Friday 7 July 2017

Not simple economics

One of the constant refrains from some quarters in relation to Brexit was that the UK only ever signed up to an economic union – the Common Market – and not to a political union of European nations.  Whilst it’s true that many people have long believed that (I’m not convinced that those who signed the UK up to the EEC in the first place were much more honest than the Brexiteers who’ve led us out), it was never true in fact.  There was always a political element to the organisation; indeed, for the founders, it was always much more about a political vision of a peaceful united Europe replacing the warring states of the previous centuries. 
In a very real sense, economic union was more a means to an end than an end in itself.  Whilst there were some in the UK who also signed up to that, the overwhelming majority of the UK’s politicians have always appeared to treat membership on a more transactional basis: what we get versus what we put in.  That gulf in understanding about the aims of membership is part of the reason for the failure of the UK’s leaders to understand why they cannot have the economic benefits whilst the UK puts itself outside the political arrangements.  That is, ultimately, the basis for Barnier’s warning yesterday, but the reactions in interpreting it as a threat or hostile action serve only to underline that gulf in understanding.
But it isn’t only with regard to our relationship with the EU that UK politicians seek to reduce issues to economics, and see everything in terms of the pluses and minuses of the balance sheet.  The same is true when it comes to the question of independence.  In the UK context, there is always a demand for Welsh and Scottish independentistas to spell out precisely the economic consequences of independence, as though it were the act of independence which changes things rather than the policies pursued thereafter.  That isn’t true everywhere, however.  Here’s an interesting article by Iain Macwhirter of the Herald in Scotland, looking at the situation of Slovenia and Slovakia, two other European countries which have gained their independence in recent years.  The point which he makes very effectively is how little debate there was about economics before those countries took the plunge and went their own way.
As he puts it, “Ultimately, the case for independence will always stand or fall on a nation’s desire for autonomy, not marginal economic gain.”  It’s a point with which I entirely agree.  Ultimately, Wales and Scotland will become independent countries only when and if the people of those countries want to be independent and the task of independentistas is to create that desire.  That doesn’t mean that the sort of economic policy which different parties and groups would like an independent Wales to follow has no part in the debate, but that will involve the sort of choices which can only be made post-independence, and will to an extent at least depend on the nature of post-independence relationships with England, Scotland and the EU. 
Post-independence choices will also depend more on which politicians we choose to govern the country than on the fact of independence itself, and there are more routes than one to a successful future.  The article to which I linked discusses some of the economic decisions taken by Slovakia and Slovenia.  They’re not the only options and they’re not examples which I’d particularly like to see Wales follow.  The point about independence is that we would be free to make our own choices, and not be bound by those of others.  But the bigger point is that we have to want to take that responsibility first – and currently, we’re far too timid and frightened to do it, a situation which isn’t helped by a ‘national party’ which basically accepts the economic constraints placed upon us by the limited imagination and transactional bias of UK politics.
What ‘independence’ means varies over time.  I concur with Macwhirter’s conclusion (although I’d substitute Wales for Scotland) when he says that “It is not possible to envisage an independent Scotland that is not part of the EU, or in a halfway house like Norway.  And it is equally very hard to see what future awaits Scotland as part of a UK that has left Europe behind”, which is why I’ve always seen Brexit as more a political question than an economic one.  Alternative futures await us, but only when we have the desire and courage to pursue them.

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