Category Archives: Europe

Switzerland and Brexit

All eyes have rightly focussed on the recent Brexit vote and what it will mean in practice, in particular for the UK’s continued membership of the Single Market.  The key to this is most likely to be the free movement of people. Since its inception in the 1950s, the free movement of people has been one of the cornerstones of the Single Market, and its predecessor, the Common Market.

What is important to note is that a country does not have to be a member of the EU to be in the Single Market. You just have to sign up to the four key conditions: the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. You also have to pay a fee. This is the case with both Iceland and Norway, who are full members of the Single Market.

Switzerland is slightly different, in that it is not a full member of the Single Market, but has full access to specific sectors, but not the financial sector for example. Switzerland’s relationship with the EU is covered by a series of Bilateral Agreements and these include the free movement of people. However in February 2014, the Swiss voted in a referendum, by 50.3% to impose quotas on migration from the EU. The referendum gave the Swiss government three years to meet this requirement. That is until February 9th, 2017. For this to happen a new agreement with the EU needs to be reached very soon, for Switzerland to have the time to pass the necessary legal changes in time to meet this February 2017 deadline.

This is why what happens with Switzerland is potentially crucial to the UK’s hopes of remaining in the Single Market without the free movement of people. The omens are not good.  After two and a half years of negotiations no meeting of minds, let alone a new agreement had been reached. The most that might have been agreed with Switzerland would have been something similar to the emergency brake on immigration, that David Cameron managed to negotiate with the EU. However after the Brexit vote that is no longer on offer. And having been rejected by the UK, it is very unlikely that the EU would be interested in offering a similar deal to Switzerland.

Switzerland is already suffering the consequences of the 2014 vote, as it is no longer part of the Erasmus programme, and the EU has stalled on any further bilateral agreements. No new deal is in the pipeline and the reality is that without a new deal, all the Bilateral Agreements will come to a shuddering end in February 2017. This is due to the inclusion of a so called guillotine clause. If any part of the agreements is abrogated, the whole thing ends.

Switzerland is beginning to seriously run out of time. The Brexit vote ended the emergency break option. This leaves Switzerland between a rock and a hard place. Either it tries to hold another referendum, perhaps on keeping the Bilateral Agreements, including the free movement of people, or it prepares for life outwith the Single Market.

The Swiss experience does not offer much hope for those Leavers who assumed that the UK could get its cake and eat it. If there is to be a deal on ending or limiting the free movement of people it will now have to be offered to both Switzerland and the UK. As the previous offer – an emergency brake – has been rejected by the UK, it is not clear that there will be much stomach in the other 27 member states for any further concessions. Any limit to this foundational principle effectively ends the EU. As any offer would have to applicable to the other 27 member states.

The blindness of the Leave campaign as to what was happening in Switzerland is yet another example of how irresponsible the whole campaign was. Unfortunately it is the rest of us who will have to suffer the consequences. Unless you live in Scotland, where independence offers a way out of this mess.

 

 

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Why I will vote to remain in the EU

The EU referendum is almost upon us, and a pretty depressing affair it has been. It has proved difficult to get enthused as the whole referendum is primarily a nasty cock fight among the Tories. However the EU is important and my local Green party branch in Dundee is asking members their views on how they will vote. I submitted the following.

I will be voting to remain in the EU as the EU has been and continues to be the main promoter of peace and prosperity in Europe. From the beginning the key aim of the EU is to bring the countries and the peoples of Europe together, both to increase prosperity and to make war among EU members unthinkable. The way to bring countries and people together continues to be the Common Market, or Single Market as it is now known. This market covers goods, services, money and of course the free movement of people. The common market continues to work well, to the benefit of the overwhelming majority of people in the EU. Current economic woes have nothing to do with the common market. They are rather, due to the misguided, neoliberal austerity policies pursued by the member states. I find it hard to believe that George Osborne and David Cameron are really closet socialists and are only pursuing austerity under orders from Brussels.
The EU is primarily a successful common market. It is beginning to develop common policies in some other areas. The environment for example, which I would hope that all Greens would support. Only trans-national action has any hope of success in protecting the environment and countering climate change.
The EU remains in essence a community of independent countries. As such it is about as democratic a body as could be. Some of its procedures could be more transparent, but the decision making process is democratic. The Commission, so disliked by many, has no powers of decision making. The Commissioners do not get to vote on proposals. Decisions in the EU are taken jointly by the democratically elected European Parliament and the ministers of the democratically elected governments of the member states. I am not sure how this can be made more democratic.
To the extent that we are opposed to some of the current policies and actions within the EU – on refugees for example, this is not due to some inherent defect of the EU. Rather it is the result of the majority of voters across the EU democratically electing some very right wing and nasty governments. As the UK did just over a year ago. The fault for this, if we are to blame anyone, is the combined forces of the progressive left. We have failed conspicuously to convince our fellow citizens, whether in the UK or in the other 27 member states, to elect progressive parties. Blaming the EU for our failures is a distraction from the urgent need to campaign across the EU for progressive policies.

