Scotland, the SNP and the European Union
Is there really a plan?
“Only through voting SNP can we achieve independence in Europe.” It is by this point a well-worn formulation. We can expect the use of this kind of slogan to intensify in the coming months as a core theme for the forthcoming general election. The SNP leadership, looking at some difficult polling, is searching for a spine to their campaign. While I disagree with the idea of a “de facto” referendum, it did provide a strong national frame for the SNP. Without that - combined with the change in leadership, the ongoing police investigation and the various scandals around the party - the SNP require positions that can impact the election.
Opposition to Brexit offers a useful platform. Here is an issue which enables the SNP to showcase a unique position relative to the Tories and the Labour Party. Labour, in particular, can be labelled as “Brexiteers”. This opens space to recapitulate the narrative that they are no different to the Conservatives and animates the idea that Scotland is on an inherently divergent political path.
But do the SNP really have a viable route to take Scotland into the European Union? Is posturing on the issue anything more than opportunist propaganda? Shouldn't there be a debate in the independence movement, and across public life, about the nature of the EU and Scotland’s potential future relations with the institution? Certainly, the notion that a vote for independence in the future should automatically translate to support for the EU, raises substantial democratic questions.
Once a mainstream position on the left, I am opposed to the European Union. But even if you are excited by the prospect of an independent Scotland joining, there must be a serious assessment of whether or not the SNP have a plan to achieve this objective.
The following piece, first published on Novara Media, briefly outlines some of the key issues on this question and contends that the SNP’s orientation is confused and contradictory. Debate and criticism are most welcome, especially as I know many readers will hold a different view on the nature of the European Union and how Scotland should relate to it. I hope you will agree, though, that there is an interesting discussion to be had around these matters.
Scotland, the SNP and the European Union
In the aftermath of Brexit, the liberal left imbued the European Union with a set of moral values despite its track record: internationalism, democracy and inclusiveness. Leading the charge was the SNP, who in the wake of the referendum prioritised ‘stopping Brexit’ over developing a strategy for independence in the heat of the political crisis precipitated by the Leave vote.
Given that a referendum is the party’s gold standard approach to winning independence, it was somewhat counterintuitive to try to circumvent the English vote to leave the bloc. But that was the route the SNP pursued in its support for a ‘People’s Vote’. For many in the Scottish national movement, support for independence became synonymous with support for the EU. This was also a secure position for the leadership of the SNP, who could pose as reliable partners of the European institutions and as opponents of populist nationalism.
As a result, discussion about Europe in Scotland is even more distorted than it is south of the border. The issue has come to define the SNP, who now present the rolling-back of Brexit as a key part of any future negotiations with Labour in the event of a hung parliament at the next general election. This, of course, is pie in the sky. But it shows just how important the party believes the issue is electorally.
Yet the truth is that many who back the SNP and independence have also opposed the EU. This tendency has a long history within the independence movement and was very much alive during the Brexit referendum. In February 2016, Ipsos Mori found that 29% of SNP supporters would vote Leave. Survation put the SNP’s Brexit vote at 28%, while another poll for the same company found 25% of pro-independence voters wanted to leave the EU, compared to just 16% of pro-union voters in the survey.
This cohort has no political representation and has been submerged in the years since the Leave vote. Yet the SNP has tightly enmeshed the question of Europe and Scottish statehood by intertwining a vote for independence with automatic approval for rejoining the EU. This means that upon achieving independence, a real debate and a democratic approach to deciding the country’s relations with Europe would be elusive. This is despite the glaring contradiction in the SNP’s currency plan, known as ‘sterlingisation’, which would inhibit joining the EU in the first place, as any prospective member nation requires its own central bank. Without a proposal that allows for such monetary autonomy, entry into the capitalist club isn’t feasible.
As a former EU economic affairs commissioner once said on whether ‘sterlingisation’ would be compatible with EU membership: “This simply would not be possible, since that would obviously imply a situation where the candidate country concerned would not have a monetary authority of its one, and thus no necessary instruments of the EMU [Economic and Monetary Union].” And as the Aquis Communinitaire – the accumulated legislation, legal acts and court decisions that constitute the body of EU law – states: “Economic and monetary policy contains specific rules requiring the independence of central banks in member states”.
The SNP is quite aware this won’t be put to the acid test. They’ve pursued a strategy around the national question geared towards marshalling electoral support without having to deal with the complexities and conflicts bound up with setting up an independent state, which they are both unprepared for and unwilling to confront. But serious questions must be debated. It’s not only the need for a central bank and the resulting rupture with the British financial institutions this would entail that relegates notions of an independent Scotland easily rejoining the EU to mere rhetoric. The economic pain involved would be substantial, involving a harsh programme of deficit reduction, eventuating in privatisation, alongside the required harmonisation with neoliberal EU rules which are stacked against any government that wants to challenge the logic of the market.
The folklore around the EU also diminishes the extent to which the institution is profoundly anti-democratic. As David Hollanders puts it, the EU’s state apparatus “acts as the political strongman of private banks”. The interests of transnational capital ride above and beyond the democracies of nation-states. In Greece, the democratic insurgency opposed to austerity was eviscerated by the unelected European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank. George Hoare, co-author of The End of The End of History, sums up the EU’s practice: “It is undemocratic, suffering from a well-known ‘democratic deficit’ such that its institutions are structured to give political power to unelected and unaccountable officials. But it is also anti-democratic: the effect of the EU on the domestic politics of member states is to downplay the importance of democratic decision-making processes in those states.”
Meanwhile, rather than acting as a shield against nascent projects of the radical right, such parties and movements draw political legitimacy by mirroring the essential policy of the EU, which recognises internal migration but shuns external movements of people. Fortress Europe has the hardest of all borders through the Mediterranean Sea, which tens of thousands of migrants have lost their lives attempting to cross. At the same time, instruments such as the single market rescale the triumph of Thatcherism to a continent-wide level, with all of the attendant social divisions and inequalities this incubates.
Despite the actually existing character of the EU, lazy assumptions and comforting illusions about its nature flourish. On the British left, ideological confusion around the issue has been underlined in recent years, with damaging consequences. Capitulation to the ‘progressive’ mythology around the European institutions is by extension a capitulation on key economic and democratic fronts too. If Scottish independence is to have any meaning, these matters must at the very least be thoroughly and publicly debated, and tied to popular sovereignty. That would be far more instructive and politically mature than the sentimental, uncritical and rose-tinted view of the EU that prevails today.
Previous articles on the EU, Scotland and the left:
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