Friday, 31 August 2012

Busting an EU myth

In an article on the Public Service Europe website an anonymous columnist lays out the reasons why s/he thinks that EU membership will be difficult for Scotland.  The argument is piffle, and I thought I’d dissect it a little:
European Union membership is not for the asking.
Actually, it is.  Asking is the only way to get into the EU if you’re not already in it; application is followed by the accession process.  Note the purpose of the accession process and, in particular, the accession criteria.      
Scotland would satisfy the cardinal requirement of democracy and a respect for human rights. The number of its members of the European Parliament and of the Economic and Social Committee, as well as its voting strength in the European Council, is a matter of simple arithmetic. Most of the rest would be hard going.
It was going so well up until that last sentence.  I thought it was going to go on to say that Scotland is already in accord with the acquis communautaire – I feel a little sad inside!
It does not want to join the eurozone and would have to negotiate derogation. This is not given lightly since the beneficiary escapes increasingly tight eurozone discipline.
Actually, that’s massively inaccurate, Scotland will be a successor state and will inherit the obligations and rights that the UK has under the treaties.  In any case, new Member States are not obliged to join the euro.  Let me introduce you to our good friend Sweden; joined the EU in 1995 and had a referendum on joining the euro in 2003 where the Swedish people took the opportunity to decline membership of the euro.  The EU response was, as no-one who reads the Daily Mail would expect, accepting:

"Olle Schmidt (ALDE, SE) inquired whether Sweden could still stay out of the Eurozone. Mr Rehn replied that it is up to the Swedish people to decide on the issue."

The idea that any nation would be forced into the euro was always daft but the idea that the ECB would now want to let nations in before they were ready and before the eurozone was ready is simply barking.
The other member states would ask searching questions about additional financial regulation and to the Scots, for whom this is a major industry; it would be as negative as the City of London has been.
Now there’s a sweeping statement putting attitudes and opinions into the heads of other Member States (I’ll be charitable and assume just their governments) and ‘the Scots’ (homogenous lot that we are).  Why would Scotland “be as negative as the City of London”?  A sweeping generalisation of my own – we Scots, as a nation, understand the need to have financial institutions properly regulated and that international markets require proper regulation too.
The Scots would ask to continue to exempt themselves from a contribution to bail-out funds.
You know, I’d help my neighbour if his house was on fire and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t.  The eurozone trouble affects us in the sterlingzone and we should be helping.  It’s not as if the funds contributed are a gift; it’s a loan and we should be helping our neighbours where we can.  I don't think that 'the Scots' would want to turn our backs on our European partners.
As long as the remaining United Kingdom has not subscribed to the Schengen agreement on passport-free travel - which means never - Scotland would likewise stay out. But it would want to obtain a special arrangement for cross-border travel within the island and with Ireland.
Actually, the Schengen Agreement is about much more than border control and the UK is signed up to most of it.  London won’t want to introduce travel restrictions after the UK is no more, and it’ll sign up to the rest of Schengen in time – in great part because of the trade losses suffered by UK businesses as a result of not being in the free travel area.  Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus still apply border controls for the time being while non-EU members Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein allow free movement.
The Scots would consider that they qualified for a share of the former United Kingdom's 'Thatcher rebate', which reduces the payment into EU 'own resources' by two thirds. But the former United Kingdom might have other ideas - and the EU at large might want to reconsider the rebate 'ex nihilo', its word for a new start.
Firstly, the rebate is on its way out.  Secondly, it isn’t all that big; the rebate in 2010 was €3.56bn which is about £2.9bn or around £46.30 per year for each person in the UK – less than 13p a day each.  On the other hand, Scotland as an independent nation would keep the 25% of monies collected here for the EU – cash which currently goes to the Treasury in London.

Additionally, the rebate is (roughly and very simplified) two thirds of the difference between what the UK puts in and what it gets out so is essentially 66p coming back for every £1 not claimed through an EU programme.  It’s regarded by UK politicians as something of a virility symbol, though, which helps explain why UK Ministers don’t encourage engagement in EU programmes.  This is emphasised by the UK Government which points out that “the UK currently has the lowest per capita receipts from the EU budget”. 