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Is Spain now ungovernable?

The recent general election has brought out into the open in spectacular fashion the multiple fissures that beset Spain. These fissures run deep and generate much heat and passion. So much that it is almost impossible to envisage a stable government emerging from the election. There were no real winners, but lots of losers.

In conventional left and right terms the outcome is pretty much a draw. The two right wing parties – the conservatives (PP) and Citizens (Cs) won 163 seats, while the three left parties – the socialists (PSOE), the new radical alternative party Podemos and United Left (IU), won 161 seats. IU won only two seats, so will not have a great deal of influence in the post election negotiations. As 176 MPs are needed for an overall majority, neither grouping could form a government on their own.

All the other 27 seats were won by parties that are either in favour of independence from Spain, or in favour of greater regional powers within Spain. Though all of these parties are either right of centre or left of centre, their prime political objective is either independence or a radical restructuring of the Spanish state. Herein lies the problem for the other Spanish wide parties.

None of the Spanish parties are in any way in favour of independence for either Catalunya or the Basque country. In fact only Podemos is in favour of a radical restructuring of Spain to accommodate the national aspirations of Catalunya and the Basque country. The key here is the right of self-determination, or in practical terms, the right to hold a binding referendum on independence. Podemos is in favour of changing the constitution to allow this, though most of Podemos voters would then vote against independence. However both the conservative and the socialists have repeatedly vowed to never allow a referendum to be held anywhere. They are not just against independence, but against the right of self-determination. They are viscerally opposed to all nationalism, other than the Spanish variety.

It is therefore hard to see how any stable coalition could be formed that included some of the Basque or Catalan nationalists. Neither the PP nor PSOE are likely to be willing to give enough on the constitution and a referendum to meet even the most minimum demands from the nationalists. A further complication is that in Catalunya the various pro-independence parties now control the Catalan parliament and government, and they are it seems no longer much in favour of a referendum. They are working to their own timetable towards a declaration of independence, on the grounds that Madrid will never allow a referendum.

A minority government of PSOE, Podemos and IU is theoretically possible, with the passive support of the nationalists. The difficulty here is that Podemos would in all probability insist on making a reform of the constitution, including electoral reform, a precondition for any coalition. So far there is nothing to indicate that the socialists are prepared to even contemplate such a possibility.

It must be pointed out here that no reform of the constitution is possible in the next legislature as the PP have enough MPs to ensure that not reform can happen without their approval. A two thirds majority is needed for a change to the constitution. What a PSOE/Podemos government could do though is jointly commit to a radical restructuring, work out the details and then put it to the voters in another election in two years time, and hope for a large enough majority to get the changes through parliament. Not at all sure that the socialist would be up for this.

The only feasible option for a stable coalition is a Grand Coalition on the German style. PP and PSOE together have the votes to guarantee stability. They also have much in common policy wise. Especially on their opposition to any accommodation with the nationalists. PSOE is in theory a bit more open to changes to the constitution, but in practice they are as committed to a united and permanent Spain as the conservatives. Such a coalition would probably adopt a slightly less aggressive austerity programme. It might be enough to keep the socialists happy at any rate.

However, however, tantalising though this might appear to the PSOE leadership, to would be the most risky option for the party. They are already under great electoral threat from Podemos  to their left, and any kind of capitulation to the hated conservatives could be a four year death sentence. Even if the socialists did not enter into a formal coalition, but merely abstained and allowed the conservatives to govern for another four years, this would make little or no difference.

It is very difficult to see a way through this impasse. It must also be very frustrating for Podemos. They have done well, but not quite well enough. There is probably a majority in favour of their anti-austerity programme, but until the constitutional questions are resolved, they will not be in a position to implement them. Either the catalan nationalists give up on independence or the socialists become open to fundamental reform of the constitution. Unless at least one of these political changes happens soon, we are likely to be heading for another general election in March. With little prospect of much change.

The other difficulty for Podemos is that unless the socialists come on board for a new plurinational Spain with a radically reformed constitution, Podemos itself is likely to lose out badly in Catalunya and the Basque country. Podemos is for a new Spain, but what if, as these results show, the overwhelming majority of Spaniards outwith Catalunya and the Bas que country are adamantly opposed to this new Spain? What if the Spanish state is effectively unreformable? Will enough of Podemos voters in Catalunya faced with the unwillingness and inability of Spain to change, in future decide that an independent Catalunya is a far more welcoming prospect?

