William Hague has recently stated that although he dislikes much about the EU, he will be voting to remain. His arguments amount to the following. He thinks that we have to be in the single market to shape and benefit from it. He thinks that the EU despite its faults helps other countries to become and remain democracies. It is therefore, he thinks, not in the interest of the UK to weaken the EU and add further uncertainty into an already uncertain world. He furthermore thinks that the UK voting to leave the EU may lead to the breakup of the UK itself by encouraging the SNP to have another referendum.
The first thing to realise about the EU single market is that you don’t need to be in the EU to have access to it. There are presently four countries that have this access without being members of the EU. The idea that Britain would not have access if we leave is therefore strange. It’s in no-one’s interest to erect barriers to free trade. Everyone would lose out. It’s in no-one’s interest either to prevent free movement of labour. Imagine if suddenly the EU said that Brits could not live and work in Poland. Well this would affect few of us. I imagine some English language teachers might have to leave Warsaw. But we’d probably be able to survive that. On the other hand if Britain said that Poles no longer had the right to live and work in the UK, this would have rather more severe consequences, both for Poles and the UK economy. Far more Europeans want to live and work in the UK than the other way round. So the likelihood of Brits not being allowed to live and work in the EU after Brexit must be vanishingly small. This is not least because there is no reason to discriminate against Britain when the Swiss have access to the single market and can live and work anywhere in the EU they please. Of course, the EU could decide to take revenge on Britain for leaving. But really the UK and the EU have things that we want from each other, each side would lose out if we started playing tit for tat. This then would form the basis for a deal.
I think Mr Hague is really worried about not being able to shape the EU single market. Whenever there is a summit, he or his friends and colleagues would not be there. That’s tough for them, but I’m not sure it’s of much interest to the average Brit. The truth of the matter is that we have almost no influence as it is. Mr Cameron went to the EU with a list of reforms and has pretty much found them all rejected. There no doubt will be some token gestures, but nothing fundamental. We have minimal influence on the EU for a simple reason. We chose some time ago not to take part in the two key EU projects which would they hope lead to ever closer union. We decided not to join the Euro and we decided not to join the Schengen zone of passport free travel. The reality is that we are not going to shape the single market whether we are in or out of the EU. We are not going to shape anything much as we ceased being a core EU member long ago.
Would Britain leaving the EU damage the EU? The EU has had a pretty rough few years. The economies of the southern European states are in terrible trouble. The Euro far from fulfilling the dreams of its founders has turned into a recession machine. On top of that we have had a crisis in the Schengen zone, with members erecting barriers to prevent migration from outside the EU. Britain leaving the EU would certainly be a blow. We might well set an example to other countries to do likewise. But here’s the thing. If the UK left the EU, we would become once more a fully sovereign state. The UK Parliament would no longer be trumped by anyone else. Our MPs would be the final arbiter of our laws and we would be able to kick them out if we disagreed with them. The fundamental problem with the EU is that we are ruled by people we cannot kick out. We didn’t elect Mr Juncker and we can’t get rid of him. We don’t elect the European Commission. Its members are appointed. No one can kick them out. This is not much of an example of democracy for countries moving towards this path. A fully democratic UK with as much sovereignty as the USA would provide a far better example of democracy. The USA would not allow a foreign court to tell its parliament or its president what to do. Canadians wouldn’t allow this, nor would the Japanese. Each of these countries functions perfectly well without being ruled by a supra-national body. They have free trade and good relations with their neighbours. They are all better examples of democracy than the EU.
For years people have been predicting the breakup of the EU. Whenever there is another crisis in the Eurozone we wait with anticipation for Greece to get kicked out and for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down. If it was going to happen, it would have happened already. The EU and the Eurozone is for life, not just for Christmas.
But the EU is going to change, no matter what the UK decides. There are going to be different classes of membership of the EU. There is going to be the core group of Eurozone members and then there are going to be the rest of us. The latter could even be called associate members and may well include those non-EU members of the single market and Schengen zone. There are going to be different rules according to these factors. Is a country a member of the Eurozone and Schengen? This puts it in the core. Is a country only a member of Schengen? This puts it in the associate members. Is a country neither a member of Schengen nor the Eurozone? This frankly makes it less of a member of the EU even than Switzerland.
