Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘referendum’

Britain’s self-defeating approach to EU talks

Fresh from his election victory, Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has embarked on his tour of EU capitals trying to persuade his counterparts to agree to his ideas for reforming the Union and Britain’s place in it, so he can campaign for a vote to remain a member in the referendum to be held in the next two years.

At the same time, his Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, an overt Eurosceptic, has been telling the UK media that if London does not get what it wants it will vote to leave the EU.

Mr Hammond’s comments reminded me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ western parody “Blazing Saddles” where the sheriff holds himself hostage and threatens to shoot himself to avoid being lynched by the townsfolk. In the movie the trick worked, but Britain’s EU partners won’t be so easily fooled.

The comments also expose the weakness at the heart of the British government’s approach to these negotiations.

In order to get the changes Mr Cameron says he wants involves getting agreement to change some fundamental EU tenets, such as introducing some restriction on freedom of movement, as well as agreement from Britain’s partners to give preferential treatment to key UK interests, such as London’s financial markets.

But by opening the talks by threatening to walk away if you don’t get what you want, the danger is your negotiating partners have no incentive to offer concessions because you are offering none of your own.

You also risk provoking an equally stubborn reaction in return – I can imagine the French for one turning to one another, giving a Gallic shrug and saying if the Brits want to leave, they know where the exit is.

The British government has put itself in a bind with its twin track policy of negotiating changes and holding a referendum because politically the two processes are not hermetically sealed and do not neatly follow one after the other.

Ideally, you would want to negotiate the changes and then present them to the electorate and ask for endorsement, but things do not work like that.

The campaign for the referendum has effectively already started because the Eurosceptics inside and outside the Conservative Party and their cheerleaders in much of the press are watching every move in the negotiations and will portray any concessions Mr Cameron makes as proof of a bad deal which should be rejected on referendum day.

Knowing this and wanting to avoid having to look over its shoulder while it negotiates, the Government has clearly decided it needs to communicate the message to its British audience that it is fighting hard for their interests from the off – hence Mr Hammond coming out of the blocks this week with fighting talk.

But it is not just a British audience that hears this message and the danger is the hard-line bleeds into the negotiations.

While Mr Cameron’s fellow leaders understand political debate in the UK is often more raucous, they may still react to British rhetoric negatively and the response this week of Mr Hammond’s French counterpart, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, is a case in point. He said the referendum is a big risk and, indicating Paris is in no mood for major changes, he said Britain had joined a football club and cannot decide in the middle of the match they want to play rugby.

Even the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader and one London sees as a key ally, has said freedom of movement is a “red line”.

Ms Merkel also said she would work with Britain on reform, but it is clear David Cameron will not get a deal without some compromises and it is unwise to use maximalist rhetoric which builds up an expectation back home he will get all the reforms on his wish list.

So if Mr Cameron means what he says and wants Britain to stay in a reformed EU, he needs to find a way of toning down the rhetoric for domestic consumption far enough that he can have constructive talks with the other heads of government, but not so far that the vocal Eurosceptic lobby can portray him as going soft and backtracking.

It is a very difficult balancing act and his track record in EU diplomacy over the past five years does not convince that he has the wherewithal to pull it off.

May 7th 2015: another step on the road to Scottish independence?

Last September’s Scottish independence referendum was meant to give a definitive answer to the Scottish Question.

At least that was the hope of opponents of an independent Scotland.

If anyone needed proof, the campaign for the UK general election has shown that was a false hope with the Scottish National Party set to become the third largest party at Westminster and hold the balance of power there.

Not only that, but the way the main UK parties have fought the campaign in Scotland and the possible outcomes of the election will edge the country further on down the road to independence.

Over the past few weeks, the Conservatives have portrayed the SNP – and by implication their voters – as thieves in order to try to appeal to English resentment of their supposed subsidy of Scotland.

As for Labour, in order to blunt Tory accusations that a Prime Mininster Miliband would be in the SNP’s pocket, it says it would not do any deals with the Nationalists even if they do hold the balance at Westminister.

Insulting people or implying their votes can be disregarded if they are cast for the ‘wrong’ party is likely to alienate even many who voted “No” last autumn.

With next Thursday’s election highly unlikely to yield any party an overall majority, its messy aftermath will also bolster the factors making Scotland’s eventual independence more likely, whoever ends up in Downing St – be it Ed Miliband or David Cameron.

If Labour emerge as the largest party – the bookies’ current favourite scernario – it will almost certainly need the support of SNP MPs to survive in office.

So far Mr Miliband has ruled out any deals, largely to try neutralise Conservative accusations that he would be a hostage to the Scottish Nationalists.

He has rejected offers to join forces to keep David Cameron out of Downing Street from SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who has proved a formidable campaigner and debater and – given she is an incumbent First Minister – has impressed by increasing her already considerable personal popularity ratings.

But if the choice lies between taking office and making concessions to the SNP, will Ed Miliband really risk passing on the opportunity to be Prime Minister and give Mr Cameron a chance to form a government?

Some commentators have argued SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has weakened her leverage over Labour by ruling out supporting David Cameron.

However, if Mr Miliband refused any concessions, he would risk losing even more support in Scotland and he knows that to have a hope of winning a majority at Westminster ever again his party needs to win back its former voters there – especially in its old heartland in and around Glasgow.

As Scotland’s biggest city Glasgow – and its surrounding towns – has been the key to the tilt towards independence and the SNP’s current popularity there should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Scottish politics.

The Party has gradually been eroding Labour’s hold on the city for many years and last September it was one of the few areas where a majority voted for independence.

Many Labour voters were disgusted their party joined with the Conservatives to oppose independence and are in no mood to forgive so they have moved over to the SNP, which not only advocates independence, but is also a left of centre party opposing cuts to health and welfare spending – seemingly more sincerely than Labour.

This fundamental shift in the political landscape could take on the proportions of continental drift if a large cohort of SNP MPs is returned to Westminster and the main parties refuse to talk to them.

It is very possible Scottish voters would conclude that despite the plans to give greater powers to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, their votes are looked on as worth less than those of people in the rest of the UK.

So how does this help moves to independence given Ms Sturgeon has said this election is not about getting a mandate for a second referendum?

One course would be to continue the momentum set since 1999 of the gradual accretion of more powers for the Scottish Parliament which – according to proposals agreed by all parties after the referendum – is about to gain more say over tax and spending.

If Holyrood were to end up with de facto control over all domestic affairs and show it could manage just fine, it would take away a lot of the risk that deterred many from opting for independence last September.

At that point, the SNP could turn to the Scottish people and say: “we run our own affairs anyway, so why not take the next step and become formally independent?” It is this approach I suspect has been the SNP’s long-term strategy all along.

The other possible route to independence could open up if the Conservatives are in a position to form another coalition or minority government and it is not Ed Miliband moving into No 10, but David Cameron staying put.

This means there will be a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU in 2017 – or even sooner if Mr Cameron has to do a deal with UKIP to stay in power.

If the result of this vote were to be to leave, but a majority of Scots had elected to stay in, the SNP is likely to argue that justifies another referendum on Scottish independence.

Nicola Sturgeon has already called on the other parties to agree that any decision to leave the EU would need to be endorsed by a majority in all four constituent nations of the UK. The Conservatives are not likely to agree to that, but would also find it hard to oppose another vote on independence if a majority of Scots had opted to stay in the EU.

Scotland has been the bright spot in a generally dull election campaign, but the result is going to be another thing altogether – we are in for a fascinating ride over the next few weeks.

The deals and decisions made – and not made – are very likely to carry us closer to the dissolution of the UK.

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