It could just be that the biggest winner in the long run from these elections turns out to be the Catalan independence movement.

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Greece – between a rock and a hard place?

The recently elected Greek government has won itself some breathing space as a result of last Friday’s agreement with the other members of the Eurozone. Not much of a breathing space, just four months, and in the meantime there are strict conditions attached to the extension of the current finance agreement. However an immediate collapse has been averted and the ball is now firmly in the hands of Syriza. As I have previously written, Syriza has a strong case, at least in economic terms. Alas, the key decisions will be taken by politicians and not by economists. The Greek government has to persuade a majority of the other governments of the Eurozone. The omens are not looking too good.

It is worth emphasising here that it is not helpful to describe this as the rest of the Eurozone ignoring or thwarting the wishes of the democratically elected government of Greece.  All the governments in the Eurozone are democratically elected. You and I might not like who has been elected, but we must respect their rights as much as the rights of the Greeks. And for Syriza to achieve its twin objectives – an end to austerity and to remain in the Euro – it needs the agreement of the other Eurozone governments.

An end to austerity and stay in the Eurozone?

The difficulty for Syriza is the twin nature of these objectives.  Most Greeks almost certainly agree with these two objectives, to end the austerity measures in place in Greece, and to stay in the Euro.  However it will be very hard for Greece to get a majority of Eurozone governments to agree to this, other than some cosmetic changes. The reason is that some countries, such as Germany, Austria, Finland and others, are wedded to the virtues of austerity. Austerity is seen as much as a moral issue and has been good for them. So they see no reason why Greece should be let off the hook, as they would probably put it. Other governments, such as Ireland, Spain and Portugal, which have willingly agreed to their own austerity programme, have no interest in supporting an abandonment of austerity for Greece.  They would have a damming political price to pay if austerity was seen to have not been necessary after all.

Syriza has been elected on the promise to end austerity and stay in the Euro.  What if that proves to be impossible? This is the great unknown at the moment. If an agreement, acceptable to Syriza is unforthcoming, then the people of Greece will have to choose between maintaining austerity or leaving the Euro. While many non Greeks, on both the right and the left, would love Greece to exit the Euro, it is not at all clear that most Greeks agree. So far opinion polls have consistently shown a majority in favour of remaining in the Eurozone. Though some members of Syriza are for a Euro exit, the majority are not and Syriza’s election platform was to stay in the Euro. So if push comes to shove, and the people of Greece have to choose, it is quite possible that they will choose to stay in the Euro and just put up with the austerity. In this respect it is worth reminding ourselves that Syriza only won 36% of the votes in the recent election.

Can austerity be ended anyway?

The other difficulty for Syriza and for all Greeks is that ending austerity may not be achievable anyway. At least not in the short and medium term. If there is no agreement with its partners, and Greece does decide to leave the Euro, or is somehow forced out, the options are none too good. Leaving the Euro would almost certainly mean a default, at least in practice. While this would at a stroke remove the debt overhang, the country would for some time have no access to borrowing. The government does run a budget surplus, so would be able to pay its way in Greece. However the big downside would be the creation of a replacement for the Euro. Whatever this is, New Drachma?, it would be worth very little. While this would help Greek exporters, it would punish all those who rely on imports. And here is the rub for Greece – its imports are probably more important than its exports. Greece has not much of a manufacturing base and just about all of its energy needs are imported. All of which have to be paid for in Euros or dollars. Which would become terribly expensive for most Greeks. Even the much vaunted tourism depends to some extent on imports – energy, transport etc.

This can of course change. As some imported goods become too expensive for most people, local substitutes will be found. Alas this will take some time. In the short and medium term, leaving the Euro and the massive devaluation that this implies, offers little, if any, gain for most Greeks.

The outcomes facing Greece are not good. The best outcome would be for the other Eurozone countries to admit the error of their ways and change tack on austerity, not just for Greece for all of the Eurozone. All the other outcomes just prolong the agony and suffering of lots and lots of Greeks. As someone once said, a week is a long time in politics, so let us hope that four months is long enough for something good to turn up.

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Is the EU about to implode?

Things are not looking good for the EU at the moment. The recent election of Syriza as the new government of Greece has unleashed some rather disturbing passions. All in response to their reasonable request for a new approach to the debt burdens hanging over many EU states. Unfortunately we are witnessing yet another round of the blame game, this time played out by the member states. As ever Paul Mason in his blog gets succinctly to the heart of the matter – a clash of wills between Germany and Greece. You can read his post here.

