What is the point of
exchanging our bosses in London for their counterparts in Berlin and
Brussels, asks George Kerevan
Another day, another independence scare story. This time we are warned
(courtesy of a Strathclyde University academic) that an independent
Scotland would be required to join the Europe-wide free-travel zone as a
condition of EU membership. Cue stories about passport controls at
Berwick and a barbed wire border along Hadrian’s Wall.
True, the Strathclyde paper pointed out the possible economic benefits
of freer movement with the rest of Europe, though – predictably – that
did not figure in the headlines. Nor did anyone point out that the EU
member states spend much of their time bending their formal rules if it
suits them. Since Scotland isn’t in the Schengen area now, continued
non-compliance would be a cheap concession for Brussels to offer up in
return for whatever it really wanted out of the Scots.
So, a non-story, then. And one that is so long in the tooth it has
become fossilised: I first heard the “independence means passport
controls” canard at least 40 years ago. Yet there is an interesting
point lost in this retelling of a whiskery old tale. Why should an
independent Scotland be expected to do Europe’s bidding, anyway? Why
trade London’s yoke for that of Brussels, especially now?
Here is the real European news: the great, post-war plan to unite Europe
has finally stalled. With the euro crisis, Project Europe is officially
dead. Across the EU, parties which are dedicated to opposing the EU, or
to scrapping the euro as a common currency, are gaining ground. Even in
Germany, the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany Party – founded only
this year – came from nowhere to grab nearly five million votes in
September’s federal elections, thus effectively knocking the Free
Democrats (equivalent to our own Lib Dems) out of the Bundestag.
There has always been domestic opposition to the plan to create a
federal Europe. However, the current economic crisis has proved a
watershed. The austerity imposed by Berlin and the European Central
Bank, coupled with the straitjacket imposed on national economies
through adherence to the common currency, has led many people to think
Project Europe has gone too far.
The crisis of the euro has little to do with national governments
running excessive budget deficits – that was true only of Greece.
Rather, the euro system locked in its members at exchange rates
favourable to German exporters – something German politicians want to
keep. Without the possibility of domestic currency devaluation, southern
Europe finds itself with a built-in productivity disadvantage vis-à-vis
Germany. The only recourse is to slash wages and public spending –
spurred on by Berlin.
Beyond the current budget and currency problems lies a deeper European
productivity malaise. As a result of “green” energy policies imposed by
Brussels – code for subsidising French and German energy firms at the
consumer’s expense – European industry pays twice as much for
electricity, and four times as much for gas, as in the United States.
That is a crippling cost disadvantage, as we’ve already seen at
Grangemouth. All the wage freezes in the world won’t stop the European
petrochemicals industry being hammered by cheap US shale gas.
As a result, revolt is brewing, especially in France, once the EU’s main
cheerleader. After the war, the French political elite saw the EU as a
vehicle to keep Germany in check, and to give Paris equal billing in the
world with Washington. But Berlin no longer needs Paris as a passport to
political legitimacy and has imposed its own economic policy on Europe,
leaving the battered French economy struggling.
Result: Marine Le Pen’s right-wing, anti-EU National Front has just won
a crucial by-election, knocking the ruling Socialists into third place.
The Front is now the most popular party in France with 24 per cent of
the vote – a timely warning to British Labour that they can’t assume a
split on the right will automatically favour the left.
What is Le Pen doing with her newfound popularity among the French
white, working class? She wants to use next year’s EU elections to
create an anti-EU, anti-common currency bloc across the European
Parliament. If, as is very possible, anti-EU parties do well in these
elections, such a bloc could dominate the European Parliament for the
Here’s my point: sometime soon growing anti-EU and anti-common currency
feeling in Europe will coalesce to kill the euro. The EU won’t
disappear, but it will revert to something more like the loose “Europe
of the (Sovereign) Nations” favoured by General de Gaulle.
Germany and a few of its satellite economies might keep the euro but
France and southern Europe will revive their own currencies.
I expect the UK will distance itself from this project, hoping to cosy
up to the US. However, Washington’s growing interest in the Pacific
suggests Britain will be left out in the Atlantic cold.
Where does this leave Scotland? We can choose to be a region of
(essentially) Little England. Or we can defend our own economic
interests – which includes telling Berlin and Brussels where to get off.
I suspect that Scotland could do well inside a looser European
arrangement provided we kept our own currency. Co-operation with other
like-minded countries will be easier in a non-federal Europe of the
Nations. Otherwise we should consider emulating Norway and retaining our
The SNP government in Scotland is – remarkably–- the most successful
anti-austerity political movement in Europe, having won a spectacular
majority in 2011 on the basis of opposing the cuts proposed (and
implemented) by Labour’s chancellor Alistair Darling and the subsequent
Tory-Lib Dem coalition. It would be ridiculous now for Scotland to vote
for independence only to accept austerity imposed by Berlin and
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