For me, it had an inauspicious start. Booking places on-line went easily but the ‘ticketless’ tickets were anything but. Staff at the parly were their old surly selves and entirely not clued-in on where events were happening or when—to the point that one of the few notices helping you navigate the unnecessarily confusing building declared “Saturday 23rd: Tickets Sold Out“. The 23rd was Friday. All amateur stuff, typical of jobsworth ‘public servants’ who consider themselves anything but.
But, once past such hurdles, the meat of the day may up for any peripheral shortcomings. Up first was a session billed as The Future of Europe & Small Nations ably chaired by Peter Jones, formerly of The Economist and longtime astute observer of the political and economic scene at this end of Britain. His panel was an eclectic but suitable mix:
- Professor Charlie Jeffrey of the University of Edinburgh
- Sir David Edward, former Judge on the European Court of Justice
- Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Economist at the European Policy Centre in Brussels
- Tim Phillips, Member of the Advisory Committee of the Club de Madrid
While some stuck to the advertised broader topic in their 10-minute contributions, most focussed on Scotland as the small country in question and there was broad agreement on a number of factors that would apply in the case of a Yes vote in 13 months’ time:
- Scotland remaining an EU member would be likely but not certain
- Conditions for Scotland’s membership would be stricter—fewer opt-outs than in UK
- That would include joining Euro—but mechanisms exist for delaying that indefinitely
- Smaller countries can offset the dominance of larger ones by hard work and really determining how mechanisms work and learning to use them to their advantage
- By deciding priorities and focussing only on the highest they can be effective
- Only way to drive matters is by judicious diplomacy & quid-pro-quo with others
- ‘Clarity’ of Berlin-Paris axis has been muddied by accession of Eastern Europe
- Seek friends on matters in which they are largely disinterested and offer support in those they have a strong interest but you don’t (example: woo Austria, Hungary et al on fishing matters where they have little national interest)
I recall an example of this latter while on a fine evening out in Temple Bar in Dublin where our group included an ex-assistant to an Irish MEP. When challenged what good a small delegation like the Irish could achieve he grinned and said “it was amazing what wandering the corridors with blarney and a couple of bottles of Bailey’s could achieve“.
Charlie Jeffrey delved back to the 1979 vote and posited that had been ‘lost’ because people were worried about the context of an independent Scotland after the disastrous seventies and before oil wealth had become apparent. People are prone to seek comfort and shelter and the time was not ripe. By 1997, attitudes had changed greatly; there was a strong reaction against years of Thatcherism for which Scots had not voted and a new sense of purpose and identity.
Now the English element of the union has an increasingly wavering commitment to the EU and the Scots are diverging from that with a clear preference to remain (evidenced by UKIP’s paucity of traction in Scotland) a growing number of Scots prefer to stay connected with Europe. It has also become clearer that, as most of the connections with England (e.g. monarch or currency) remain, it is really only the political element that is to change—and that has been reduced largely to defence and foreign relations.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking contribution was made by Tim Phillips who claimed that “power is about what you attract and not what you project”, citing the example of Costa Rica—a small country of 4.5m, one of the two in the world with no army (the other is Iceland) but yet one of the most influential countries of Central America; it has 90% literacy rate, a solid democracy since post-WW2 reforms and the least inequality in the region. He followed by discussing Norway and Bahrain, both of whom wear their affluence lightly but responsibly.
It was, for me, an epiphany to start to visualise Scotland in this august group—countries that did not throw their weight around but whose standing was high because of their enlightened attitudes not just to their own people but to their obligations in the world. There was no consensus that Scotland would automatically remain in the EU or any other organisation of which the UK is currently a member. But it would be unlikely it would stay outside long, not least because of its valuable oil revenue and net contributor status.