Friday, 15 September 2017

Tightening the bonds

I know that many independentistas in Wales and Scotland voted for Brexit.  Some argued that there was no point escaping from one union only to be swallowed up in another, although it seems to me that that view is at least partly a result of being trapped by the vagaries of language – the fact that the same word (‘union’) is used for both the UK and the EU doesn’t mean that they’re actually the same thing.  Another variant on the same theme was that membership of the EU wasn’t ‘true’ independence; it explicitly requires the surrendering of some of the independence which a country might otherwise have.  I’m not really convinced by that argument either – membership of any international or multinational body (including the UN, for example) implies a degree of sharing of sovereignty, and total independence is something of a mirage in the modern world. 
The questions to be asked are how much sovereignty we pool, in what sort of structures, and how much input we have on decision-taking.  I really don’t understand why some Welsh and Scottish independentistas insist that our two countries somehow require more independence than similar-sized member states of the EU, all of which would scoff at any suggestion that they ceased to be independent states when they joined.  The practical meaning of the word ‘independence’ changes over time, depending on the context, and in the context of European states in the twenty-first century ‘independence’ is equivalent to member-state status in the EU.
I’ve posted before that for me the question of Brexit has always been more political than economic – what is the context in which ‘independence’ for Wales is most easily and smoothly achieved?  And for me, the answer to that is clearly within the EU, where it amounts to a change in political and administrative arrangements without changing the trading relationships.  But, if that route is not available, then what?
Some in Scotland, including the former First Minister Alex Salmond, are arguing that an independent Scotland should join EFTA as a compromise.  No doubt some in Wales would make the same argument.  I can see the attractions, and if we were starting with an entirely clean sheet of paper, I’d be tempted by the possibility.  I fear, however, that from our current starting point, it would be seriously problematic for Scotland (and nigh-on impossible for Wales) in practical terms, unless England also takes the same decision.
We are already seeing, on a daily basis, how wrong the Brexiteers were in talking about a simple and swift separation of the UK from the EU.  If we assume that the UK government is ultimately going to reject the EFTA model (and all the signs are that it will, with the possible exception of a defined and short transition period) then the UK will become what is termed a ‘third country’ for EU purposes.  It’s a status which necessarily requires the creation of economic borders between the UK and the EU27.  Failure to do that leaves the UK as an open ‘back-door’ into the single market and compromises that market; something which the EU27 simply cannot afford to allow.  For Scotland and Wales to seek membership of EFTA whilst England does not would therefore, for the same reason, require the creation of economic borders between the countries of the UK.
It’s not completely impossible, of course – but we shouldn’t emulate the Brexiteers in underestimating the complexity of the task and the likely timescale for achieving it.  Moving from membership of the ‘UK single market’ to being outside that and inside the EU single market, whether through direct membership of the EU or the halfway house of EFTA, is an even bigger task than Brexit itself.  An economic union which has lasted 400 years in the case of Scotland (and closer to 600 in the case of Wales) is inevitably more closely integrated than one which has existed for only 45 years as in the case of the EU.  And there are extremely porous land borders involved as well.
Whilst all involved are still members of the EU, the pathway from being part of the UK to full EU membership as an independent state is an entirely political one.  It involves negotiations about representation and administrative arrangements, but the economic issues are minor – all the same regulations and processes apply before and after.  And whilst ‘internal enlargement’ is not something that the EU has experienced to date, ‘enlargement’, (and the inclusion of new member states) most definitely is.  It’s not an exact precedent, but it’s a sound starting point.
Many independentistas won’t want to hear this, but I can’t ignore what seems to me to be an obvious truth.  For the foreseeable future, the idea of Wales or Scotland not being part of the same trading block as England (and ‘same trading block’ includes the option of not being part of any trading block wider than the UK) is extremely problematic at a practical level.  That doesn’t mean that ‘independence’ is an impossible dream; merely that the meaning of the word changes once again.  And to a significant extent, what England decides controls that definition in a way that does not apply within the EU.  Entirely unintentionally, and for seemingly sound reasons, Brexit-supporting independentistas may have ended up contributing to a tightening, rather than a loosening, of economic ties within an increasingly isolated UK.

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