Mark McNaught: Jim Sillars fails to grasp several important points in his EU critique

CommonSpace columnist Mark McNaught responds to a recent column on CommonSpace and presents a positive case for Scotland in the EU

IT WAS with great interest that I read Jim Sillars’ recent column on Commonspace, in which he defends his position to abstain from an independence vote if voting Yes would lead to an independent Scotland remaining in the European Union.

He made many of the same points in this interview I conducted with him. While I understand and sympathise with many of the neoliberal critiques of the EU and its functioning, especially in the case of Greece, it seems he doesn’t grasp the urgency of leaving the UK before it leaves the EU, if Scotland is to have any reasonable chance of determining its own future. 

If Scots cannot not vote for independence when so much is at stake in leaving the EU, when can they have a true choice?

If Scots cannot not vote for independence when so much is at stake in leaving the EU, when can they have a true choice?

There is an anti-neoliberal case to be made for the UK leaving the EU, thereby able to develop more socialist and progressive policies. However, Brexit was won by the neoliberals and race demagogues, who seek to disengage the UK from the EU to enact more neoliberal and draconian policies, including the degradation of workers and environmental rights, and the expulsion of immigrants. Brexit cannot lead to a more progressive UK for at least decades to come.

His basic argument seems to boil down to this: the EU is an unelected, merciless institution which has, through the treaties, progressively sapped the sovereignty of the member states, so if Scotland should become independent and remain in the EU, it would not be truly independent or sovereign, and would be subject to the same cruelty inflicted on Greece and Portugal. 

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are "obsessed" with independence and are cranking up the "grievance machine" in an ill-conceived excuse to achieve independence, and in any case, Scots should wait until they have been extracted from the EU before launching another referendum campaign, when Brexit may have turned out to be going just great.

To begin examining his argument, his assertion that the EU is unelected is simply not true. The EU Parliament is elected by the people of Europe. The EU Commission is composed of commissioners appointed by the democratically elected governments of the member states approved by the Parliament, and is more democratic than the selection of the civil service in most member states. The EU Council is composed of democratically elected heads of the member states.

While each of the three branches has varying degrees of democratic participation in their selection, they are in any case much more democratic than the UK Government. After all, the UK still has a feudal hereditary head-of- state, whose legitimacy is still based on divine right rather than popular sovereignty. 

Sillars seems to view sovereignty through a Westminster lens; that it should be absolute for the state and division or sharing of sovereignty is tantamount to its destruction.

The House of Lords is not even remotely democratic. The House of Commons, with the first-past-the-post system allows a third of the vote for a party in an election to yield a majority in parliament, is less democratic than the proportional representation of the EU Parliament.

Sillars seems to view sovereignty through a Westminster lens; that it should be absolute for the state and division or sharing of sovereignty is tantamount to its destruction. Echoing a common anti-EU argument, he holds that the sheer quantity of laws and directives emanating from Brussels means that the member states lack sovereignty, and their parliaments are "controlled" by the EU.

According to this view, were Scotland to become independent and remain in the EU, control of the Scottish Parliament would shift from London to Brussels. As expert on EU law at the University of Liverpool Michael Dougan points out in this video, the UK and the other member states are sovereign under international law. Scotland would be if it becomes independent and remains in the EU,
especially if a Scottish constitution established the sovereignty of the Scottish people rather than the Crown in Parliament.

Through the EU treaties, the member states have agreed to share sovereignty in agreed areas, which are mostly limited to trade and the single market. Yes, the EU involves a lot of red tape and regulations, but this is normal when considering it is doing much of the administrative red tape for 27 member states and half a billion citizens, so the member states don’t have to. 

Member states are not prevented by the EU from passing any law in virtually any area of their foreign or domestic policy.

Sovereignty also must be understood in its modern sense, not in a XVII century Westphalian sense. For better or worse, the sovereignty of the modern nation state cannot be self-contained. The biggest issues of the day, climate change, global conflict, wealth inequality, and others require collective solutions and cooperation. 

Collective action is not at the expense of sovereignty, it only enhances it because it is shared across nations and polities, operating through shared impetus and consent.

A second of Sillars' assertions merits examination, namely that the UK has any chance of getting a good deal from Europe, at least in the short term. The negotiations will be difficult, contentious and acrimonious. Regrettably, May’s government has irretrievably squandered the one thing that could have helped them to get a good deal: good will. 

Sovereignty must be understood in its modern sense, not in a XVII century Westphalian sense. For better or worse, the sovereignty of the modern nation state cannot be self-contained.

It’s almost as if May’s government has done everything it could do to belittle, threaten, insult, and play the Europeans for fools to assure a calamitous outcome of Brexit negotiations.

