Smaller States’ Strategies and Influencing in the EU: Lessons and Choices for Scotland?

Eu Flags
Open Doors Day in Strasbourg. Raising of the flags – Opening ceremony. Picture Credit: Kirsty Hughes

Kirsty Hughes, 2020
Picture Credit: Kirsty Hughes

Policy Note| The question of how much power and influence smaller and medium-sized EU member states have, compared to larger ones, is a recurring one in analysis of the Union. While many of the political and policy divisions in the European Union have little to do with size, an enlarging Union, down the decades, has made sure issues around voting power and political representation periodically come up, usually around treaty change. In an EU of 27 states, how to have influence and impact is a question for all countries, but it’s also one that can be more demanding to answer for smaller states.

Scotland, meanwhile, is a small country within the UK – and now outside the EU. It has a government that aspires to independence in the EU, with recent polls suggesting support for independence is just tipping over the 50% mark to a small majority. Whether and how an independent Scotland could join the EU is one continuing part of that independence debate. Some argue Scotland will always be better off in the UK, others that independence in the European Economic Area (EEA) or even outside of that too, might be preferable to joining the EU.

There are potentially lessons and choices for Scotland, even in its current constitutional position, as to how to develop its European strategy and how to build networks and influence. On Brexit day, 31 January, the Scottish government chose to publish its new European agenda, in the context of the new five year term of the European Commission and Parliament and with a new head of the European Council. And Scotland has a number of offices, most recently established, in Brussels, Berlin, Dublin and Paris (and London too). So how smaller states operate in today’s EU may also suggest strategies and tactics for Scotland too.

Power Politics of Smaller EU States

There are not simply large and small states in the EU but a whole range of sizes of states by population (or economy). Germany heads the list at over 80 million, Romania comes sixth in population size at just under 20 million, five states are at the 4-5 million scale, directly comparable to Scotland, while Cyprus, Malta and Luxembourg all sit at the bottom of the list with a population under a million (each).

But larger states are seen as having much more sway – both directly through their voting weights, and larger representation in the European Parliament, and in terms of political clout and voice. The political dynamics though are complex. Much ink has been spilled down the years on the nature of the Franco-German relationship. In the early noughties, there was also talk of a ‘big three’ including the UK (which nonetheless was always somewhat of an outsider to the Franco-German couple). Now, with the UK’s departure, some look to the 5 ‘bigs’ of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain.

And, while there are always shifting alliances across the EU depending on the political choices at the time, when it’s come to moving to majority voting, adjusting the size of the Commission and Parliament, and generally looking at the balance between national sovereignty and size/power, then smaller member states have fought their corner assiduously. Nor is it only at times of treaty change that these issues come to the fore. Informal alliances between larger member states can do more than ruffle feathers sometimes.

One example, back in November 2001, was when then prime minister Tony Blair invited French president Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to dinner. Not to be left out Commission president Romano Prodi turned up as did foreign policy supremo Javier Solana. Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, then decided to turn up too in his role as leading the EU’s rotating presidency. Faced with this mainly large country gathering, Wim Kok, the Netherland’s prime minister, jumped on a plane to arrive in time for dessert – thus asserting the principle that smaller states should not be left out of such conclaves.

More recently, an informal grouping of larger states and institutions played a crucial role in the management of the euro crisis. The ‘Frankfurt group’ brought together Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy with presidents of the IMF, European Central Bank, European Commission, chair of the eurogroup, and the economic and monetary affairs commissioner. While the Commission is often seen as looking after, especially, the interests of the smaller member states, such informal and unbalanced groupings are rightly looked at warily.

Strategies and Tactics in Today’s EU

The combination of an EU that has, over time, enlarged from 6 to 27 member states and, in the last decades, substantially expanded qualified majority voting, means strategy, tactics and alliances are all vital elements of EU politics. Being a serious European operator is much more challenging and complex than each member state simply sorting out its top priorities, then figuring out how best to push to achieve those goals. And the EU’s remit is so wide-ranging that simply being across its evolving agenda is a big challenge in itself.

Smaller member states adopt a range of approaches. But being strategic, constructive and engaged on the big issues not just specific policy areas is key. In the run-up to the new Commission and Parliament and the Commission’s new five year agenda, many smaller and medium-sized member states, including Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands (and Norway even) put their strategic overviews and priorities into the public domain.

Member states also form – sometimes fluid – ‘like-minded’ groups that exist in diverse areas including, for instance, on the internal market, on climate change, or on the EU’s budget (vital as the new year 7 year framework is fought over). These are not only for smaller member states though sometimes they can effectively be a counter-weight to the larger states – one example being the so-called New Hanseatic League (or Hansa 2.0) which brings together Nordic and Baltic states with the Netherlands and Ireland mainly in a focused attempt to promote a more orthodox approach to eurozone reforms.

Brexit has had its impact too. Several member states are concerned at how the UK’s absence from like-minded groups such as the internal market one will impact. It’s notable too that the recent letter pushing the Commission for more competition policy reforms – in the context of the recent, renewed debate about national/European champions – came from the four ‘bigs’ of France, Germany, Italy and Poland. The policy debate around free market versus a more interventionist approach is not simply a larger versus smaller member state issue but there are some interesting, developing divisions here.

