Britain, Scotland, Norway and Europe: lands of magical Sovereignty-Unicorns - Spectator Blogs

12 November 2012

Even the cheapest, Poundland crystal ball will tell even a blind observer that Europe is pretty soon going to be a pretty hefty problem for almost all of Britain’s political parties. Almost all, I say, because that includes the SNP* whose europhilia is, in some respects, a product of a time that no longer exists.

Anyway, the odds of manifesto pledges promising an in-or-out referendum in the next parliament seem to be shortening all the time. I have no idea what this is supposed to achieve since, as best I understand the matter, neither the Conservative nor Labour parties wish Britain to leave the European Union. Asking the question necessarily increases the chances of receiving an answer you do not think sensible or in the national interest.

Still, the Better Off Outers do at least have an argument that makes some kind of sense. You may disagree with their conclusions but their logic is reasonable. Of course, as David Torrance notes, the anti-EU case is built upon similar foundations to the anti-UK argument made by the Scottish National Party. Consistency may be over-rated but being a hyper-Eurosceptic hyper-Unionist demands an impressive level of intellectual athleticism.

Be that as it may, those folk who think Britain should “renegotiate” its membership (how, precisely?) or, preferably, enjoy some kind of Norwegian-style relationship with Brussels are, in the end, not so very different from those Scottish nationalists who think Scotland can be independent without very much changing. In some senses this is correct. But just as an independent Scotland that remained part of the sterling zone would necessarily find itself relying upon the mercies of the Bank of England, so a Norwegian-style relationship with Brussels would necessarily require the United Kingdom to go along with a lot of what Brussels mandated without enjoying any say in what that mandate might be.

Look at this:

Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs who co-authored a 911-page official report this year on Norway’s agreements with the EU, describes Norway as the most integrated EU outsider, and the U.K. as the least integrated insider.

Norway has, he says, incorporated about three-quarters of EU law onto its own books.

As a member of the European Economic Area—with Iceland and the microstate of Liechtenstein—Norway has access to the internal market in goods and services. It accepts EU employment law, and is a member of the Schengen passport-free travel zone, unlike the U.K. Norway is outside the EU customs union, which imposes extra costs when selling manufactured goods into the EU, and is not part of the expensive common agriculture and fisheries policies. Nonetheless, it has to pay in larger and larger sums to the EU to help the bloc’s poorer members—on the scale of EU member Finland.

Mr. Sverdrup says Norway has less and less say in formulating any of the rules and finds it increasingly difficult to get its voice heard in Brussels. “This is a very special model for hooking up to the EU: You participate in European integration without any representation,” he says.

Wouldn’t the UK be in a comparable position if it were to leave the EU? I should have thought so. Nor is it obvious that the rest of Europe would be happy to allow Britain to dictate the terms of its relationship with Brussels. Perhaps I am too pessimistic. Some Britons do believe in magical sovereignty-unicorns:

The Eurosceptic think-tank Open Europe argues the U.K. is less dependent on EU trade than other large European economies: Just 53.5% of British merchandise trade is with the rest of the EU, the smallest percentage except for Malta and Cyprus. It also points out that trade is just one aspect of a multi-faceted relationship with the EU, some of which, such as the common agricultural policy, are very expensive. Britain could take “a pick-and-mix approach,” opting in on policing laws, for example, while opting out of others, it says.


Oh really? What’s in it for the rest of the continent? If, as some say, we don’t need the EU, then why should we suppose they will believe that they need us? Can the Eurosceptics have it both ways? That is, can they claim it doesn’t matter if Britain is outside the EU because so much of our trade is with the rest of the world, while also insisting that British trade is so important to Europe that Brussels will do its utmost to give Britain the deal it seeks? I can’t help but feel that this must be an optimistic view.

Most negotiations require some measure of compromise. To achieve your goals you need to give up some of the things you presently hold precious. Yet to hear some people talk you could be forgiven for thinking the process will go something like this:

Britain: This is what we want. OK?

Europe: You crazy, crazy Britons. But, yes, you can have it all. Why ze hell not?

I wonder if this is just a little optimistic. If I were a German or a Frenchman or whatever else I’d also remember that I have a pretty hefty card to play myself:

There is no way, they say, other EU nations would tolerate a Switzerland the size of the U.K. on their doorstep.

If true, that could leave Britain trading with the bloc as a regular member of the World Trade Organization, subject to no preferential tariffs. Manufacturers, including the growing U.K. car industry, would face a 10% tariff on finished-goods exports to the EU, a cost that would detract from Britain’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign direct investment.