How else could Boris Johnson be named foreign minister, to take one glaring example of a move which has hurt the UK bargaining position? This man who made his name as a 'journalist' in Brussels talking about banana regulations, and breezily asserts that the Italians want to sell the British Prosecco, and the Germans their BMW’s, and the Brits want to have their cake and eat it too, yadda yadda, so of course the EU will give the UK a great trading deal. 

Johnson’s neo-colonial arrogance not only helped to bring about Brexit, but made even weaker the UK negotiating position. The negotiating hand of the EU is strengthened by the fact that the 27 other EU members are solid in their unity over their approach towards negotiation. 

As you can read in this EU resolution, there will be no discussion in the first phase of any trade arrangements, as the EU will be seeking to settle the status of UK citizens in the EU and vice versa, the £50bn-plus bill, and the status of the Irish border. Contrary to the demagogy of the Brexiteers, the UK needs EU favourable treatment 27 times more than the other way around.

Also, the EU will be assiduously evaluating whether it has a trustworthy negotiating partner in the UK Government, and whether a war with Spain can be avoided during the negotiations. 

Scotland is politically much closer to Europe than it is to the Tory government in Westminster, and will be able to make a very positive contribution to the EU as an independent member state able to make its own laws and policies.

Satisfactory resolution of these questions will be necessary to proceed to negotiating framework for a trade deal, which would take at least five years from now to complete and implement.

The Europeans are in no mood to be conciliatory towards the UK, insisting that a deal outside the EU will inevitably be inferior to the current status. The UK has always viewed the EU more as a 'deal', whereas Europeans tend so see it more in existential terms, putting a higher premium on solidarity and peace. 

In my view, Scotland is politically much closer to mainland Europe than it is to the Tory government in Westminster, and will be able to make a very positive contribution to the EU as an independent member state able to make its own laws and policies.

In any case, it should be patently clear within 18 months or so what kind of deal, if any, the UK will get in the Brexit process. This would be the most propitious time for Scotland to choose whether it wishes to stay within the UK and leave the EU, perhaps under disastrous terms, or become independent and remain in the EU and have a solid competitive advantage over whatever UK emerges from the breckage.

The choice will be stark. Either remain within the increasingly dysfunctional, xenophobic, corrupt, and isolationist Tory-run-for-decades post-Brexit UK, or decide to become a sovereign independent republic with a democratically elected head of state within the EU family of nations. I have little doubt what choice Scots would make.

Either remain within the increasingly dysfunctional, xenophobic, corrupt, and isolationist Tory-run-for-decades post-Brexit UK, or decide to become a sovereign independent republic within the EU family of nations.

If Scots actually did choose to stay in the UK in a second referendum, they would likely be voting to have the devolved powers diminished or even abolished, as a withered post-Brexit UK seeks to further deregulate and lower standards, to attract investment to try to offset all the business and investment that will be lost through Brexit.

The Gina Miller Supreme court case held that the Sewel Convention is meaningless, and by invoking parliamentary supremacy Westminster can take back powers at will. Post-Brexit Westminster Tories cannot be trusted to uphold Scottish interests.

Since the Brexit vote, Scotland has garnered a tremendous amount of goodwill in the EU and elsewhere. The cooperative, positive contribution of Nicola Sturgeon, MEP Alyn Smith and other Scots have made to the EU is noted and well appreciated, and will serve Scots in excellent stead as the Brexit negotiations proceed.

We have now seen that many in the EU will do their best to seamlessly allow Scotland to remain in the EU, perhaps even if Scotland votes for independence after the UK has left the EU in March 2019. The EU is nothing if not pragmatic when confronted with exigent circumstances, and cannot afford to lose Scotland from the EU. 

The idea that Scotland should go though the entire Brexit process, leave the EU, become independent, then get at 'the back of the queue' for eventual EU membership is preposterous. If in 1991 the EU can make East Germany part of a member state overnight, a former communist dictatorship, it can find a way for Scotland to seamlessly remain in the EU pending independence given that it already abides by the treaties and applies EU law.

The EU is nothing if not pragmatic when confronted with exigent circumstances, and cannot afford to lose Scotland from the EU. 

There will be a relatively easy transition to Scotland taking the UK’s place as an EU member state.

You watch. The Brexit negotiations, set to begin next month, could raise the question of Scotland’s constitutional status very quickly, along with that of Northern Ireland. It will be necessary from early in the negotiations to know exactly what parts of the UK will be leaving the UK and the EU, and which will remain, so they know what they are bargaining over. 

Maybe the EU could offer to reduce the €60bn divorce bill for rUK if it does not obstruct a second referendum, with international observers invited to assure the integrity of this second ballot.

Who knows? We’re about to find out.

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

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Comments

MauriceBishop

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:09

"We have now seen that many in the EU will do their best to seamlessly allow Scotland to remain in the EU, perhaps even if Scotland votes for independence after the UK has left the EU in March 2019."

