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Month: November, 2013

A New Global Strategy for Europe?

Review of the ECFR Briefing ‘Why Europe Needs a New Global Strategy’

In the decade since European leaders approved the first ever European Security Strategy (ESS) in 2003, the world has changed dramatically and a re-think is now essential.   Policies that were once central to the ESS’s success are now holding Europe back.  That is the finding of a new European  Council on Foreign Affairs policy brief, a copy of which can be found here.

The ECFR identified six main changes since 2003.  They are:

1.  EU soft power as a wasting asset: Europe’s commitment to liberal values and human rights often conflicts with public opinion within the country that they seek to influence.  Nowhere is this seem more clearly than in the southern Mediterranean countries, where there is little desire to sign up to European norms.  Elsewhere around the world, the EU faces geopolitical competition from Russia and China.

2.  ‘Effective multilateralism in a neo-Westphalian world’: Rising powers have increasingly used the UN and other institutions as a means to counter Western ambitions.  As a new ‘multipolar environment’ takes hold, the report recommends that Europeans may have to go ‘forum shopping’ when the UN is gridlocked over crises.

3:  The death of liberal interventionism: Austerity has led to cuts in defence spending, while the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in conflict-aversion.  The US is pivoting towards Asia and now expects Europeans to take the lead on conflicts in their own back yard.  The report argues that Europe must develop its own capabilities.

4.  Rising influence of Asia: Over the last ten years, trade links between Europe and Asia have boomed.  China’s influence now reaches far beyond Asia.  EU Member Sates must craft a joint approach towards China.

5.  Economic interests and the failure of convergence: Although the eurozone has restored some credibility since the summer of 2012, it is increasingly clear that economic interests will continue to vary from member state to member state.  Europe is increasingly divided into surplus countries and deficit countries.  The report argues that top-level political direction is needed to make the strategic case for cohesive defence efforts.

6. The necessity of choice: European nations must choose between pooling capabilities and losing them.  Despite the fact that different member states have different economic and security interests, the report concludes that ‘it is past time to get Europeans thinking strategically again’.

The ECFR’s report is thought provoking, and makes valid observations about the the changes in the strategic environment since 2003.  It is no doubt correct to conclude that the European Security Strategy must evolve if it is not to be of any value at all.  However, can the European Union rise to the challenge?  With anti-integrationist sentiment rising in many parts of the European Union, it remains to be seen if the collective action problem can be overcome.

The full report can be found here:  http://ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR90_STRATEGY_BRIEF_AW.pdf

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @AliFionaSmith


Neither the Nationalists Nor Unionists Can Guarantee Scotland’s Future in Europe. Why Pretend Otherwise?

Last night’s televised debate between Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) Deputy Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, disappointed all but the most fiercely partisan viewers by refusing to acknowledge the real elephant in the room: that neither side can promise Scotland a future in Europe.

The SNP argues that joining the European Union will be a smooth process, completed within 19 months of a ‘Yes’ vote in September 2014.  If Scotland becomes independent, they argue, it will begin its new life as an independent nation with a seat at the ‘top table’ of international affairs.  On 24th March 2016, Scotland will become the European Union’s 29th Member State.

“Not so fast!” says Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.  Of course, Spain has its own separatist regions, so Mr Rajoy has no interest in making the process easy.  New Member States must be admitted by unanimous agreement.  Thus, the process of accession has been torturous for states like Macedonia, whose aspirations are consistently blocked by neighbouring Greece.

The Scottish Nationalists argue that it is in nobody’s interests to block Scottish accession, but that is not necessarily true.  Every state containing a region with separatist ambitions has an incentive to make life as difficult as possible for Scotland to become independent in Europe.  More prosaic interests may, of course, prevail.  However, the Nationalists’ promises of swift and painless membership negotiations, completed within 19 months, are very much the best case scenario.

If the Scottish Nationalists have jumped the gun by promising continued EU membership, Unionists are no better placed to offer guarantees.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has promised an in-out referendum on European Union membership in 2017.  According to YouGov polling, such a referendum would make British exit from the EU likely by 2020.  This referendum is far from certain to proceed, since it would rely on the Conservative Party winning an outright majority in the 2015 election, which looks unlikely under current circumstances.  However, the British Labour Party has also adopted increasingly trenchant rhetoric on Europe.