As Paul himself recognizes this is all very silly, but alas, potentially very dangerous. The real heart of the matter is how to clear up the mess created by the financial crisis of 2008/08.  A crisis that was not brought about by irresponsible governments. A crisis that was created by individuals and private businesses across Europe. Michael Pettis, an economist at Beijing University has publishes an excellent and detailed overview of this crisis and how it has still to be resolved.  It is a longish piece, see here, but well worth the effort. If Pettis’ article is too daunting, Matthew Klein from FT Alphaville has penned a neat summary of some of the key points. You can read Klein’s piece here.

Pettis concentrates on the eurozone, though it is worth bearing in mind that the crisis started in non euro countries as well, including the UK. Though it is fair to say that the crisis has affected the eurozone more damagingly than elsewhere. Pettis’ analysis is clear that as he puts it, “the euro crisis is a crisis of Europe, not of European countries.”  He calls upon some detailed historical evidence to justify this claim. He goes as far back as 1871 to demonstrate how even Germany has in the past had to suffer similar damaging consequences from too high and too sudden capital inflows.

As many others have regularly pointed out this is not a morality play. And it should most definitely not be presented as plucky little Greece versus nasty Germany. It is worth reminding ourselves that a majority of Greeks have been prepared to vote for parties committed to maintaining the current crippling austerity measures. Even with Syriza’s victory, they and the other anti austerity parties did not win over half the votes. So some Greeks, perhaps a majority, seem to be quite happy to see their fellow citizens continue to suffer. Equally not all Germans are to blame for the current austerity fetish which dominates the thinking of just about all governments in the EU. We should not need to be reminded that German workers have had to endure stagnant wages for over a decade.

The reality is that some people and some businesses, in particular the banking and finance sector, acted very, very irresponsibly. This happened across Europe. For every irresponsible Greek borrower, there was an equally irresponsible German banker. Quite why the workers of Greece or Germany should have to pay the price of this irresponsibility is a bit of a mystery.

The failure to resolve this financial crisis is what has caused the continuing economic mess across Europe. Pettis is very incisive on this point, when he writes, “The financial crisis in Europe, like all financial crises, is ultimately a struggle about how the costs of the adjustment will be allocated, either to workers and middle class savers or to bankers, owners of real and financial assets, and the business elite.” Well there doesn’t seem to have been much of a struggle here. All, and it is worth emphasizing this, all EU governments signed up for the current never ending austerity measures, this effectively putting all the costs onto workers and middle class savers.

At  least up to now, for with the emergence of Syriza and an explicitly anti-austerity government in Greece, there may actually be a struggle as to who should bear the costs of resolving the crisis. We can see why the governments of Germany and other right wing governments in the EU want to maintain the current approach. It benefits their key supporters – bankers, owners of real and financial assets and the business elite, to use the words of Pettis. This also explains why they are so alarmed at the arrival of Syriza.

What this does not explain is why have all the traditional mainstream left parties across Europe also signed up for this austerity nonsense? For this seems to me to remain the key political question. Just think of the roll call of once proud and once powerful parties of the left who now are fully signed up with their right wing counterparts – Labour in the UK, the SPD in Germany, PSOE in Spain, PS in France and of course PASOK in Greece.

Why did they all do it? What led all these self defining parties of the left and of working people, to become willing cheerleaders for neo-liberalism and never ending austerity? The other key, as yet unanswered question, is why has it taken so long for left critics of austerity to come together and form electoral alliances on an alternative to austerity? Perhaps the rise of Podemos and the victory of Syriza will encourage this process in other European countries.

The danger in all this is that the current crisis descends into a right-wing, nationalist extremism. There are no shortage of parties on the right who are already advocating this as a way forward. The growth in popularity of parties such as UKIP, the Front National and other ultra right wing groups should be a wake up call for the left. For all the faults of the EU, its break-up is most unlikely to usher in any kind of paradise for working people. More than ever we need to be building alliances across the EU to bring an end to austerity. We need to do all we can to prevent this crisis descending into a Germany versus Greece contest and instead work to bring working people across Europe together to hold rapacious bankers and business to account.

 

 

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More Danish-Norwegian lessons for Scotland

David Cameron has just made another of his fleeting visits to Scotland to lecture us on the benefits of staying in the UK. Benefits which are so vague as to be almost invisible. He is however rather good on extolling the past. He tries to wax lyrical about how the UK is the greatest and most successful union in history. Clearly Mr Cameron did not learn much history at school or at university. For there has been at least one other long lasting and successful union. The union between Denmark and Norway. This particular union lasted for 434 years. A pretty long time by anyone’s standards. It was on the whole a peaceful and stable union. At least compared to the bloody imperial aggression of the UK. The Danish-Norwegian union ended in 1814.