Such an arrangement would require the unanimous consent of all the member states. Spain, Belgium, Italy and France will all say "No". They do not want any precedent set for a newly-independent country to have an easy time of things. They will all insist that iScotland apply through the normal process. There has never been an applicant like Scotland: no central bank, no currency, very large structural deficit, and a completely open land border with a non-member country. It will take years to sort everything out.

Dunnzer

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 19:29

Much of what's in this article is in agreement with many others who think the smartest way to get independence over the finishing line in the next referendum is to put the Walt Disney Glasses on when discussing the EU and focus on the admittedly accurate assumption that a Tory UK is no good for anyone but the few.

There's an air of treading carefully to avoid upsetting the 'Europeans' who are 'Not in the mood' - these are the same 'Europeans' who recently decided that it was preferable to strip a member state of it's assets and starve half the population rather than write down a debt,but hey these things happen.

Since 2008 'Real Europeans' have seen their living standards drop with many countries under bail out conditions and other financial constraints.There is discontent and disatsifaction by 'Real Europeans' across the EU and the assumption that the current treaties still allow each member state to control its own economy or the EU is protecting them doesn't ring true at the sharp end.

The Financal sectors grip on the global economy is the biggest threat facing the early years of an independent Scotland.How can we best constrain the financial sector from preventing us from providing infrastructure and government investment as near to cost as possible.

A comprehensive report that compares EU to EEA/EFTA membership in relation to which membership is best able to promote a productive economy over an economy with the overhead of a large Financial Sector should be welcomed by all and not dismissed out of hand.

Tommy Lusk

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 00:38

Because The EU has elections and Westminster isn't very democratic doesn't automatically mean the EU is very democratic. How many people do you knows who could name their MEP, for example, or what they get upto?

Nelson

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 09:45

The largest group in the EU parliament is the EPP. I wonder if anyone, including the author, even knows what the abbreviation stands for, never mind knows that the EPP doesn't have any UK MEPs?

DaveS

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 10:13

I must say I find much in the preceding comments depressing. We have a list of assertions by MauriceBishop of those EU member states which will, allegedly, veto Scotland's membership - despite Spanish officials recently specifically denying this and the others on the list making no official comment at all that I can recall. Consider, just for a start, Scotland's significant marine resources: is it really credible that the EU would happily eschew these?

I have more sympathy with Dunnzer's point: the EU's treatment of Greece was a disgrace and a demonstration that the EU's economic and social balance has got out of kilter. But neo-liberal economics is becoming increasingly exposed as a con, and having a social democratic Scotland as a full member can only help to restore EU balance.

I'm not sure what to make of Tommy Lusk's point. I do know who my MEP is and get regular email updates from him letting me know what he has been getting up to. I accept I may be in the minority. I am also aware that turnout for EU elections is poor - and as a result Scotland has, shamefully, a UKIP MEP. However is this not, at least in part, down to the UK's semi-detached approach to EU membership?

Nelson

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 11:32

If know who your MEP is, then you don't know that the Scottish constituency is represented by six MEPs. But one out of six is probably better informed than most people.

noeldarlow

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 22:34

I'm kind of taken aback by those who think they can support independence without EU membership. The only justification which exists to revisit the 2014 decision is the fact that Scots voted almost 2:1 to stay in the EU. If YES does not have a clear commitment to the EU, we'd be giving our opponents a nuclear weapon to use against us. The NO camp has already been making hay with the claim that the SNP is divided over EU membership. Worst of all, May could simply refuse to allow a referendum and she would have an excellent argument to do so.

There only two options: independence & the EU or UK & Brexit. Pick a side. Independence outside the EU just isn't on the table. However strongly you believe that this should be an option, and however pure you believe your motives to be in campaigning for an independent Scotland outside the EU, make no mistake: you will only be winning more votes for NO.

MauriceBishop

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 04:17

"We have a list of assertions by MauriceBishop of those EU member states which will, allegedly, veto Scotland's membership - despite Spanish officials recently specifically denying this and the others on the list making no official comment at all that I can recall. Consider, just for a start, Scotland's significant marine resources: is it really credible that the EU would happily eschew these?"

Straw man alert.

I did not say "Spain would veto". I said what the Spanish have been saying since 2013: that independent Scotland would be welcome to apply via the normal process.

Spanish officials have also been saying, since 2013, that said process will take many years.

Catalonian independence is a threat to the continued existence of Spain as a country. The SNP could hand over complete control of all of our significant marine resources and it would not make a bit of difference. Spain's national interest is only served by seeing to it that it takes a very long time - perhaps an entire generation - after independence before EU membership can be secured.

GunnerBill

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 10:17

Or how many "presidents" the EU has or how they are "elected"/anointed etc...

difficulttruths

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 15:03

Many of the comments on this article look like they come from paid britbloggers who are really British Nationalists pretending that the EU does not want retain an existing member that voted to stay.

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