that America is ‘not in the market for FTAs [free trade agreements] with individual countries’ and that as a result the UK could be subject to the same tariffs as China, Brazil and India in the event of Brexit.

So American leaders aren’t urging Brexit, but how about their counterparts in India, the rising Commonwealth power with a GDP growth rate countries in Europe can only pray for. Bad news again for Brexit supporters I’m afraid. In November 2015, during a visit to the UK, Indian Prime Minister Modi described the UK as ‘our entry point into the EU’. In other words Indian firms like doing business in the UK, which has strong cultural and linguistic ties to India, partly because it allows that to access the common market. This point was reinforced by a warning from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which warned that a British EU exit could reduce investment from Indian business to the UK. India is our third largest source of foreign direct investment, so I suspect we would notice.

But what of Australia and Canada, surely two of the nations with which we have the most in common culturally. Well it’s hard to argue that our relationship with either country is undermined by our EU membership. The UK is the second largest source of foreign investment to Australia, and the Australians return the favour by sending more direct investment to the UK than any other foreign country bar one. Meanwhile Canada has just concluded a free trade agreement with the EU, which could come into effect this year if it is ratified by the European Parliament, and would rather not have to consider engaging in another round of negotiations with the UK post-Brexit. In short, our economic relationship with both countries is strong despite our EU membership, and politicians from neither country are calling out for Brexit. David Cameron asserted in the House of Commons on 22 February that ‘The Prime Ministers of New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and the President of America, could not be clearer in thinking that Britain should stay in a reformed European Union’. Thus far all the evidence suggests that this is indeed the case.

So in short Britain doesn’t have to select between our EU membership and close relations with Commonwealth countries and America. We can have both. Commonwealth and American leaders aren’t speaking out for Brexit. On the contrary, when they do intervene they urge us to remain in the EU. Far from strengthening our relations with the Commonwealth and America Brexit would undermine them. And as noted in a previous Youth4In article Brexit makes the threat of the UK breaking up very real, further weakening our relations with both America and our Commonwealth allies.   

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Brexit campaign’s Scotland problem

Many of those campaigning for Britain to leave the EU are already waving the Union Jack. Metaphorically in most, though not all, cases. David Davis, the backbench Conservative MP who is surely doing more to frustrate David Cameron than the official leader of the opposition, wrote on his website that he backs Brexit so that ‘the United Kingdom, the first great liberal democracy of the modern era…can recover control of her own destiny’. UKIP leader Nigel Farage asserted at a ‘Grassroots Out’ rally in Manchester earlier this month that ‘we want our country back’, and implored other politicians to put ‘country before party’.  Daniel Hannan, the influential Conservative MEP, has described Britain leaving the EU as our independence day, whilst UKIP stood at the last general election under the banner of ‘Believe in Britain’.

There is however a problem with pro-Brexit politicians appealing to British patriotism. More than a problem in fact, almost a contradiction. The objection is this, if Britain does vote to leave the EU, there’s a good chance that Scotland will respond by voting to leave the UK. In short, Brexit threatens Britain as a political entity, and the logical position for a British patriot to take, at least for the time being, is to back Britain’s continued membership of the EU. As a result Brexit campaigners don’t own the Union Jack, the flag of the country then could end up fracturing. On the contrary it would make more sense if they waved just about any other piece of cloth. An old tea towel perhaps, or the flag of Mauritania, but not the Union Jack. 

On 18 September 2014 the Scottish people voted, by 55.3% to 44.7%, that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. A significant, though far from overwhelming, victory for the unionist position. But the Scottish independence question didn’t go away.  In the May 2015 General Election the SNP took 50% of the Scottish vote, whilst the unionist vote was split three ways between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties. As a result, assisted by Westminster’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, the SNP secured 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. In September 2014 Alex Salmond described Scottish independence as a ‘once in a generation, perhaps even once in a lifetime, opportunity’. Since then the SNP have changed their tune. At the SNP’s 2015 conference in Aberdeen the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, made it clear that she would support a second referendum if she was confident of winning it, and has refused to rule out holding one during the next Scottish Parliament.  

The SNP need a grievance, to strengthen nationalist opinion and justify holding a second referendum so soon after the first. I doubt they care what the grievance is. If they though Leicester City winning the Premier League would persuade Scots to vote for independence they would doubtless denounce it as an ‘insult to Scotland’, and call a second referendum. In the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, so the SNP abhor an unexploited grievance. When legislation was passed in October last year, to introduce an additional stage in the passage of legislation which only applies to England, where it would be examined in Committee by only English MP’s, the SNP erupted in faux outrage. Pete Wishart, SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, described the change as a ‘Slap in the face to Scots voters which they are unlikely to forget’. Thus far there is no sign that Scottish voters agree. The change has now come into effect, and few people in England, let alone Scotland, seem to have noticed.