Total EU funding coming to Scotland with a population of 5.2m is currently around £760m per annum – about €950m or €183 per head.  Comparable nations come in like this: Finland 5.4m people, €243 per head; Denmark 5.6m, €272 ph; Ireland 4.5m, €459 ph; Slovakia 5.4m, €353 ph; Lithuania 3.2m; €501 ph; Latvia 2.2m, €383 ph; Slovenia 2m, €378 ph.

Scotland would be better off without the rebate and taking part in the EU programmes – so would the UK which receives only €108 per head.
Since Scotland would not be subject to British law, it would be necessary to re-enact under Scottish law the whole body of applicable EU legislation. The catalogue would run to thousands of pages but a Scottish Consolidation Act could perhaps use a general formula. Surviving opponents of independence could spend weeks combing through the pile to ask whether specific pieces were in the country's interest.
Here in old Scotland we have our own law already – we’ve had our own legal system and laws for quite a wee while now; the odd century or eight – and EU law is already written into it because we’re a member of the EU.  That will continue after independence and ‘surviving opponents of independence’ already have the opportunity to ‘spend weeks combing through the pile to ask whether specific pieces were in the country's interest’ in Holyrood – they don’t, by and large, because they would be as horrified by the idea as any nationalist would be.
There would be a separate triangular contest over fishing rights. The Scots would want a piece of the old UK quota, and more. The (old) UK would cling to most of what it has and the other quota countries would seize the opportunity to try to recalibrate the system in their favour.
Oh, those devious, underhanded people who’ll stand up for their nation’s best interests!  I’ll bet they’re just waiting, rubbing their hands together and cackling …

Scotland’s actually quite well respected in fishing.  It was research done at the NAFC Marine Centre in Shetland that influenced ICES and changed the way that the EU looked at fish quotas, for example, and the conservation work initiated by Scottish fishermen has been world-leading.  Quotas are negotiated annually and Richard Lochhead has been in the room for Scotland’s Government the past few years; I’m sure he’ll be welcomed back representing an independent Scottish Government and that he’ll do well for Scotland.
Likewise for the cohesion fund, the Scots would put in a large bid claiming part of the UK allocation. The new UK would fight back, contending that for domestic political reasons Scotland had previously been unduly favoured.
That shows a real ignorance of how the cohesion fund works and an ignorance of the changes coming from 2013 onwards.  In fact, it suggests that the author hasn’t even bothered to look up the web page to see what the cohesion fund is.
Scotland would nominate a European Commissioner and a phony job would be created for the appointee.
Madame’s bloomers are showing!  As a Member State, Scotland will have the same right of representation in the Commission as every other Member State.
It would allege that it would be under-represented in the staffing of the institutions and would ask for a special recruitment programme.
 I would doubt that – Scots are quite well represented in the staffing of the institutions.
Scots Gaelic, alongside Irish Gaelic, would become an official but never a working language.
Actually, Irish is an “official and working language”.  Whether Scotland would press for Gaelic to be added to the list, or Lallans or Doric or Dundonian or Norn or any of the other languages of Scotland to enjoy that status is questionable, given that nearly all of our current MEPs and, one would hope, future MEPs are capable of conversing easily in the official and working language that most of our nation converses in most of the time – English.  It would be lovely to have all of our native leids as official and working languages but I don’t think we’ll be pressing for any of them (Norn least of all).
Beside all the problems of separating Scotland from the UK - the monarchy, the currency, the armed services, opposition to a nuclear weapons base and so on - EU involvement would be a side issue.
Problems?  They’re not problems; they’re just things that have to be worked out.  Oh, and the Queen is Queen of quite a few countries – even Canada never removed her from her post when it became independent in 1982.  Far from being a side issue, though, EU involvement will be right at the heart of the debate, a turning point upon which we decide which direction we want our nation to head in.
But it would irritatingly divert the EU from the other huge problems it has to grapple with. It would not be an easy ride, you have been warned.
Little old Scotland would divert the EU?  I’d like to be vain enough to think that Scottish independence is dominating the conversation in the Brussels steamie but I’m fairly sure that the interest will be understated and the enduring pragmatism of the EU will take it all in its stride just as it did when it found a way to accommodate the new state after German unification in 1990 when there were rapid negotiations to ensure that the five Lander joining the EU (the old East Germany) were smoothed into the EU in the last three months of 1990 without much fuss.

