How other Europeans see us

Mary Taylor reports on and draws lessons from our latest webinar (December 14):

Mark Lazarowicz chaired a panel of four speakers from Brussels, Berlin, Rome and Edinburgh, with a Q&A session. Although the title was EU views of UK and Scotland post Brexit, it covered the perspectives of nation states and populations, not just those of the EU institutions.  And it wasn’t post-Brexit either: the event was scheduled in expectation of negotiations having ended and had to cope with the abiding uncertainty of what kind of deal, if any, awaits. 

Speakers didn’t dwell on the prospects of a deal or the details of it. Rather they looked behind – to the consequences of how we got here; and beyond – to our future outside EU, and maybe back in at some point in future, whoever ‘we’ are. 

The speakers complemented each other and showed broad agreement across the board – initially about the widespread bafflement in populations of various European countries, amongst politicians and in the EU, at what has happened in the UK. It was slightly comforting that most people distinguish between the ‘elite’ in Downing Street (where it was said the lunatics had taken over the asylum) and the country more generally. Many valued and respected the contribution made over many years by people from the UK, including the leadership, in curbing/restraining what are seen as the wilder ambitions of the Commission for bigger budgets and more integration. This led to some discussion about how cohesion will be maintained within the EU in future, though they are sticking together for now.

I was particularly struck by some polling from Germany which showed how trust in different countries had changed over the last 10 years. France and UK used to be about the same and well over 50%. USA and Russia were typically below 50% and falling. While German trust in France rose, trust in UK fell steadily to the same level of Russia, with sudden drops in 2015/6 (referendum) and 2019/20 (Internal Market Bill). Many speakers expressed the view that it would take many years, maybe decades, to restore previous levels of trust, with no such expectations during the Johnson period of office.

Rejoining the EU

The discussion about how ‘we’ might rejoin was not encouraging to any short-term aspirations. First of all, there is the question of the appetite of the EU to have ‘us’ (UK or Scotland) back because 1) Brexit has been so disruptive and 2) they have other very important things to consider – such as economic recession, possibly even depression.

Secondly, there was the question of whether (and how) an independent Scotland might be admitted – which goes to the heart of who ‘we’ are. The very clear view from all speakers was that EU and national leaders have been at pains not even to meet the First Minister on her own or to encourage Scotland to assume ease of accession. This is because there would have to be a legitimate independent government, produced in cooperation with the UK government, so pursuit of UDI would not help Scotland join. And such a country would need to have a stable currency and be able to demonstrate that the Scottish economy did not depend critically on the rest of the UK, not least because EU cannot afford another member without adequate economic capacity. The consensus was that a hard border with England was more likely to be required as this would be a land (external) border with the EU (as currently the case in Ireland), unless there was a shift in appetite in England to build a different relationship with EU. 

Other options

There was a suggestion that joining Norway in an EEA could be a better bet, certainly in the short term.

I am currently thinking that building any campaign around rejoining the EU is probably forlorn, certainly premature. That doesn’t mean we give up. What we can do is redirect efforts to sustaining our European-ness to keep that flame alive. UK cannot afford – in any sense – to be isolated. We will also need to work, hard, to watch what the EU does in the months and years to come without UK participation and influence. Who will do that, I wonder? To what end? Will the UK Press? Will academics? Who else? 

I value European institutions, but not uncritically, and speaking personally I would not wish to assume that the EU will always get it right in responding to every challenge in future. I suggest we spend more time thinking about how EMiS could become an observatory for EU activity in a way that harnesses the talents of the willing and able, and provides competent, credible, compelling evidence of coordinated European efforts in what is bound to be a difficult economic and political environment ahead.