More than any other topic, discussions about Europe hold a mirror to the cultural differences between Scotland and England.   Scotland is sparsely populated and has traditionally worried more about depopulation than immigration.  It has a different media structure, so people north of the border have little exposure to strongly anti-European commentary.  Scotland has no post-imperial mindset or expectations of great international influence.  As a result, its political leaders have not faced to pressure to indulge in a ‘race to the bottom’ on Europe.  When the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, visited Edinburgh he was run out of town, ironically to cries of, “Go home, you racist!”

When Scots go to the referendum polls in September 2014, predicting the country’s future in Europe will be like playing a game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’.   Would other European nations make an independent Scotland’s EU accession difficult?  Will Westminster politicians continue to sabotage Britain’s relationship with Europe, potentially leading to a BrExit?   Either way, the search for guarantees is likely to be futile.

Latvian PM Resigns Following Supermarket Roof Collapse

The Latvian Prime Minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, has resigned following the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga, which resulted in 54 deaths.  Dombrovskis, who became Prime Minister in 2009, steered Latvia though a difficult recession after the global financial crisis led to a 25% drop in GDP between Q4 2007 and Q4 2009.

Although Dombrovskis had not been blamed for the supermarket deaths, the 42-year-old Prime Minister tendered his resignation today, accepting “moral and political responsibility” for the disaster.  The Latvian economy has grown at one of the fastest rates in Europe in recent years, but corruption levels remain high.  The tragic supermarket collapse in Riga is likely to be attributed to a breach of building regulations.  Furthermore, the nation’s Building Inspectorate had been phased out, with Dombrovskis’s support, as part of far-reaching austerity measures in 2009.

With the next election scheduled for October 2014, it is likely that a coalition of current parliamentary parties will form a new government.  Parties will begin meeting next week, with the goal of forming a new government by the end of the year.

Scottish Independence White Paper: The Good, The Bad and the Utterly Deluded

Today the Scottish Government launched a White Paper to set out their arguments for Scottish independence.  Here are just a few of the details to emerge from the 670-page tome.

The Good

The SNP has reaffirmed its support for the European Union, pointing out that an independent nation would not risk being ejected from the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people.  The White Paper also highlighted the damage caused by the current UK immigration regime, particularly to the higher education sector.  The report promises:


The Bad

One of the more disingenuous passages of the White Paper also referred to the tertiary education sector.  The SNP plans to continue charging students from the rest of the UK full tuition fees to attend Scottish universities.  Yet, an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would be distinct Member States under EU law.  The Scottish Government must be aware that following this policy would swiftly put them on the wrong end of an ECJ judgement.  Likely they are hoping to stall the question of university funding until after the referendum.


The Vague

The SNP argues that an independent Scotland would keep the pound, the monarchy and a number of other British institutions.  Yet they have also promised to remove nuclear weapons from Scottish soil as a top priority, which would sour relations with the rest of the UK.  Commentators have long argued that an independent Scotland would have no option but to keep Trident in exchange for constructive cooperation with the Rest of the UK.  So, tucked away in the White Paper, here is the SNP’s get-out clause:


The ‘Not As Good As It Sounds’

Politicians have a knack of dressing up ‘jam tomorrow’ as ‘a steak dinner today’ and the White Paper launch was no different.  The Deputy First Minister unveiled a new policy of universal childcare.  Just a couple of problems.  First, the Scottish Parliament already has responsibility for childcare, and the SNP have governed Scotland since 2007.  Why must hard-pressed families, suffering under very poor childcare provision by northern European standards, wait for independence before this problem is sorted?  And second, the promise of universal childcare for two-year-olds will not come into force until 2024.

And the Utterly Deluded

On international affairs, the report argues that an independent Scotland would benefit from having ‘a seat at the top table to represent Scotland’s interests more effectively.’  Now, one could argue that a ‘seat at the top table’ is more trouble than it’s worth.  But to argue that a country of five million people will have a place at the top table of international affairs?

Scottish Independence White Paper Offers Little Clarity for Frustrated Scots

The temperature of Scotland’s independence debate has finally started to rise, but sadly the argument continues to produce more heat than light.  Despite the publication of today’s White Paper on Scottish Independence, the narratives haven’t changed on either side: the SNP promises a land of milk and honey, while the Better Together campaign continues to warn that an independent Scotland would be isolated and poor.  Increasingly frustrated voters have resorted to sarcasm, with one joking that an independent Scotland could always use Irn Bru empties as a currency.

The promises in the White Paper largely fall into two categories: (1) things that the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) can already enact under the current devolution settlement; and (2) matters over which the SNP has little control.  Proposing universal childcare falls into the first category. The SNP clearly favours Scandinavian-style public services without Scandinavian levels of taxation.  But unless substantial changes to taxation are needed, there is nothing to stop the SNP, who have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, from introducing universal childcare tomorrow.  Have they been holding back their big announcement as a bribe for independence, leaving Scots to struggle with inadequate childcare in the meantime?  Or will the practicalities of such a scheme require more money than is currently available?