Besides which, with Croatia joining next year, Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Iceland and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia all lined up to join, and with Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina hoving into view as potential candidate countries, the EU is expanding.  Who seriously thinks that Scotland would have any trouble from any other EU Member State?

Scotland is a nation with our own laws already in conformity with the acquis communautaire, a nation that fits all the criteria of EU membership (mainly as a result of our current membership) and would be welcomed with open arms if we had been in the position of having to apply.  Scotland, like the rump UK, will be a successor state to the current UK, though, and we’ll have to take on the responsibilities and rights that the UK has under international treaties so we’ll be a Member State as of independence day.  If we want to leave the EU we’ll have to invoke the Lisbon Treaty and negotiate our way out.

Monday, 27 August 2012

A Cardinal's equality

You may have read about the letter from Cardinal O'Brien concerning equal marriage which was to be read out to congregations across Scotland yesterday.  I was struck by the beginning of the letter where he says
In all things, we as Catholics look to Jesus Christ as our model and teacher.   When asked about marriage He gave a profound and rich reply: “Have you not read that the Creator, from the beginning, ‘made them male and female’, and said: ‘This is why a man must leave father and mother and cling to his wife and the two become one body’.”   (Matthew, 19: 4-5)
That's not what I remembered this part of Matthew 19 to be about and, indeed, it isn't.  The clue is in Matthew 19:3 and 19:6 -
3 Some Pharisees approached him, and to put him to the test they said, 'Is it against the Law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?'
4 He answered, 'Have you not read that the Creator from the beginning made them male and female
5 and that he said: This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and the two become one flesh?
6 They are no longer two, therefore, but one flesh. So then, what God has united, human beings must not divide.'
The passage isn't about marriage but about divorce - I assume that there is no passage in the bible which speaks against equal marriage or that passage would have been used instead of this one.  For clarity's sake, the discussion about divorce ends this way:
7 They said to him, 'Then why did Moses command that a writ of dismissal should be given in cases of divorce?'
8 He said to them, 'It was because you were so hard-hearted, that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but it was not like this from the beginning.
9 Now I say this to you: anyone who divorces his wife -- I am not speaking of an illicit marriage -- and marries another, is guilty of adultery.'
10 The disciples said to him, 'If that is how things are between husband and wife, it is advisable not to marry.'
11 But he replied, 'It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted.
12 There are eunuchs born so from their mother's womb, there are eunuchs made so by human agency and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.'
Anyone and everyone is entitled to an opinion in this national debate, the Cardinal and his bishops no less so, but I'd hope that they led their flocks with truth and integrity at the heart of their case.  I'd hope, too, that priests across the country have raised the matter of the inaccuracy because, much as I would like to think it was an honest mistake, I can't quite believe that Cardinal O'Brien didn't know the verses before and after the ones he chose.  The words of Pope Benedict XVI about falsity should be relevant for any devout Roman Catholic considering this and it is be hoped that Cardinal O'Brien will reconsider this matter and issue a clarification.  I found it sad to write this but sadder still that the church should be disingenuous.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Asking the Question

So, here's a question;
Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?
and here's a statement;
Scotland should become an independent state

Interestingly, the statement was written by a panel of 'experts' who were asked to come up with a question.  I'm not quite sure what it is that qualifies someone to be an expert on writing referendum questions but these three men (strange that no female expert could be found) locked themselves away in an ivory tower to create a fair and balanced question and created a statement that is not fair and not balanced.  The bias, strangely, is in favour of a yes vote which, given the position of the commissioners of this endeavour, seems a bit of a boo-boo.

You see, to be faced with a ballot paper that asks the question and seeks an answer invites you to give the answer you actually believe in while the declarative sentence insists that Scotland should become an independent state and then asks you to agree or disagree is a powerful persuasive message in favour of agreement.  It seeks conformity because saying "I do not agree" with your statement is more aggressive than saying "no" to a question that's been asked; it's a form of authority pressure where the authority is saying 'this is right' and asking whether you agree.  Two of the three men on this panel are or were academics, surely they could have sought the advice of a psychologist?  Such a psychologist might have pointed them in the direction of Milgram or even Asch to help explain how societal pressures affect choices.

