United Kingdom – Splitting Rage Takes Root

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh, Scotland

For all admiration the British nation inspires, anglophiles and others slightly less impressed are wondering what is wrong with the United Kingdom and its people. It’s not just that Scotland mulls independence, but also that the remainder of the UK (rUK) is increasingly enamoured with the idea that turning its back to the continent is actually an idea worth entertaining.

The most recent Vox Populi opinion poll commissioned by The Times shows that 40% of respondents favour leaving the European Union, whereas 37% feel comfortable staying in. Though these numbers are likely to change should a referendum be actually held, the outcome of such an exercise will be a close call.

In the election for the European Parliament of last May, the UK Independence Party claimed 27.6% of the vote leaving both Labour and the Conservatives trailing far behind. Meanwhile up north in Scotland the Yes Campaign is slowly gaining momentum. After the most recent faux pas of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who rather abruptly dismissed the idea of a currency union between an independent Scotland and rUK, the yes votes shot up to 43% of the total.

Running Gag

The problem with secession referenda is that they keep recurring. No is never the final answer. Secessionists just wait a decade or two before trying again. Sooner or later a yes vote will be produced which is, by its very definition, final.

In Québec they keep on trying to get out of Canada every twenty odd years, while Catalonia is pressing hard to get the Spanish government to agree to a first referendum regarding its independence. A no vote in Scotland will not stop secessionist from trying again in a couple of decades. This running gag will go on until, through sheer exhaustion or supreme annoyance, voters actually agree – if only momentarily – to the proposed split.

“The problem with secession referenda is that they keep recurring. No is never the final answer.”

In the case of Scotland the yes campaign is not likely to succeed this first time around. A devo-max solution whereby the Scots gain a larger degree of autonomy within the UK is a much more plausible outcome. First-Minister Alex Salmond does himself and his cause no favour by insisting that an independent Scotland retain the British Pound as its currency; keep its (non-existing) membership of the European Union; and preserve its access to superior BBC radio and television programming.

Disentangling Scotland from the UK is of course a Herculean task. However, given time and effort it can probably be done. A currency union is an entirely different matter. If some Scots seem dissatisfied with socially insensitive macro-economic policies set in London – and see this as one of many reasons for supporting an exit from the UK – why would an independent Scotland allow its monetary policy to be set by the Bank of England? That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

A Wee Bit Lost

The pro-independence movement led by First-Minister Salmond at times seems a wee bit lost and quite unaware of the way sovereign countries operate and the instruments they use to manage their domestic affairs. A proper currency is one of those essential instruments. If an independent Scotland truly wishes to manage its own affairs it simply cannot use the British Pound. Unless the First-Minister thinks that the Bank of England is actually going to take Scottish national realities and aspirations into consideration when setting its monetary policy.

An even thornier issue concerns Scotland’s status vis-à-vis the European Union. Again, the pro-independence camp seems motivated by wishful thinking. Though for all its libraries of rules and regulations, the European Union lacks a proper procedure to handle the split-up of a member state. However, common sense dictates that an independent Scotland may face an uphill battle when it tries to remain in the EU.

The key here is in the word “remain”. Scotland is most decidedly not a member of the European Union. The United Kingdom is. Scotland leaving does not terminate the UK as a sovereign entity. The United Kingdom will just be a little smaller. As such, the UK will not see its legal status in the EU changed.

On the Outside Looking In

Since an independent Scotland is to be a new sovereign state with all the attendant trappings, it will find itself outside the EU. This logical course of events and its outcome were repeatedly confirmed by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on British television.

Mr Barroso did not make this stuff up as some of the more ardent proponents of Scottish independence suspect.

Thus Scotland will need to apply for EU membership from scratch. That should not pose a challenge. Having been formerly part of an EU member state, Scotland already abides by all the rules and regulations. But that’s only the administrative part of the story. For the exact same reason why the African Union refuses to award diplomatic recognition to break-away states, the European Union does not want to reward secessionists with instant membership status: It is likely to open the floodgates and cause severe disruption.

Catalonia is a case in point: Spain would rather not see one of its most prosperous regions depart. However, the Catalans will not think twice should Scotland manage to gain fast-track access to the EU as an independent state. What is to stop the Basques to follow suit? The northern regions of Italy may very well want to go at it separated from the more cumbersome south. Belgium will split at its language seam while France will have to deal with the Corsicans. The list of possible splits and divisions is well-neigh endless.

Another Split

Then, of course, the UK – with or without the preceding “r” – increasingly seems to fancy a split of its own, seriously entertaining notions of independence from the eurocrats in Brussels and their interfering ways. Gone are the days of the late 1960s when, deprived of its empire and say in the world, Great Britain couldn’t wait to gain access to the then- European Economic Community in order to bolster its flagging fortune.