The Norwegians wanted the end of the union with Denmark to lead to independence, and to this end they developed their own constituion. Today, 17th May is Constitution Day in Norway. Not just any constitution day, but the 200th anniversary of the proclamation of Norway’s constitution. What is most interesting from our perspective in Scotland and the rest of the UK is that to celebrate this historic 200th anniversary, the Norwegians invited Mogens Lykketoft, the current speaker of the Danish parliament, to come to Oslo and give a speech in the Norwegian Parliament. Only the second non Norwegian to be so invited. The other was Winston Churchill.

Mr Lykketoft’s speech is a wonderful expression of how the relations between two countries that were once united can improve and blossom with the independence of both. Moridura has kindly provided a translation of the speech, which you can read in full here.  I just want to pick out a couple of points from this speech which I think are most relevant to us, not just in Scotland, but to our friends in the rest of the UK.

  • Today – 200 years after our divorce – Danes and Norwegians have at least just as much in common as we did back then when we were a common realm. Our mutual relationship is far more equal. (Note that Mr Lykketoft does not shy away from using the divorce word)
  • We hold no mutual mistrust and we make it a premise that the people of the sister country think, believe and act as we do ourselves. This immediate understanding, a stronger case of which is unlikely to be found between other nations in the world….
  • (this immediate understanding) is based on
  1. that we so easily understand each other’s speech,
  2. that we are deeply shaped by the common history and  culture,
  3. that we socially, economically and politically has so much in common and
  4. that we trade a lot more between ourselves than with the rest of the world.

Mr Lykketoft in his speech on behalf of the Danish people to the people of Norway shows all of us the way forward. There is little, if anything, that unites the people of Denmark and Norway that does not also apply to the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK. Yet as Mr Lykketoft makes abundantly clear, this relationship has prospered with independence and is now a more equal one. Let us hope that when Scotland does become independent, we do not have to wait 200 years for the speaker of the Westminster parliament to come to Edinburgh and say to all of us: Congratulations Scotland!

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Norwegian Lessons for Scotland?

20014 is quite a year for anniversaries. One that is likely to pass more or less unnoticed in the UK is the 200th anniversary of Norway’s constitution. Not of course in Norway itself, where there are various exhibitions on this momentous event. The anniversary is later this month – 17th May to be precise. What is of particular significance about this constitution of 1814 is that it was meant to be the constitution for an independent Norway. Independence alas, only came briefly for Norway in 1814. The country’s desire for independence was swiftly crushed by the Great Powers of the day. Any lessons for Scotland in 2014?

The Great Powers tend to oppose independence movements

This is one of the main lessons for Scotland today. The hostility shown by the larger powers to the possibility of Scottish independence is par for the course. In 1814 it was Norway which faced the force of this hostility. At the time Norway was part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Unluckily for Norway, Denmark had ended up on the losing side of the bitter Napoleonic wars. The future of the Kingdom was decided by the victorious sides in that war in a deal known as the Treaty of Kiel. As part of this deal, Norway was to be given to Sweden, in part to punish Denmark, and in part to compensate Sweden, which had lost Finland to Russia during the wars. See how principled the great powers were! The ownership of whole nations could be exchanged at the drop of a hat, without as much as a by your leave. Has much changed?

The Norwegians were not much impressed by the way their country was being treated and decided to go it alone and create their own, independent Kingdom. A constituent assembly was elected which drew up the famous constitution. All, alas to no avail. The right to self determination was not much in vogue in those days. The great powers acted in concert to thwart Noway’s independence. Sweden invaded, winning a short war and Norway became effectively part of Sweden. Our own UK was unsurprisingly one of the strongest opponents of Norwegian independence. Which may partly explain why there will be little if any coverage in the UK of this particular 200th anniversary.

The constitution survived

Another important lesson from Norway was that though it was denied independence it was able to secure self government. The Union with Sweden was a personal union with the King of Sweden and the new Norwegian constitution became the basis for government in Norway. This was of crucial importance in the years to come. Norway developed its own national institutions and by the end of the century the country was ready to take the next step.  The years of running their own government gave Norwegians the confidence to campaign for full independence. This came in 1905 after a bitter dispute with Sweden over international representation.

This is of course of particular relevance for Scotland. We now have our own parliament and our own government which is responsible for most of the decisions which determine our lives. What we need is not just our own international voice, but control over our economy. With our own government, the next step to full independence is not such a large step as it would have been 20, 30 or more years ago.

