President Obama is in Australia this week and the talk is of the shift in the axis of world influence to the Pacific. However, the real story should be his comments on the crisis in the Eurozone and how this signals a realignment of influence in Europe. In particular he praised Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy for their effort to resolve the Eurozone crisis. Indeed, this shift was acknowledged by the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf who said in relation to the crisis:
"The time for too little, too late has passed. What is needed, instead, is ‘too much, right now’. Power brings responsibility. Germany alone has the power. It is up to it to exercise the responsibility"
From the appointments of EU technocrats as Prime Ministers of Italy and Greece and the role Germany played in developments in these countries, we can further confirm Germany is in the driving seat of the EU. Angela Merkel made it clear at her party conference this week the direction of travel she wants to take the Europe: “The task of our generation now is to complete the economic and currency union in Europe and, step by step, create a political union”. Little by little, the falacy of UK influence at ‘the top table’ is being eroded, as the Tory-led UK Government further isolate us from the centre of gravity.
The Government in London seem perfectly happy for this state of affairs to continue, the more aloof we remain from Europe, the happier their backbenchers. Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary has accused the Government of ” a tendency to empty chair those meetings that seem to be on the periphery of our interest”. Whilst UK Ministers are in the building but not in the room, Scottish Ministers are battering the doors down to no avail. In her speech to the SNP Conference Elin Jones AM (an impressive candidate for leadership of Plaid Cymru) talked of her experience as Welsh Agriculture Minister and of how she and Richard Lochhead (her Scottish counterpart) would often have to fight with UK civil servants to even sit in the second row at EU meetings. The low regard with which the UK Government holds the EU is only matched by the passion of Scottish Ministers to stand up for Scotland in Europe.
In David Cameron’s speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet this week, his pandering to the right-wing Daily Mail-esque set was summed up in his blast at the EU: ”It’s the pointless interference, rules and regulations that stifle growth not unleash it.” Rather than reinforce the UK’s committment to the EU and attempt to bring public opinion on side, this serves only to reinforce the negative assumptions the public already have about the EU. In fact, for all it’s faults, the EU does a lot of good. Some examples of community laws currently being scrutinised by the UK Parliament include: a regulation to enfore the UN Firearms Protocol; a directive to create a single portal of business registers across Europe; and a Commission Report on animal testing for cosmetics. Not exactly Eurocrats gone wild? Furthermore, the EU also spends money right here in Scotland to create jobs and support businesses. As Alyn Smith MEP welcomed two days ago, €1.9 million is set to be spent in Scotland business spaces and community hubs, potentially creating 76 jobs. There are many areas of the EU that are not perfect but there are far more advantages to membership that disadvantages.
Reform of the EU is the real myth of UK politics, every politician likes to say ‘the EU must reform’ but very few can, or do, ever acheive this. David Cameron peddled this line in his speech this week, calling the Eurozone crisis “An opportunity, in Britain’s case, for powers to ebb back instead of flow away”. It should be pointed out at this point that the EU only as power over economic matters, specifically trade, competition, agriculture, fisheries etc. In terms of foreign affairs and defence it is only a conduit for cooperation of soveriegn nation states. So what powers does David Cameron want back? On this point politicians are particularly vague, none more so than those in Government. Moreover, how would you get these powers back? David Cameron need look no further than his Deputy Prime Minister who made a rare valid point in his speech to the European Parliament earlier this month:
"[I] feel that it is right to caution against returning to the EU’s founding texts without first seeing if we can meet these objectives through other means. Our priorities are stability and growth – and they are urgent.
To sit around tables for months on end, agonising over this article or that one, becoming engulfed in endless institutional introspection, would be a huge political distraction from the economic task at hand.”
For the first time in a long time “I agree with Nick”. We only have to look at the failed EU Constitution project and the lengthy (and costly) Treaty of Lisbon that was born from the ashes to realise that reform isn’t easy. The problem is there seems to be a growing Eurosceptism across all three main UK parties so the call for reform and repatriation is becoming louder, just as the current crisis makes it even less likely.
Reform, however, is not what is on the lips of Scottish politicians. Instead we have a pointless argument over whether an independent Scotland would even be a member. I say pointless for two reasons: firstly there is no legal precendant for this particular form of enlargment; and secondly there is no logical reason whatever the legal position, for Scotland not to have expedited membership. Nonetheless, let’s leave this argument to the lawyers and begin to debate what sort of member we want to be.
As the mythical power and influence of the UK ebbs away, the case has never been stronger for Scotland to be a wee country with a big voice and not part of a big country with a wee voice.
I welcome all comments and suggestions below. Let’s have a serious conversation about Scotland in Europe, not a distracting discussion on the legalities of membership.