Brexit though would be different. Scotland might not be overwhelmingly pro-EU, but it is significantly more so than England or Wales. A Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times and Heart FM, conducted between January 8-14, found that 65% of Scots want to stay in the EU, and only 35% want to leave. The national polls are far closer. Moreover, the gap between Scottish and national polls may well widen further during the referendum campaign. Almost all of the major figures in Scottish politics, including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, look like they will back remaining in the EU. By contrast in England and Northern Ireland Wales serious political figures are already backing Brexit. In addition UKIP has a serious presence in England and Wales, giving the ‘Out’ campaign a strong grassroots network to draw on. UKIP in Scotland on the other hand, despite having one MEP, is not a serious political force. The ‘Out’ campaign in Scotland, to put it bluntly, is likely to be short in terms of both leaders and foot soldiers.

The SNP leadership have made it clear that, if Scotland votes to remain in the EU but the UK as a whole votes to leave, they will see this as justification for a second referendum. At the SNP’s 2015 conference Sturgeon described this eventuality as ‘breaching the terms of last year’s vote’ in which case ‘you may well find that demand for a second independence referendum is unstoppable’. This would be reasonable. If the UK votes to leave the EU it would become a very different country, for better or worse, than the one Scotland voted to remain part of in 2014. And if there was a second independence referendum under these circumstances, the nationalists would have a pretty good chance of winning it. The Panelbase poll mentioned earlier, carried out in January of this year, found that 47% of the Scottish electorate back independence. However in the event of the UK leaving the EU this rises to 52%. Thus Brexit would both provide the SNP with legitimate grounds for holding a second referendum so soon after the 2014 poll, and improve their chances of success.  

One of the main reasons why the nationalists lost the 2014 referendum was the uncertainty associated with independence. The SNP couldn’t conclusively answer a number of key questions, such as on Scotland’s currency and status within the EU, in the event of a yes vote. As a result most Scot’s chose the status-quo. However if we vote to leave the EU the status-quo won’t be an option. The various pro-Brexit campaigns can’t even agree with each other what the UK’s relationship would be with the EU, and indeed with our other trading partners, in the event of Brexit. It would also give Scottish independence campaigners a more compelling vision. They would be able to advocate an internationalist, outward looking and business friendly Scotland benefiting from being an English speaking country with full access to European markets, and good relations with other European countries. That’s pretty much what Scotland has at the moment, as a result of being part of the UK and of the UK being part of the EU. Clearly Brexit could threaten this, and push middle-class and moderate Scot’s, unimpressed by Sturgeon’s social-democratic rhetoric, towards voting for independence.

Other European leaders would also be less hostile towards Scottish independence in the event of Brexit. Most, and perhaps all, EU leaders were clearly backing the ‘no’ campaign in 2014, and it was made clear that Scotland couldn’t expect any favours if she voted to leave the UK and then reapplied for EU membership. As a result, to get into the EU, Scotland would probably have had to commit to join the Euro and the Schengen zone. My strong suspicion is that if the UK votes to leave the EU, and Scotland then votes to leave the UK, Scotland will be offered Eurozone and Schengen opt-outs as part of her EU membership. EU leaders will feel they owe the UK Government no favours, on the contrary there will surely be a level of antagonism towards the UK, and their fear of encouraging separatism movements in other European countries will be reduced, as they will be able to frame Scottish independence as a unique event in response to Brexit. European Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva has told the BBC that ‘We make every effort for the Scottish people not to have to face a choice between Britain and the EU’. I think it’s fair to interpret this as meaning that, if the UK votes to leave the EU, Scotland will be encouraged to remain in some form.

In short, if the UK votes to leave the EU in the near future, it looks more likely than not that Scotland will respond by voting to leave the UK. Thus the EU referendum is a battle for Britain, but not in quite the same way that some Brexit campaigners seem to think.   

Who will speak for England now?

‘Who will speak for England now?’ So thundered the front page of the Daily Mail on 3 February. Last Friday, at a Grassroots Out rally, we received an answer. Grassroots Out is one of the two main campaigns which are competing to be designated as the official ‘Leave’ campaign by the Electoral Commission. It’s backed by Leave.EU, the group funded by UKIP donor Aaron Banks, as well as Nigel Farage, Peter Bone, Kate Hoey and various other mostly Tory Parliamentarians. It’s hard to imagine that, short of the venue being hit by a freak earthquake, the rally could have gone any worse. Grassroots Out had been promising that a ‘special guest’ would make an appearance. And boy was he special. To almost universal shock, and prompting a walkout by some of the right-leaning audience, George Galloway took to the stage. Last year, following Farage’s notorious comments about the cost of treating migrants with HIV, Galloway tweeted that ‘Farage's Aids smear should disqualify him from any civilised company henceforth’. Presumably then, Galloway doesn’t regard himself as ‘civilised company’ as he happily joined Farage to rail against the EU.

Galloway is, to say the least, a controversial figure. This is the man who saluted Saddam Hussein’s ‘courage…strength…and indefatigability’, who in 2009 received a Palestinian passport from Ismail Haniya, leader of Hamas, and who in 2013 stormed out of a debate in Oxford when he discovered his opponent held Israeli citizenship. I suppose, in fairness, Grassroots Out could have chosen someone worse. Radical Islamist Anjem Choudary perhaps, or they could have communicated the words of Attila the Hun via a séance (which would at least have had the advantage of being amusing). It will be fascinating to see who, as part of their broad tent of pro-Brexit supporters, the Grassroots Out campaign will roll out next.