Other groups, including on climate change (with around 15 members) can be influential too. While being outside the euro does, inevitably, dent a member state’s influence in many ways, on the vital issue of tackling climate change, Denmark and Sweden are regularly cited as leading influences. And Finland, during its presidency in the second half of last year, played a key role in driving forward the idea of a European Green Deal now the centre piece of the von der Leyen Commission.

Groupings of member states can often too be territorial – those who share borders and neighbourhoods will often have the same concerns, if not always the same solutions. The Nordic and Baltic states are obvious examples, as too the Visegrad four. But it’s clearly important to reach out beyond your own neighbourhood as well.

Ireland is an interesting example. Inevitably strongly and negatively impacted on by Brexit, Ireland will have to adjust (and already has substantially) its European strategy given its largest nearest neighbour is no longer in the EU. But Ireland has long positioned itself as a core EU member state – in the euro, playing a very constructive role in its presidencies and having, now, embassies in all of the EU member states. Nonetheless, like others, Ireland has had to consider how to adjust and build alliances in the face of Brexit – ensuring it has a wide footprint across policies as well as in member states is part of that.

Smaller member states often emphasise the importance of timing in having influence – getting in early to give ideas and concerns to the Commission and/or the rotating presidency before key new policy proposals and laws are even drafted can play dividends. Being part of the pan-European political groups is another important place for alliance-building too, as is the European Parliament – even if that cuts across member state divides with party divides.

Reciprocity matters as well. Some alliances may be one-off for a particular issue but building trust and knowledge over time matters too. Taking interest in and being constructive towards the concerns of other member states, who may be allies on other issues, can all help cement relationships and build influence.

In the end, it’s a hugely complex, multi-dimensional, political, technical shape-shifting game. But finding a strategic and tactical way through that is part of the politics of being an EU member state.

Lessons and Choices for Scotland?

At first glance, there may seem few lessons here for Scotland – as a sub-state outside the EU. But as the Scottish government’s own European strategy points out, there is much of common interest here.

This new strategy document emphasises four main areas: values and rights; the climate emergency; well-being, and a smart and innovative economy. And the strategy sets out how the Scottish government will aim to engage: with the EU, both its institutions and bilaterally with member states; with other multilateral organisations; and with the UK government.

The challenge here will be resources, competences (in a constitutional sense), access and influence. But as the approach of some smaller EU member states shows being constructive, engaged, getting in early, looking for opportunities to offer reciprocal support, identifying overarching priorities and building relationships all matter.

Scotland is and, despite Brexit, will remain part of a plethora of European networks – whether governmental, civil society, academic, business, cultural and so forth. But the challenge of effectively developing a para-diplomacy strategy is a big one. The Scottish and Irish governments are currently looking at the relationship between their two countries and to see how to develop it further. The Scottish government has also looked to strengthen its Nordic and Arctic ties. The government’s new and older hubs in Brussels, Dublin, Berlin and Paris will certainly not be short of things to do.

There will be as many challenges too, given current negative political dynamics between London and Edinburgh, in influencing the UK’s European and international strategies, as there are in influencing the EU from the outside. But that is a reason for developing focused, intelligent strategies not for doing nothing. It is prioritisation that will be key.

Scotland as an EU Member State

The new European strategy of the Scottish government also gives one answer, in part, to the question of what sort of EU member state an independent Scotland might be. This is a big question that will only be fully answered if and when that scenario actually occurs. But it’s a useful question to ask, both in considering current European strategy and in the debate about independence and Scotland’s European options.

For now, there’s a presumption in the Scottish debate, for instance, that Scotland would not, at least in any hurry, join the euro. But joining the group of eight member states currently outside the euro would already mean not being as core a member state as most. Where will Scotland sit on the free market-interventionist debate within the EU, what should a European green industrial strategy look like – many of these questions are ones Scotland is already trying to answer in its own policies.

It’s perhaps early to say what sort of member state Scotland would be – but its four priority areas in its new strategy overview (rights, climate, well-being and innovation) suggest it would look in many ways quite Nordic in its priorities – perhaps more like Sweden or Denmark than Finland if it’s not in the euro. Scotland might too have many similarities with Ireland – an Atlantic state without an immediate neighbour in the EU.

Scotland needs to decide now, and not just as a putative future EU member state, which are its most important bilateral relationships in the EU. In opening hubs in Paris and Berlin, the government is clearly showing that it realises the importance of interacting with the larger member states too.

And for now, of course, much of Scotland’s future relationship with EU member states will also be conditioned on whether and what type of UK-EU deal is struck this year (and future agreements beyond that).

In the face of Brexit, maintaining and developing European networks, relationships and even influence is all going to take much more work than before. But there is much that can be done – and much European goodwill towards Scotland as it considers its European future.

This Policy Note is published in the context of SCER’s 2019-20 research programme on ‘Small states in the EU, lessons for and from Scotland’. This is a project with, and supported by, University College London’s European Institute, within their Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence Programme 2019-2022,  co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Commission.