If winning the referendum was the only thing that mattered, I'd say we should grab the opportunity offered by this question, slap it on the ballot paper and take this advantage to add to the other advantages we've got.  Winning isn't the only thing, though, if we want to build a nation on a sound foundation it must be done on the basis of an informed decision which the Scottish people have taken with clear mind and without undue pressure rather than on artifice and deceit.

The question which is a question should be used and not the statement masquerading as a question which would send people unfairly in one direction.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Speaking of the Brown Union

Thanks to the generosity of Kenny Farquharson we have the notes that Gordon Brown spoke from when he gave his Donald Dewar lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  One thing struck me, though, when I saw the coverage of Brown jokingabout how he really shouldn’t comment on economics; as he laughed about his economic record I realised he hadn’t apologised.

He hasn’t apologised for his role in creating the current economic meltdown, for all the years in government when he prioritised the grasping self-interest of the one square mile of the City of London above the other 94,525 square miles of the UK.  He hasn’t apologised for some of the strange and apparently imprudentdecisions he made as Chancellor.  He hasn’t apologised for years of relaxing rules on borrowing in order to keep credit easy and ‘end boom and bust’; years of boasting about ‘the longest period of sustained growth in a generation’ – that debt that’s now hurting businesses and individuals all over the place.  He hasn’t apologised for the movement of tax from direct to indirect or the creation of loopholes and maintenance of get-outs that have allowed enormous corporations to avoid UK taxation.  He hasn’t apologised for dumping the stinking, parasitic corpse of PFI/PPP on the slender shoulders of our public services.  He hasn’t apologised for the yawning gap between rich and poor that he created during his time in government.  He has never apologised for the 75p increase he said was enough for pensioners; for the cuts to invalidity and incapacity benefits; or for the taxing of pension funds.  He’s never apologised for clawing back cash from Scots who qualified for free personal care.  He’s never apologised for using anti-terror legislation to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks while UK banks (including RBS) were being bailed out by other governments, especially the US Government.  He’s never apologised for his incompetent stewardship of government funds which led to Liam Byrne leaving the infamous “there’s no money left” letter.  Worse, he’s never admitted that he might not have been right, not on anything.  The man who ‘saved the world’ has never shown humility; like Norman Lamont he prefers to channel Piaf.  Instead of saying sorry he thought it suitable subject matter for a weak joke in an attempt at self-deprecation which was as convincing as the joker smiles some misguided aide persuaded him to adopt while in office.

Let’s be fair, though, let’s look at what else he had to say for himself (or, at least, the notes he has now shared) about the constitutional debate.  I’m picking out the bits I find interesting:
“ if we are to do justice to the seriousness of the issues at stake, the debate:
- must start from first principles;
- be rooted in what really matters to us as Scots;
- focus on the future not the past
- and ask whether in a more interdependent world where barriers are being dismantled everywhere, what new barriers, if any, make sense.”
Interestingly, immediately after saying that the debate should focus on the future and not the past, he launched into a long section on the past:
“Of course the British Union was forged and grew when Scotland and England had shared religious objectives, when they sought to share the benefits of empire, and when they had shared interests in European wars.”
Actually, it was formed as a result of losses incurred in the Darien project, poor harvests in Scotland, an English trade blockade on Scots interests overseas, the avarice of some Scots and the political ambitions of a select few.  The religions in Scotland and England were not aligned and the Kirk remained separate from the C of E after union.  The monarchy argument?  Well, the English Act of Succession was matched in religious terms by the Scottish Act of Security.  I would have thought that a son of the manse would know such things.

As to seeking to share the benefits of empire, Scots were perhaps seeking to avoid trade barriers but I’m sure that the English traders were quite happy to keep all of the benefits of empire they could.  The shared interests in European wars were shared under the union of the crowns rather than the creation of the UK and European wars came to the UK mainland in the half century following union – brought by religious divisions as much as anything else. 

“I want to suggest that what we brought to the Union - Scottish ideas of justice and community - when, side by side with traditional English ideas of ordered liberty and individualism, created a British political social and economic settlement which is unique to multinational arrangements anywhere in the world.”
The argument here, leaving aside the question of whether it is correct, would appear to be that unique is a suitable argument for eternal preservation.  Brown offers no underpinning for such a claim nor any further elucidation of it.  This isn’t an argument that the UK is a fully functioning and fit for purpose construct, just an observation that no-one else in the world thought it worth copying.

