A more compelling European strategy

The unfolding, multi-layered and predictable damage to Scotland, and the rest of the UK, from Johnson’s EU-UK trade deal is getting clearer every day., writes Kirsty Hughes.

As the UK government blusters about ‘global Britain’, it appears to have no strategy for its relationship with its vital partner, the European Union. Anyone who hoped for a reset in relations to something more positive and mature that engaged with the UK’s and EU’s foreign policy, as well as economic, interests will be disappointed already. Gove and Johnson blustering about the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol and the border it created in the Irish Sea is a continuation of dishonest, old Brexiter rhetoric; there is nothing new here.

For Scotland, there is no immediate escape from the mounting damage of Brexit. Yet what is apparent is how the differences in UK and Scottish government approaches to the EU and the wider world are creating two distinct narratives. Scotland has an emerging and potentially compelling European narrative while the UK appears to be in denial of its own Europeanness as it clutches at a fake global ideology.

This is not simply about the Scottish government’s goal of independence in the EU. Damage limitation in the face of the EU-UK deal is very hard. But SNP politicians are already in discussions with Brussels over whether and how Scotland might remain in the Erasmus programme (abandoned by the UK in its ideological drive to avoid encouraging European identity even while it allowed continuing UK participation in the Horizon research programme). The Scottish government is aiming – despite the Internal Market Act – to keep aligned as far as possible with evolving EU environmental, agricultural and other laws.

And, as individuals, businesses and other organisations struggle with the new border to the EU and with complex barriers to their trade with Europe, questions are being asked as to why the UK government agreed a deal that is so punitive. Why did Johnson’s negotiators not protect the cultural sector and musicians’ right to tour the EU or why did they insist on punitive new food safety and animal health checks – more costly and prohibitive even than those New Zealand faces with the EU?

European value

The value of being in the European Union is being demonstrated again and again as the consequences of Brexit mount. And many European links and networks are, despite all, being maintained or even strengthened – from university research to civil society networks to businesses finding ways to keep trading or even facing up to establishing new partners and hubs in the EU to maintain trade. In Scotland, EU citizens feel more welcome than in England – a message that, to its credit, the Scottish government has underlined repeatedly.

None of this means Scotland can do much to limit the damage of Brexit. But it means there is an immediate political and policy debate that underlines that Scotland is a European country – a country whose short and longer term economic, social, cultural and foreign policy interests lie with the continent and with the EU.

There is an opportunity here to pull this together into a more compelling European narrative and strategy. Climate change is one obvious core priority. The big COP26 global climate summit – absolutely vital in the face of the global climate emergency – is in Glasgow this autumn (if Covid allows). The UK government is the host but the Scottish government and others have a major opportunity to engage with European and international players – both from politics and from civil society.

Much planning is already under way on this. And, helpfully, there are many like-minded countries on climate change, and on relatedly on international development, in the EU, not least Denmark and Sweden, that Scotland can engage with more both on specifics and on strategy.

Scotland can also – on climate and other issues including strategies for recovering from the Covid crisis – benefit from being more aligned and engaged with different EU member states. Scotland as an active European player, however hard that is outside the EU and inside the UK, will be able to reach out more effectively to countries around the world – on development, on climate, on strategies to tackle poverty, on new green industrial strategy – if it is seen to be in partnership with and close to European partners.

Foreign policy is reserved. But being an active European player across key priority areas is a vital strategy both now and for an independent Scotland in the EU. There are, anyway, few clear dividing lines these days between domestic and foreign policy. And that is true many times over with European policy (just look at the single market and its host of policies from competition to environment to data security). Scotland’s wider international and foreign policy both now (albeit in part as para-diplomacy), and as an EU member state, needs to be centred in the EU. It will pay dividends.

Back in the EU

The independence debate in Scotland also underlines the divergence in approach to European and international issues compared to England and Wales. Re-joining the EU, as an independent state, is not side-lined or irrelevant in the debate, where in England even the Lib-Dems are no longer a re-join party. It is a realistic and central prospect for Scotland – not something for future generations.

And, in the face of unstable geopolitical rivalries, being part of European networks and policies is the obvious goal. That doesn’t mean following EU foreign policy positions slavishly. There is plenty of diversity, debate and differing interests across member states as the EU attempts both to define what strategic autonomy means for the Union and to build a stronger, more constructive relationship with the US under President Biden. But there is strength in cooperation – it is one of the central lessons and purposes of the EU.

Overall, this emerging and multi-faceted European politics and policy of today’s Scotland, as well as the future Scotland, needs to be brought together more, made more strategic, talked up more, acted on more. Scotland is a European country and there is a compelling and strategic European narrative here.

Intensifying European partnerships and cooperation now is in Scotland’s interests both today and in the future. While England focuses on a fake ‘global Britain narrative’, Scotland’s European narrative and strategy must be rooted in real contemporary challenges and opportunities – and it can have serious impact done in partnership with other European countries, both large and small. As the damage from Brexit reverberates, Scotland’s European strategy is more, not less, important – and ever more distinct from the rest of the UK.

This article was first published in the National 8 February 2021 and republished by SCER