The international consensus can change

When Norway did finally become an independent country in 1905, it did so with the support of the UK. The same UK which opposed Norwegian independence in 1814 had by 1905 become one of the most vociferous supporters of Norway. The UK had not suddenly become converted to the right of self determination, but the international situation had changed. Germany was now the rising European power and Germany had very good relations with Sweden. By 1905 the UK, fearful that in any war Germany might use Norway’s ports, as did happen in the 2nd World War, was predisposed to welcome Norwegian independence as a counterpoise to German influence over Sweden.

By 1905 of course the demand for independence came from not just from the elites, but from most Norwegians. The Norwegian government proposed independence and this was massively supported by the people in a referendum. It will be similar for Scotland in 2014.  Independence has been proposed by the Scottish government and the final decision will be up to us, the people who live in Scotland. In September’s referendum we get the opportunity to peacefully vote for independence.

Scottish independence will come about through a negotiated and legal referendum. As such a Yes vote will significantly change the international situation. Countries that currently oppose Scottish independence will be faced with a new reality, one they can do little about. While those countries that at present remain neutral, for fear of intervening in the internal affairs of the UK, will be free to express their support for our independence. Norway has shown that independence can come, that it can come peacefully and without any difficulties. Norway also shows that independence can lead to a more prosperous and fairer future. Happy Constitution Day to all Norwegians on 17th May. May Scotland soon join you as another independent country!

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Only Scotland can save the West!

George Roberston, or Lord Roberston as he now is, has made some rather startling claims for Scotland. In his latest speech in the USA he asserted that Scottish independence would be cataclysmic for the west. Not just for Scotland mind you, but for all of the west. I guess the Americans and Canadians must be terrified wrecks by now. Whoever knew that poor, wee Scotland has such enormous power throughout the world! Should we all be immensely proud of our new found status, or should the men in white suits be called for the noble Lord?

It is hard to take Lord Robertson’s rather intemperate and wild assertions in anything other than jest. Though Thomas Docherty, the Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife was called upon to do his duty and try and make some sense out of the noble Lord’s utterances. Thomas Docherty was on Radio Scotland this lunchtime. Challenged by John Beattie to come up with some concrete examples of what this cataclysm meant, the best poor Thomas Docherty could come up with was 1. Failure of the west’s mission in Afghanistan; 2. Russian planes intruding into Scottish airspace; and 3. Possible problem in joining NATO. Now, even with the best will in the world it is very hard to see how any of the above could ever merit the word cataclysmic.

It is worth noting that the second example only seems to affect Scotland. Even then Mr Docherty was merely claiming that with independence there might be a gap of a few years in which Scotland did not have enough airplanes of its own to track and challenge Russian intruders. While this is probably correct, it is really hard to make this into a cataclysmic event for the west. Russian planes have been flying around Scottish and UK airspace for ages, without anything drastic happening. I doubt if the Russians are planning to invade and occupy part of Scotland, and as Mr Docherty made no such suggestion I am at a loss as to what significance this claim amounts to.

The claim about Afghanistan is if anything even more ridiculous. Mr Docherty laxed lyrical about the recent Presidential election in Afghanistan and claimed this was all due to the willingness of NATO troops to remain in that country long enough to ensure the transition to democracy. Let us leave aside that the claim that Afghanistan is now a stable and peaceful democracy is perhaps a bit overblown. The essence of Mr Docherty’s assertion was that the SNP MPs at Westminster had voted in 2012, to bring the troops home immediately, and that this would have put the whole Afghanistan mission at risk.  Now it is just possible that if the UK had ended its commitment in 2012 that might have put the mission at risk. However it is an enormous stretch to claim that if the relatively few numbers of Scottish troops had been recalled in 2012 that would have been sufficient on its own to have risked the whole mission. I realize Scottish soldiers are very brave, disciplined, tenacious and highly regarded, but come on, to claim that the recall of a small number of Scottish troops would have had this cataclysmic effect on the rest of the NATO troops is just a tad over the top, is it not? After all troops from other countries have also been pulled out from Afghanistan.  Spanish troops left in September 2013. France withdrew its combat troops in November 2012, while the Canadians ended their combat role in 2011. The last of the Canadian training contingent returned last month.  Nothing cataclysmic happened as a result of these troop reductions. I don’t recall either Lord Robertson or Mr Docherty rushing to the airwaves to blast Canada, France or Spain for their dastardly dereliction of duty to the west. Only the prospect of an independent Scotland it seems warrants such condescension.