“Indeed irrespective of whether you are Scottish, Welsh or English or Northern Irish you will have the same basic insurance against unemployment disability and old age.”
Is that really true?  Is it not the case that those who live in the areas most favoured by government spending have a greater insurance against unemployment?  Similarly, is there a higher disability payment to those who live in rural areas and have commensurately higher costs?  Does the pensioners’ heating allowance buy the same warmth in the far north of Scotland as it does in the Central Belt?  There are disparities within the constituent nations of the UK, never mind across the whole area.

“Because we have established common economic rights as well as social rights, one part of the UK will in the event of an economic or social disaster have the right to help from the other parts and indeed when the Scottish banks failed the whole of Britain did not question the need to help.”
I’m tempted to say “don’t worry, we’ll still help England out” but let’s challenge the basis of the comment – it’s not true, there is no such right and areas have been left facing their economic or social disaster without central government help many times in the past.  There’s a temptation to hark back to the destruction of communities in mining areas during the Thatcher government or to the closure of Ravenscraig but the same happened under Labour too.  Steel mills in northern England closed under Labour and the ‘help’ offered was retraining for work in call centres.  It’s only political imperative that has brought help from UK Governments since 1979 and when they thought they didn’t need the votes they didn’t provide the help.

The banks?  The US Government ploughed more into Scottish banks than the UK Government – should we just become a US state? 

“Pooling and sharing our resources - through a national insurance and taxation system - has made possible a National Health Service where, while we have distinctive forms of local management, the risks of expensive health care are pooled and shared across the UK.”
That’s simply not true – if I fell ill in England and got treated in England the Scottish NHS (Lothian) would be billed for my treatment just as if I fell ill in France (slightly different system in France but the principle of your home NHS being billed is the same).
“we can point to all our Scottish Olympic medals - where it is clear from the views of the athletes themselves that a British team (pooling and sharing resources and expertise) was the best platform upon which Scotland's (and every nation’s and region’s) success was built.”
No athlete expressed a view that being British was better than an experience in a Scottish team would be.  Many, quite rightly, expressed their gratitude to the Team GB component organisations who worked so hard to bring them all to a physical peak at the right time but none of them said it was the only way to do it.  How can Brown possibly say that this was the best platform upon which to build success?  The other one won’t be tried until 2016 and his glib assertion ignores the fact that many of the athletes owe their success to training facilities and opportunities furth of these shores – Mo Farah with Alberto Salazer in the US, for example, or Andy Murray in Spain – and to their own damned hard work.

“ inequalities between nations in Europe are so deep that the typical citizen of the richest state Luxembourg has six times the income of the poorest, Bulgaria.”
Bit of a cheek considering he is responsible for widening the wealth gap inside the UK!

“I mention all these federal and multinational states to show the uniqueness of what has been achieved in Britain. Inequalities between Scotland and England have narrowed to the point that the typical Scottish citizen has an income of over 20,000 a year just like the English citizen and Scottish GDP per head is 96 per cent of English GDP per head.”
Three centuries and the achievement is such that we should gasp in awe at 96% of English GDP (ignoring all the skewing like profits being declared in London that were earned all over the UK – including the whisky industry – or, indeed, the fact that there are large inequalities in Scotland and in England between different communities).  Nor does this strange argument indicate whether he thinks we’ve got adequate standards of living, adequate protection against child poverty, or why he thinks that income parity is an argument for continued union.

“I suggest that if through some version of independence we break this apart and set nationally or regionally varied minimum pay rates, nationally varied corporation tax rates and nationally varied social security rates we will start a race to the bottom under which the good provider in one area would be undercut by the bad and the bad would be undercut by the worst.”
Might I ask why?  Without reason or rationale, this bland assertion was made as if it were a self-evident truth which cannot be challenged.

“Because the whole purpose of the break up would be to end the pooling and sharing of resources and legislate for different social and economic rights, the equal rights of citizenship we have built from values we hold in common would come to an end. If we mean by 'social union' shared social rights of citizenship, there could be no 'social union' after an economic break-up.”
How narrow a vision he has.  If this is the case for the union made by one of Labour’s vaunted intellectuals the debate is going to be terribly one-sided in the next couple of years.