The periodic rows that blow up when Scottish government ministers venture abroad to the European Union or beyond are not, as everyone knows, a spat about devolved powers, writes Kirsty Hughes.
Rather, they reflect a neuralgic political concern by the UK government, Tory and a fair few Labour politicians, that SNP politicians on the European or international stage might look like credible future leaders or ministers in an independent state. Or even, perish the thought, that they might talk to politicians from other countries about how they see the path to independence going (rocky might be the summary at the moment); or they might, perhaps, disagree with the UK government on – reserved – foreign policy.
And yet democratic politics is, surely, about disagreement. The horrendous and deteriorating situation in Gaza has led, so far, to agreement between the UK prime minister, and the leader of the opposition. But there are plenty in Keir Starmer’s Labour party who disagree with his refusal to call for a ceasefire. Today (27 October), Sadiq Kahn, London’s mayor, joined in such calls, as did the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar. Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf, has been urging a ceasefire for days now. And beyond politicians, many are signing petitions – from individuals to lawyers to big and small international NGOs – backing these calls.
At its summit yesterday, EU leaders, after much wrangling, called for “humanitarian pauses” – in the plural not the singular in case they were seen to be calling for a ceasefire which, shockingly, the EU cannot agree on given the range of views across member states. Spain is, though, understood to have pushed successfully for a paragraph in the summit conclusions stating that the EU “supports the holding of an international peace conference soon.”
The UK government doesn’t, of course, have any influence over the EU on such crucial issues any more, given Brexit. And Scotland’s government even less so. But EUcontacts, debates, consultations and networking including with non-EU countries and non-state or sub-state partners is all part of the normal stuff of international and regional politics whether on intense crises from Gaza to Ukraine to climate and biodiversity through to more manageable but issues such as education, research and culture.
Yesterday, First Minister Humza Yousaf, alongside external affairs cabinet secretary Angus Robertson, met the German ambassador to the UK and the German consul-general to Scotland to discuss working together on building a European hydrogen market. This is a topic, important in contributing to the net zero goal, that the small Scottish government office in Berlin, based in the UK embassy there, has been focusing on in the last few years. Today, Angus Robertson was meeting Norway’s ambassador to the UK.
This is all the normal stuff of international and European political interaction. Nor were there, it seems, any foreign office minders in the room at the meeting with the German ambassador (as there were when Humza Yousaf was in Brussels back in June). But this is only because these are meetings within Scotland and the UK. The UK government’s neuralgia has not suddenly disappeared.
I was recently at a fascinating workshop on paradiplomacy at a Scottish university (that met under the Chatham House rule so I can’t say where/who was there). But it was refreshing to discuss the state of international networking and diplomacy by a whole host of actors from sub-states and regions, to cities and councils across Europe and beyond, without stumbling straight into constitutional frictions. Paradiplomacy, in all its various forms, is a normal not an unusual state of affairs. After all, Glasgow city council has international officers, Bristol council has a head of international affairs, Scotland’s local government network, Cosla, has a Brussels office, and many cities in the US not only have international strategies but, in some cases, are now being advised by American diplomats on loan from the state department.
Many EU countries, such as Germany and Spain, have much clearer constitutional set-ups than the UK on paradiplomacy which structure how regions interact alongside their central/federal governments on the European and international stage. Germany’s federal states prize their offices in Brussels. And regions and sub-states from outside the EU have offices there too, as has the Scottish government (set up back in 1998).
Independence in the EU or Doing the Day Job?
So, apart from the UK government’s periodic upsets over the Scottish government having a European and international profile, is it simply the case that Scotland’s current European, and international, approach is normal and reasonably suited to Scotland’s interests? Or is it designed to boost the independence cause first and foremost?