Mr Docherty’s final attempt was to suggest that Scotland might find it difficult to enter NATO. No real reason was put forward as to why this might happen. It was also a rather inopportune time to be making such unfounded claims.  NATO has just announced that its new Secretary General, a post once held by our august Lord, is to be former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. He will replace the current Secretary General, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. So two small northern European countries can provide the current and next leader of NATO. Note also that neither Norway nor Denmark possess or host nuclear weapons. Yet somehow Scotland might be rejected by this alliance? On the one hand Scottish independence will be cataclysmic for the west and yet at the same time NATO is going to reject us!  Doesn’t make sense to me either. But it is a long time since the No campaign came out with anything that had even a passing ressemblence to sense.

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Ukraine – A couple of observations

The recent  events in Ukraine exemplify in a depressing and bloody way that old adage that a week is a long time in politics. As Ukraine enters into a new and still uncertain phase, only a fool would attempt to predict how things will develop. So I will resist the temptation to comment on the future of Ukraine. However I will venture forth to make a couple of observations about the reactions to these changes in the rest of Europe, including the UK.

Ukraine and EU – joining the club?

The new Ukrainian government has lost no time in announcing its ambition to join the EU. Immediately on her release from jail, former Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko was reported as saying that she is “sure that Ukraine will be a member of the European Union in the near future.” This has been followed up by the new  Interim government which has also signalled that it will push for European integration. It seems that Ukraine might get a warm welcome from the EU. The Polish Foreign Affairs Minister, Radoslaw Sikorksi, has already gone on record to declare that the European Union must make a clear commitment for the future membership of Ukraine.  While the EU’s economics commissioner, Olli Rehn, has commented favourably when he said, “We are at a historical juncture and Europe needs to live up to its historical moment and be able to provide Ukraine with an accession perspective in the medium to long term – if it can meet the conditions of accession.”

But, hey, hang on a minute. Isn’t joining the EU supposed to be extremely difficult, if not impossible? Where, oh where I wonder is our old friend José Manuel Barroso, President of the Commission?  Apparently ready at the drop of a hat to fly over to London to warn us Scots that EU membership is virtually impossible, but seemingly silent in relation to the claims from Ukraine. Or is it only Scotland that will be rejected? Everyone else, including Ukraine, on the other hand will be warmly welcomed. I am a bit confused here. Perhaps Sr Barroso will enlighten us with some more of his pearls of wisdom.

I also note that no-one in the UK media seems to have challenged this assumption on the part of Ukraine that it can join the EU. Even more astonishingly no-one in the media seems to have made the slightest connection with their, and the EU’s warm reaction to recent developments in Ukraine with their apparent rejection of Scotland. Then again, what else could one expect from our betters in the media.

Ukraine and Russia – Better Together?

The Ukraine is clearly in an enormous economic and political mess. There also seems to be a gigantic hole in its finances – it appears that billions of dollars are needed to prevent bankruptcy. Surely this a clear example where one smaller state would be better off by uniting with its much larger and economically stronger neighbour? If the concept of Better Together is to mean anything more than a cover for scaremongering Scots into rejecting independence, then it must surely to goodness apply to the Ukraine and Russia?

Even more so than England and Scotland, Russia and Ukraine share a common history that goes back over a thousand years. Do not the origins of Russia begin in what is now Kiyiv?  Think of all that shared struggle in defeating Napoléon and overcoming Nazism. And given the mess that Ukraine has made of its brief experiment with independence, it clearly is not up to the task on its own. Yet these stubborn Ukrainians seem determined to refuse the kind offer from the Russian bear. Despite their current economic woes they appear to be in no mind to give up their independence.  They do it seems, want to join the EU, so they will not really be independent anyway, will they? Not sure how well that argument will go down in Kiyiv!  And to think that we in Scotland get mocked on a daily basis for daring to aspire to no more and no less independence than Ukrainians want for their country.  Independence in the EU is good enough not just for Ukraine, but for Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, France and even Germany. Yet somehow it is portrayed as either unattainable or bad for Scotland. Truly we must be an exceptional country – the rest of the UK desperately wants us to stay, while the rest of Europe, apparently, unanimously rejects us, while simultaneously welcoming Ukraine. Strange times we live in.

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Why did Swiss vote to restrict immigration?

In Sunday’s referendum voters in Switzerland narrowly voted, 50.3%, in favour of imposing strict quotas for immigration from EU countries. It is not easy to make a great deal of sense about this vote. Previous attempts to restrict immigration, going back to 1968, have all failed. In particular the Swiss have voted four times since 2000 in favour of the free movement of people from the EU. So why the difference this time around? Though the referendum was sponsored by the right wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) the support for the proposal does not seem to fit into the usual right wing, anti-foreigner campaigns to be found elsewhere. To try and understand the vote, here is a bit of context.