The list of matters over which the SNP has no control, or will have to negotiate, is extensive.  For example, Scotland wants to keep the pound, but this will rely on goodwill from the rest of the UK.  This is unlikely to be forthcoming without compromise from the Scots.  If the UK’s nuclear weapons, currently based on Clydeside, are ordered off Scottish soil immediately, it is hardly likely that a currency union will be forthcoming.  Realistically, an independent Scotland would end up trading these two priorities.

If the SNP’s practical case for independence has more holes than a Swiss cheese, the Better Together campaign is equally aereated.  The SNP have nick-named it ‘Project Fear’, and not unreasonably so.  Plenty of countries smaller than Scotland have forged happy and productive nations within the EU and NATO.  From Ireland in the west to Estonia in the east, none of these countries regret their independence, despite its challenges.

In the short term, all the ‘No’ campaign needs to do is plant seeds of doubt in the minds of undecided voters.  Better Together is in the lead, so there is no need to give hostages to fortune.  However, if they are to put the independence debate to bed, at least for a generation, they need to make a positive case for the future of the UK.  An apathetic discussion, followed by a close result, will only keep the issue of independence on the agenda, resulting in an indefinite limbo for Scotland and an ever more snarky relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.  That is in nobody’s interests.

Polling One-Off Events: How Reliable are the Polls on Scottish Independence?

The 24th of March 2016 could be Scotland’s Independence Day if Scots vote ‘Yes’ in next September’s referendum.  However, the skirling of bagpipes to herald the birth of a new nation can barely be heard in the far distance.  The most recent poll shows the ‘Yes’ campaign continuing to trail the ‘Better Together’ campaign by 9%, with 38% of voters intending to vote ‘Yes’, 47% inclined to vote ‘No’ and 15% undecided.   With almost half of voters remaining in the ‘No’ camp, the future of the union looks secure.   However, demographic complexities behind this once-in-a-generation referendum may make standard polling techniques unreliable.

The left-wing Radical Independence movement has presented the referendum as a ‘class conflict’ in which the rich promoted a ‘no’ vote to maintain their privilege.  In reality, the battle lines are less clearly drawn.  Research conducted by the eminent psephologist, Professor John Curtice, found that middle class people needed more reassurance than their working class compatriots that independence would not have an adverse effect on the country’s economy.  However, if citizens could be guaranteed that they would be £500 a year richer under independence, the results would be turned on their head.  If the ‘Yes’ campaign can make a better economic case for independence, or if fear of the UK leaving the EU becomes real, the economic calculus may change.

A further demographic curveball is the inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds in the franchise. Standard opinion polls do not include under-18s, and little is known about their voting intentions.  Traditional polling shows high levels of support for independence amongst 18-24 year-olds, but an Aberdeenshire Schools Referendum found that a large majority of secondary school pupils opposed independence.  It is unknown if these results would be replicated in other regions.  Overall, however, there may be one million people voting for the first time in the 2014 referendum, introducing an unprecedented level of uncertainty.

Furthermore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael MP, has warned that there are large numbers of undecided former Labour voters in the “urban post-industrial belt of Scotland”.  This group of voters became dissatisfied with the Westminster government during the Thatcher era, felt forgotten by New Labour, and voted Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) en-masse in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.  Their loyalties to Labour, and possibly also the UK, have loosened over time, but this phenomenon may be under-represented in the polling data, which has focussed on voters who claim that they will definitely vote.  As acknowledged by the polling company Panelbase, “all pollsters are in pretty unchartered territory.”

Tomorrow the Scottish Government will publish its long-awaited White Paper on Independence.  Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, has promised to “answer a range of detailed questions that we have been asked.”  However, many of the biggest questions remain unanswerable.  How would the rest of the UK react to a ‘yes’ vote?  Would they agree to the high levels of cooperation proposed by the SNP?   And what of the forthcoming ‘in-out’ referendum on European Union membership, which may result in the UK leaving the EU against Scotland’s wishes?  And most importantly, do Scots believe that they would thrive, rather than simply survive, outside the UK?

At the current time, many Scots are simply hoping that the quality of the debate, which has so far been pitiful, will improve.

Alison Smith is a Tutor in Comparative Government at the University of Oxford.

Follow her on twitter @AliFionaSmith