The problem with trying to answer such a question is that the actions you would want a Scottish government of any political colour to take to promote devolved interests, such as developing strong economic, political and cultural relations with Germany, France, Ireland or the EU, are broadly the same as those you would take if you were trying to boost Scotland’s political image abroad in the context of independence. Anyway, EU diplomats are not, by and large, going to sit down with Scottish politicians and have long discussions focused on how an independent Scotland could join the EU – which is not to say the topic will never come up.
Having Scottish government offices in Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin and Paris (all of them small with the exception of the Brussels one) seems entirely in Scotland’s interests – and comparable to the international activities of other sub-states in and outside the EU.
The fact that a devolved international strategy may overlap in many ways with the international and European arguments for independence also helps to cast light on the current debate over independence strategy more broadly in Scotland. Some argue, given the SNP’s decline in the polls and Labour’s gains (leaving the SNP either still ahead or neck and neck depending on which recent poll you look at), that the focus should be on immediate issues that matter to voters – the cost of living crisis, the health service and so on.
But the response to this is, to put it bluntly, can the SNP walk and chew gum at the same time? Surely, it makes most sense to focus on priority issues at home, whether in Holyrood or arguing the case at Westminster, and on the case for independence too (the substance not the process). This is particularly salient when the election next year is a general election not a Holyrood one – albeit we know voters’ views on how the Scottish government is doing will colour their political choices for the 2024 vote.
In the case of European and international issues, the Scottish government is working on a new European and international strategy that might, hopefully, see the light of day this autumn. That will be a strategy for the devolved government. But it will also give a context, as will the general election, to talk about independence in the EU too – not least when Keir Starmer’s EU policy is to stick to the Tories’ hard Brexit while attempting to soften it at the edges. As former EU top negotiator Michel Barnier told Robert Peston this week, there’s scope for marginal improvements in the EU-UK trade deal but being outside the EU single market doesn’t offer anything major.
Another mantra heard in Scotland at the moment is that opinion on independence has become detached from support for the SNP – with the latter going down to around 35-38% (compared to 45% at the 2019 election) while independence support is fairly steady around 48% and sometimes higher. This is not an obvious reason to make even less of a case for independence, not least when support for independence amongst those under 50 years old is around the 60% mark – and younger voters especially are strongly pro-EU.
Not that the SNP has looked like it is confident at all, recently, in making the case for independence in the EU. Nicola Sturgeon launched a ‘New Scotland’ series of policy papers to make the detailed case for independence in early 2020, paused them for the pandemic, and then issued piecemeal, around three papers before her resignation. There was no energy or communications dynamic to ensure sustained interest or debate on these papers (even though there were some good detailed nuggets in them, including on the thorny issue of the Scotland-England border in the case of independence in the EU where some interesting ideas on services were floated).
Humza Yousaf published one more of these papers in June on the constitution. But it appears that a whole array of papers has been drafted in the last year or more, including on the EU, and have been sitting there unpublished since before Nicola Sturgeon resigned because the time was never quite right for the next one. Perhaps someone has to explain to the current First Minister that the time will never be exactly right and it’s about leading the debate.
An Enlarging EU
Coming back to paradiplomacy, the EU is expected to agree to open accession talks with Ukraine, and probably Moldova too, by the end of the year. Whether the EU will come anywhere near the goal, set out by EU Council president Charles Michel, of bringing these two countries and the western Balkans countries in by 2030, we will see. It’s a question of high politics as well as much technical detail. But the EU is in one of its periodic big swings towards enlargement – and in the midst of a debate about how the EU must reform to adapt to new growth. We saw the same thing during the 1990s after the Berlin Wall came down.
Is Scotland going to stand back from that debate and the new dynamic that has inserted itself into a previously moribund accession process? Or is it going to challenge itself both in its own paradiplomacy skills and in making the case for independence in the EU. The clear risk is that, despite the neuralgic fears of the UK government, the Scottish government puts its main focus on its devolved paradiplomacy, talking about hydrogen markets but not EU enlargement and where Scotland can fit. It surely has to do both.
First published in the author’s new Europe & Scotland newsletter on Substack