Switzerland is and probably always has been a country with a high proportion of migrants. Even before the First World War the percentage of immigrants was around 15%. Today is stands at around 23%, defined as those who do not have a Swiss passport. This compares to the EU average of 10%. However even this apparently high figure may not tell the whole story. Some 35% of Swiss come from a migrant background and given the difficulties and cost of acquiring Swiss citizenship many people born in Switzerland to migrant parents never take out Swiss citizenship. I know this from personal experience. My son-in-law was born in Switzerland to Italian born parents, but he only acquired Swiss citizenship a few years ago, after the birth of his son. This son, my grandson has both an Italian and UK passport, but as yet, no Swiss passport. I am not sure where either of them now appear in the statistics, but it illustrates how difficult it can be to determine just how many foreigners are living in Switzerland. Almost certainly less than 23%.

As regards the opposition to further immigration it is unlikely to have been based on the fear of unemployment and the threat of losing jobs. Switzerland has one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the world. Currently it stands at 3.5%. If anything Switzerland still needs immigrants to power its industries and tourism. It is also noticeable that, with the exception of Ticino, the Kantons with the lowest rate of unemployment, less than 2%, were the ones most in favour of quotas. On the other hand, the Kantons with the highest rate of unemployment, over 5%, voted against the proposal.

Though there has been a steady increase in immigration over the last decades, this has not translated into the kind of social and economic breakdown and violence that has from time to time disfigured countries such as the UK, France, the Netherlands for example. By and large the Swiss have managed to accommodate this large scale immigration quite remarkably well. Another curious aspect of the referendum vote is that, again with the exception of Ticino, on the whole Kantons with above average levels of immigration, Zürich, Geneva etc voted against restrictions. While Kantons such as Uri, Obwalden, Aargau etc with below average levels of immigration, all voted strongly in favour of quotas. An illustration of this voting pattern can be found here.

So what did cause the vote in favour of quotas for migrants from EU countries? One clue may come from the countries of origin of most immigrants. Two countries stand out as sources of immigrants – Italy and Germany. As noted above, the highest votes in favour of restrictions was found in Ticino, the one Italian speaking Kanton in Switzerland. While many Italians will have migrated to other parts of Switzerland, a significant number will have settled in Ticino, just across the border. Add in that Ticino has an above average level of unemployment and we may be discovering one of the factors in the vote. It is also worth noting that Ticino has always voted in favour of restricting immigration. The other fact to note is that apart from Zürich, Zug and Basel Stadt, all German speaking Kantons voted in favour of quotas. The reason for this may be similar to Ticino. The overwhelming majority of immigrants from Germany will have settled in German speaking Kantons. It is also a fact that in recent years the largest influx of migrants have come from Germany. This is a relatively recent, post 2000 experience for Switzerland and one that a lot of German speaking Swiss do not like. German language newspapers have regular articles on this issue. It has not gone unnoticed in Germany. The German online magazine Die Zeit entitled one of their reports on the referendum vote thus: Fuck you, Deutschland. It is a fascinating read which you can find here.

That headline perhaps best sums up the referendum result, though it should be matched by a smaller one reading Fuck you, Italy. Despite the best efforts of the anti EU brigade this was not in essence a vote about the EU. The result was massively influenced by anti German and anti Italian feeling. But, and this is the most fascinating aspect of the vote, the most anti German were Swiss Germans and the most anti Italian were Swiss Italians. For one reason or another a majority of Swiss Germans and Swiss Italians feel more threatened by their fellow language speakers than by other immigrants. This aspect of the result deserves a post on its own, but alas it will have to be by someone with more knowledge of this subject than I.

A few words about what will happen next. The short answer is nothing, as it seems there is a three year period before any changes to the current regulations need to be enacted. What these might be are completely unknown. Even the SVP had no answers to questions about how these quotas might be constructed. Will there be separate quotas for different sectors of the economy? for different regions of the country? Who will determine how high to set the quota? And most important of all, how can any quota system be compatible with the various Bilateral Agreements with the EU? By substantial majorities Swiss voters have approved these Bilateral Agreements, which enable Switzerland to participate in the Single Market. This includes the Free Movement of People. It is almost inconceivable that Switzerland can have one without the other. Perhaps someone should have pointed this out first. In any case I would not be surprised if a new Bilateral Agreement between Switzerland and the EU was to be negotiated, one which again included the Free Movement of People. This will then be put to the voters in another referendum in say two years time. It will be very interesting to see if those who voted to restrict immigration would do so again if it meant leaving the Single Market.

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