The core EU countries are going to move towards ever closer union. The end point of this will be some sort of federal United States of Europe. But however we vote in an EU referendum, we won’t be part of this, not unless we choose to join the Euro and Schengen. Whatever happens we will end up an associate member like Switzerland and any other EU country that decides it doesn’t fancy joining the Euro or Schengen. In one sense, therefore we will leave the EU, no matter what which way we vote. We’ll be like Switzerland, Norway, Iceland et al, or rather we’ll be less full members of the EU even than they, for they after all are part of Schengen. The reality is that we are this already. In another sense we’ll remain in the EU whichever way we vote. We’ll keep some aspects of the EU, such as the single market and the rules that go with it and we’ll keep free movement of people, perhaps with some slight modifications. We’ll keep these things no matter what, not least because there isn’t a single country in Western Europe that doesn’t have them. Alternatively you can believe that voting to leave the EU casts the UK into outer darkness.
The issue then is how we get to this associate member status. This could also be described as how do we get to where we in fact are. Do we get there by a process of negotiation or do we get there by being told what the nature of our associate membership will be. If we vote to leave the EU, the end point will be some sort of associate membership the terms of which will be determined by negotiation. The only way to get any sort of renegotiation on the terms of EU membership is to ask to leave. Anyone who doubts this should read the Lisbon Treaty. Only when a country asks to leave the EU can negotiations even begin. Until then it’s just a lot of fluff as Mr Cameron is finding out.
So if we vote to stay in the EU we will end up with associate membership and if we vote to leave we will end up with associate membership. In some ways the referendum is about nothing. But what hand would you rather be playing? That’s the issue. That indeed is the only issue.
What of Scotland? Well the SNP will want to hold another referendum on independence whether or not we vote to remain or leave in the EU. They don’t need an excuse. Their only reason for wanting a referendum last time was that they won a majority in the Scottish parliament. Even if Britain votes to stay in the EU, it may well be that in a few years that the SNP will want to have another go. The thing with nationalism is that you can’t appease it. You can’t say if only we do this or that the SNP won’t want another referendum. Whatever you do, they will want another referendum. Mr Hague might be better learning from how the Spanish deal with secession movements. It's very easy indeed to make their threats empty. You just have to say No. Sorry Nicola, the people said No. Bye.
As I’ve long argued however, leaving the EU makes Scottish independence far less likely. It virtually makes it impossible. Membership of the EU is the condition for the possibility of sub-nation nationalism. All the things that everyone in Scotland likes about the UK, such as the pound, such as an open border, depend on Scotland and the UK having the same EU status. If the UK voted to leave the EU and Scotland voted for independence in order to stay, it would be impossible to argue that life would continue more or less the same. In these circumstances independence becomes a massive leap into the unknown. Given the nature of the Scottish economy at present, given our dependence on subsidy from the rest of the UK, the idea that a vote to leave the EU precipitates Scottish independence is very dubious indeed. Nicola Sturgeon would love Scotland to be independent, she will bluster and complain, but she knows in her heart that we cannot afford it. Until and unless that changes Scottish independence is a dead parrot. You can bash it all you like, it won’t wake up.
Almost no-one in Scotland wants to join Schengen and almost no-one wants to join the Euro. A few may fancy being an independent Scotland within a United States of Europe. But small countries with struggling economies are not treated very generously by the EU. In the end no-one in Scotland will object if we end up with associate member status of the EU. Access to the single market plus free movement of people is all pretty much anyone in Britain wants. How many voters in Scotland are going to climb the barricades for the sake of the Common Agricultural Policy or the latest regulation from the European Commission about light bulbs? There are no grounds for the SNP complaining, though they will of course complain. Scotland as a part of the UK is going to end up with associate membership of the EU, no matter what. But really we have that already, the issue is simply whether we get to renegotiate the terms of our membership. That’s the choice. The SNP do not need a reason to seek divorce from the UK, but even they might realise that these are not grounds, not least because this sort of semi-detached relationship with the EU will be just as popular in Scotland and within the ranks of the SNP as it will be elsewhere in the UK.