Friday, 22 January 2021

Independence is about joining the world, not returning to the 19th Century


The ‘modern’ diplomatic system dates back to the fourteenth century, when the term ambassador first started to be used. Rights, obligations, responsibilities – to say nothing of quaint but arcane processes such as presenting one’s credentials to the Court of St James – have accumulated over the centuries. Amongst those is the concept of diplomatic immunity, one of those things that makes eminent sense in theory (providing safe passage for accredited representatives and guaranteeing that they won’t be persecuted by the host nation), but has been extended in practice to prevent prosecution of even the most heinous of crimes. There is no obvious reason why the range of those covered should be extended as far as it has been, nor why diplomats should be exempt from following the laws of the country in which they serve, both issues raised by the recent case of Anne Sacoolas.

But, for all its imperfections, the system of ambassadors works reasonably effectively most of the time. It allows and facilitates communications (including the confidential variety) between governments, encourages trade, provides representation and support to citizens, and generally ‘oils the wheels’. Given the UK Government’s repeated statements that it wants to have the warmest possible relationship with the EU after Brexit, the decision not to recognise the EU’s representative as an ambassador with all that that implies appears at first sight to be perverse. I can’t imagine the EU’s ambassador to the UK being particularly put out at not having to get dressed up to travel to St James Palace to formally present his credentials to the monarch, and I hope that he and his team would not be exceptionally upset at not having the right to ignore and breach UK law at will. But when 142 other countries across the world have decided to give the EU’s representatives the same ambassadorial status as any ‘nation-state’, it would be understandable if the EU were to be a little miffed at the only state – and its nearest neighbour to boot – which refuses to do likewise. And if we ask ourselves ‘who loses as a result?’, the obvious answer is that the UK is set to lose more than the EU from what most will see as a rather petty decision.

That is, though, to ignore the Brexit mind-set, to say nothing of English exceptionalism. Brexiteers have argued throughout that the EU should not become, and therefore should not be treated as, a state. They tried (and failed) to negotiate directly with the bigger member states, particularly France and Germany. From their perspective, it is the member states which have legitimacy, not the EU as a bloc. Brexit could only ever be the beginning – being on the doorstep of a bloc like the EU without being part of it makes sense only if it’s a prelude to cracking that bloc apart. Part of that is conducting diplomacy directly with the member states, not with the EU. Post-truth politics demands that the EU not exist if we treat it as though it isn’t there. Brexit has always been a long-term project, just ask Rees-Mogg, and Brexiteers have always been clear in their own minds (although not so much in their public statements) that there would be economic losses for most of us in the short term – just the first half century or so. And we can always eat sovereignty in the meantime.

The underlying principle by which the English nationalist government works is that there is one, and only one, legitimate source of power in the world, and that is the nation-state. By that they mean not that the state is defined by the nation (which is perhaps the traditional definition), but that the nation is defined by the state. Treating the EU as some sort of lesser body with no real legitimacy is the same way that they regard the governments of Scotland and Wales, as we’ve seen in their actions to date. Over-ruling and ignoring Wales and Scotland isn’t oversight or carelessness, it’s the direct result of a world view in which only Westminster has legitimacy. They are simply applying the same rule both internally and externally. The choice we face in Wales is between joining their project, accepting their nineteenth century definitions of nation, state, and legitimacy, or joining the rest of the world in adopting twenty-first century definitions. Independence isn’t about opting out of an outdated English exceptionalist view of the world so much as opting into a modern internationalist world. The choice is ours – unless we allow it to become theirs by default.


Jonathan said...

Wales has to work within the actual rules ie international law as it is. The good news is that there is a well-trodden path. Its just that it takes (a) knowledge of the route (b) guts and (c) persistence.
Knowledge of the route: the law of international states was pretty much fixed by the 17th Century. It was the same in 19th Century. And 20th Century - Montevideo Convention. And is the same in 21st Century. No change for our purposes. Them's the rules. Wales is aiming to be a state - right? There is no other target to aim for. To simplify, Wales has to do two things (1) function as a state ie control borders (an objective test - you either run yourself or you don't) (2) get recognised by other states (a subjective test - states have a lot of scope as to whom they choose to recognise. Look at examples in Europe. Slovenia recognised easily. Catalunya - uphill to say the least as we all know. Recognition is all politics.
So Wales has to get governing itself. The traditional half-way house in the British Empire is well recognised, and is called Dominion Status. You could call it something else, but what counts is that you are running yourself.
Then you seek recognition.As I say, all this is a long hard process and needs guts and persistence. Noone one said running a country is easy. Won't be easy for the Welsh who are, er let's just say not yet well equipped for the journey in some ways, unlike the Irish.
As for the UK denying recognition of the EU as a state, technically I can see what the Foreign Office lawyers might say. But the EU may show a 21st Century advance on the Montevideo Convention ie the Union can be recognised as a State AND the unit eg France. In the US, the 13 States did give up recognition so that their Union could be recognised. Do you have to do this in the 21st Century? Also of course, as you say, the UK is simply playing the subjective political game over de jure recognition. The real life de facto position can be different, which is why I welcome Drakeford keeping Wales' version of diplomacy going.

Spirit of BME said...

Interesting questions this issue throws up.
On the practical side if there is a EU Ambassador in London which has a dispute with any of the other Ambassadors from the 27 states, which side do you accept. If you give primacy to the EU Ambassador, then we close the other 27 embassy’s – it will save money on the security bill.
I wonder, turning the whole question around – would the EU accept ambassadors from Wales and Scotland right now?