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Scotland's future in Europe: taming the paper tiger

The real risk to Scotland's place in the EU comes from Westminster, UKIP and the Tories.

Alyn Smith
15 September 2014
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Scotland stands on the brink of a big decision. On the 18th of September, we face a straightforward choice. Do we want to govern our own affairs, to take our own choices and pursue our own political course, or should we leave power in Westminster’s hands? Across this country, from Assynt to Roxburgh, Oban to Peterhead, folk are asking basic questions about the kind of nation Scotland should be, debating passionately about the values which should undergird it. That’s an electrifying conversation, but I’ve been increasingly struck by two stories which have been largely missing from it, with one thing in common: Europe.

As the referendum comes to its final week, voters in Scotland should spare a moment to think about the two European futures offered by a Yes or a No vote, and the risks and opportunities on both sides. Scotland seeks to remain a constructive, realistic and cooperative EU state. Cameron’s hopelessly muddled and misconceived UK “renegotiation” seeks to trade away fundamental principles of the common market. If that is the price of Britain’s continuing membership of the EU, it is an unrealistic one. As members of David Cameron’s own party are increasingly recognising, EU renegotiation is a slogan not a policy. Press any member of the UK government on the reforms they want implemented and the powers that they want to repatriate: only hot air, vague ideas and big feelings.

The UK Government’s extensive balance of competencies review, analysing the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe across the portfolios and department of government, is a mapping exercise, not a meaningful roadmap for reform. Cameron’s real audience isn’t the powerbrokers in Brussels, but his own increasingly restless tribe of backbenchers. The European Union is not perfect. I have, throughout my two terms as MEP, pushed relentlessly for reform to cut out wasteful spending, and to bring the European institutions closer to the people whom they represent. We can do better.

But EU renegotiation is a defensive holding position, deferring the day when Cameron meets his Waterloo, not on the fields of Belgium, but against his parliamentary colleagues in London. And they sense what I sense: Cameron’s commitment to reform isn’t serious, isn’t detailed, isn’t reasoned. It’s a shadow-puppet play of feelings and baseless suspicions. Even the dogs in the street know that these “better off out”

berserkers won’t be allayed by tinkering, won’t be coaxed into peace by paper promises and vague commitments. David Cameron isn’t Harold Wilson, and his colleagues won’t wear Wilsonian tricks. They want fundamental principles of European Union law varied and abrogated.

Free movement of persons has been at the heart of the Union and Community since its inception. On the current evidence, Cameron’s backbenchers won’t rest unless it has been gutted, pulling the Union inside out, dumping one of the Union’s historic gains. This isn’t going to happen – not by 2017, not any time soon – and it is time to stop giving Cameron the free pass which the paper tiger of “EU renegotiation” is designed to achieve. Scots can’t wait till 2017. They’re making up their minds now. The solitary check on Britain crashing out of the EU is David Cameron’s promised, unrealistic renegotiation. Can Scotland take that risk? Can we leave these matters to the balance of UK public opinion, harried relentlessly, as it will be, by the misinformation of the Eurosceptic media, and under fire from senior members of the UK government?

The unreality of these renegotiation proposals makes Brexit odds on, and that is a risk Scots voting next Thursday cannot afford to ignore. If Scots vote No, I stand ready, with every argument, to make the positive case for our membership of the EU, but I am not optimistic. It is becoming increasingly clear that the biggest risk to Scotland’s EU membership is not independence, but continuing Union. If Scotland votes in favour of independence, a radically different future opens up, on a new and better trajectory.

With my colleagues, I’ll be fighting with every fibre to get the best deal for Scotland. Unlike David Cameron, however, our demands are reasonable and realistic. Like Ireland, we will seek an opt-out from Schengen to retain the common travel area with the United Kingdom, to ensure folk are able to move and work freely in these islands, reflecting out shared social union. Like Denmark, we will seek to retain our own currency – the pound, either through a formal opt-out or, like Sweden, de facto. Nobody can force Scotland to use the euro. Again, this is not an exorbitant demand, but a common-sense position reflecting our history and our shared economic ties with our southern partners. It underlines the fact that independence is not about separation, but about finding new ways to work together.

The small print of Scotland’s EU membership is important. But all that small print is ash if we’re dragged out of Europe, altogether, in 2017. That isn’t a remote risk, but a foreseeable one, and it can’t be firewalled from the independence campaign. Friends of Europe in Scotland must get real. People cannot ignore the threat which this UK government represents to the stability and security of the lives of our European neighbours and friends who call this country home.