Britain’s first attempt at joining the continent was blocked by a loud French “non” in 1963. President Charles de Gaulle suspected – not entirely without reason – the British of wanting to sabotage the community at the behest of their American overlords. A second attempt in 1967 failed as well due to French opposition. It was indeed American prodding that persuaded the British government to give it a third go in 1969 which resulted in the UK finally being admitted as a member in 1972.

“The freedom of movement EU citizens enjoy throughout the union, is one of four fundamental rights enshrined in the union’s founding treaty.”

Barely three years into its membership, some UK politicians already wanted the country to pull out. In 1975 a referendum was hastily organised to put the question to the electorate. However, slightly over 67% of voters wanted the UK to keep its EEC membership.

Even though British opposition to the European Union is reasonably argued, some countries – notably France and even Germany – are growing rather tired of the incessant complaints emanating from across the Channel. Most continental politicians have just about gotten over the antics and tirades of Margaret Thatcher who in 1980 lost her cool over the perceived largess of “Brussels” and threatened to withhold VAT payments, famously exclaiming in the presence of her stunned continental colleagues “I want my money back!”

Sick Man Shouting

It certainly made for good television and boosted Mrs Thatcher’s sagging popularity at home. However, her outburst came at a time when Britain was still very much the sick man of Europe – a country where only recently the lights had gone out during a coal miners’ strike and home to an economy burdened by monumental inefficiencies, a weak currency, and an unruly and unproductive workforce.

For all her handbag swinging and banging, Mrs Thatcher was considered but a British oddity in Brussels – someone best left to her own, rather eccentric, devices. Just as the UK had slipped silently back into the European fold along comes Prime-Minister David Cameron, threatening to overturn the apple cart yet again. It doesn’t take much imagination to see eyes rolling in Brussels.
Mr Cameron objects to a great many things of the EU: The union lacks transparency and democratic checks and balances; the union is also too large and cumbersome an administrative entity; it interferes too much and too heavy-handedly in the domestic affairs of member states; and it should place curbs on the freedom of movement of people. Mr Cameron’s list of complaints is depressingly long.

Interestingly enough for someone who complains about democratic shortcomings, Mr Cameron gets quite worked up over the fact that the next president of the European Commission hails from the parliamentary bloc that received the most votes in last May’s European elections. Mr Cameron just happens not to trust the guy which is why the voters’ express wishes should be ignored.

All Worked Up for Theatrics

Mr Cameron goes to Brussels all worked up to play for a home audience of people who have been whipped into as much of a frenzy as the British can possibly allow for by Mr Nigel Farage cand his happy band of eurosceptics, collectively known as the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Mr Farage, quite the public speaker and with an uncanny knack for creating Kodak Moments, wants the UK to withdraw from the continent and erect all sorts of barriers in order to shield his beloved isle from wicked foreigners such as the untold hordes of Bulgarians and Romanians that are apparently overrunning the UK and causing havoc wherever they appear.

In fact, the hordes failed to materialise. When immigration restrictions were lifted for Bulgarians and Romanians as per EU directive earlier this year, nothing really happened. UKIP scaremongers were left Waiting for Godot. He never showed up.

The freedom of movement EU citizens enjoy throughout the union, is one of four fundamental rights enshrined in the union’s founding treaty. The others concern the freedom of capital transfers, the freedom of movement of goods and the freedom to establish businesses and provide services.

No Love Lost for Freedoms

Mr Farage and his followers do not like these freedoms one bit and would rather retreat to their side of the Channel. No matter that well over one million British subjects have made use of their freedoms to move elsewhere in the union and British corporations profit handsomely from having free and unfettered access to the EU’s internal market – the largest on the planet.

UKIP has so far been most explicit in its desire to take the UK out of the EU. However, it has failed to address any of the post-exit realities. Who will buy Made in Britain products? Will London survive as a hub of international finance? Who will provide work for the hundreds of thousands likely to lose their jobs as multinational corporations move their European head offices to the continent? How does little Britain expect to survive, let alone prosper, in a world dominated by large trading blocs that enjoy throwing their weight around? Where will pensioners go if they no longer enjoy the freedom to enjoy their retirement on Mediterranean beaches, with free healthcare thrown in for good measure by their amiable host countries?

Storm in a Teacup

Rather than leave the EU, the United Kingdom could possibly take a more constructive approach to any outstanding issues by bringing them to the negotiating table with the support of a few allies and friends. Belgium and The Netherlands are obvious choices and so are Denmark, Sweden and the Baltic states. Italy could also easily be brought aboard, thus forming a mighty coalition of like-minded nations that together may provide a counterweight to the now dominant interplay between Paris and Berlin.

Thankfully, all the discussion, talk and noise over Scotland going its own way and the UK being fed-up with the European Union may just be the proverbial storm in a teacup.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the end, the British being an exceptionally reasonable people and a nation of shopkeepers to boot, the storm now raging will probably leave little damage. Some reputations may get bruised, some toes may get stepped on – overall common sense will likely prevail. The alternative is too fraught with risk and danger to even seriously consider.

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