Our critics sometimes imply that only Scottish interests are engaged in our continuing EU membership, and we can’t rely on any of our European neighbours to look sympathetically on our case. But look again. As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has been involved in this Union since the 1970s. With the Maastricht Treaty’s new emphasis on the rights of European citizens, Scots have enthusiastically exercised their the rights to move freely to criss-cross this continent, living, working, loving, setting up businesses, raising industries and families. Europe has repaid the compliment, and today, some 160,000 EU nationals call Scotland home. Quite rightly, all of them have the opportunity to cast their ballots on Scotland’s future. Your identity is a matter for you. I say, and we say, that the people who live and work here are part of us, and part of our future.

We can’t take the risk of leaving our European affairs in Westminster’s hands. It breaks my heart, on the doorstep, to meet families from Poland, Spain and Germany, worried about their future, worried that they will be required to leave the Scottish communities they know and love. With independence, I could reassure them, tell them with confidence that their place as part of this nation is secure, that they are a valued, welcome part of our lives. And from the No campaign? Only the lie that they will have to pack up their families and head home, in the utterly unrealistic scenario that we are frozen out of the European Union with independence. As a campaigning strategy, this is beyond contempt. As a statement of law and policy, it is illiterate.

Another overlooked story in this campaign is the future of human rights in this country. With independence, we have the opportunity draft out own constitution, and to protect fundamental rights and civil liberties from government power. As the Scottish Government have rightly recognised, this is a task not for politicians, but for the people. It is a task well within the awakened powers of the great generation of stimulated,

energetic citizens which the referendum has produced. If the referendum represents a chance to choose what kind of future we want, then the constitution represents a chance to set down that vision permanently in ink. I wish it was otherwise, but a No vote, by contrast, suggests a much gloomier future for human rights in these islands.

With undimming enthusiasm, and without embarrassment, the inner circle of Cameron’s cabinet are ratcheting up their baseless attacks on the European Convention and Court of Human Rights. Britain loses a tiny proportion of our cases, much lower than the Council of Europe average, but less than a handful of losses a year is presented by Chris Grayling, Theresa May – and even former Labour Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw – as arrogant interference with our internal affairs. Cameron’s senior colleagues are denouncing the Convention on the basis of a fairy-tale, and they don’t even have the good grace to blush about it.

The Convention has been good for Scotland, good for Britain, and good for Europe. In the 1970s, Jeff Dudgeon was arrested in Belfast, his house and life pulled apart by the police, on suspicion of what was then called “homosexual offences”, in the language of the law of the day. Scotland had repealed these unjust, discriminatory laws just a year before. Now, across Europe, they are prohibited. In 2001, the European Court finally forced the UK government to recognise the dignity and humanity of our transgender citizens, requiring that their official documents reflect their lived identities, ending the decades long injustice and humiliation.

The European Court called the shameful behaviour meted out to suspects by the British security forces in Northern Ireland what it was: inhuman and degrading treatment and a scandal in a country, committed to justice and the rule of law. More recently, its judges have put a cap on when and for how long the state can keep your DNA, limiting the power of government to interfere disproportionately in our private lives and our bodily integrity. The Court also stands against the deportation of anybody to countries where they are likely to be subject to torture, mistreatment, and the flagrant denial of injustice. This has been denounced by senior members of Cameron’s team and an increasingly bold Eurosceptic media as an arrogant and unwelcome interference in our internal affairs. But what serious-minded, ethical person could seriously endorse the idea, and

turn a blind eye to such wrongs? David Cameron told us, taking office, that he would adopt a moral foreign policy. What sort of morality is this?

Theresa May has her frivolous cheerleaders in the media, but from a perspective of ordinary humanity, this is a disgusting, irresponsible statement of policy, and it pains me to see that it is well on its way to becoming the UK government’s official line. Are the lessons of the illiberalism and the inhumanity of the Second World War so easily forgotten? In Westminster, in the grip of this fever, it seems sadly so. The lesson for Scots is simple: your human rights are no longer safe in Westminster’s hands. On the European Convention, there is no serious talk of renegotiation from the Tories for a very simple reason: there are no sweetheart deals to be struck on the repudiation of fundamental principles of justice and the rule of law. Nor should there be.

Scotland stands ready to be a constructive participant in the European Union, taking its place in the family of nations, working for shared security and prosperity, nimbly pursuing its interests through a respectful and realistic dialogue. We say to the EU citizens who have made Scotland their home, you are welcome here, not the suspect and resented class Westminster too often takes you for. Scotland has the opportunity to uphold human rights rather than misrepresenting, denigrating and undermining them. The United Kingdom, by contrast, is increasingly dancing to unreasoning, unrealistic UKIP tune, failing to promote our interests, inching ever closer to the exit door, shamefully slandering modest attempts to extend the rights and protections of vulnerable people across this great continent. Those are our two futures in Europe. I know which one I’ll be voting for on September the 18th.

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