Harsh? Perhaps. But, however annoying the EU may be, we should at least try and be clear about what it is we would be leaving and mature enough to accept that doing so would hardly be a cost-free enterprise. (Just as the SNP should accept that leaving the UK can hardly be a cost-free enterprise either even if, in the longer-term, it might prove advantageous.)

So, yes, Dan Hannan and Alex Salmond have more in common than perhaps either man would care to acknowledge. That’s quite entertaining.

Still, as I say, the Better Off Outers have a respectable case (in both the EU and UK contexts). It’s the Renegotiators (again, perhaps, in both cases) who need to start saying precisely what they mean and what they can realistically achieve.

*I suspect Alex Salmond misses Neil McCormick’s advice. Whatever your own politics, the professor’s death robbed Scottish politics of an important and learned view.


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  • Dennis Smith

    It’s interesting that so few of the comments adress the central point – the logical consistency of being pro-UK and anti-EU, or anti-UK and pro-EU.
    This gives me a slight feeling of touche, being broadly pro Scottish independence and broadly pro EU. I can’t offer a complete defence of my own consistency but I would start from the issue of statehood. The UK is a state (albeit of a pretty weird kind); the EU (so far at least) is not. Scotland needs to be in a position where it can defend its national interests, so far as this is possible in a globalised world. This might be possible within the UK given an intelligent unionism – it worked reasonably well for two centuries. But intelligent unionism is not currently on offer from any of the UK parties. So it is rational for Scotland to exit the union (and this will also open the door for many much-needed changes). But some supranational structures will still be needed within the British Isles, if only to maintain the peace in Northern Ireland. So over time I would foresee Scotland entering into some kind of confederal arrangement with rUK and possibly also Ireland.
    Ditto the EU – I hope it can develop a confederal structure (more open and democratic than at present) rather than into a federal state. There are plenty of unanswered questions here, but I don’t think it’s inconsistent to favour an independent Scotland inside a confederal UK inside a confederal EU.

  • John Maloney

    I am amazed that with all the evidence that exists, anyone in their right mind, would want to sign up to a corrupt, fascist, self serving, bureaucratic organisation like the EU.
    The idea of the ECB running our economy is scary. The EU has shown itself to be totally financially incompetent and its continued bail out of bankrupted countries who can never pay off their debts is a portent of things to come. A federal Europe would play right into the hands of the globalists, and would result in the masses becoming impoverished. European nations are all different, and each should take decisions which are in its own self interests. There will be a period of pain but ultimately countries will get on their feet and rebuild their economies using their own currencies.

  • Jedibeeftrix

    “Consistency may be over-rated but being a hyper-Eurosceptic
    hyper-Unionist demands an impressive level of intellectual athleticism.”

    Nothing inconsistent at all.

    It boils down to the question; “are you my family, willing to look to the interests of me and mine, as I would you and yours?”

    I am british, i consider myself kin to all of the parts of the uk, and care little for any identity that derives from the place of my birth (england). If the scots reject that familial link, i will have to change in response, they will become kith. I would be disappointed, but a ‘marriage’ demands the commitment of both partners.

    The crucial feature of indirect democracy is the perception of
    representation, the collective trust in shared aims and expectations
    that allows the people to put their destiny in the hands of another,
    safe in the knowledge that even if ‘their’ man doesn’t get the job then
    the other guy will still be looking after their best interests.

    The manner in which this trust is built is the knowledge that you and
    ‘he’ have a history of cooperation, and that your respective families
    likewise have a shared social and cultural history of cooperation, all
    of which allows you to trust that when adversity strikes ‘he’ will act
    in a predictable and acceptable way.

    I simply do not recognise a sufficiently congruent set of aims and
    expectations to assent to being governed by the common will of the EU.

    This does not mean that we should not strive towards harmonious
    cooperation and collaboration wherever a common viewpoint will bring a
    more effective outcome.

    A nation is either:
    1. a broadly sovereign state within the EU
    2. a functioning part of a larger sovereign entity as the euro-core will become

    The only other alternative is being a dependent adjunct to a larger sovereign entity. A Sanjak, in short, as Norway and Greece might well be described.

    Becoming an EU Sanjak is neither liberal nor democratic, so propose me a solution because otherwise we will be leaving…………

  • weescamp

    There are around 196 countries on the planet and it beggars belief that we should deliberately set out to limit our trade horizons to 26 of them who are operating what is effectively a trade embargo against those that don’t want to play their game by their rules.
    The EU had really better start waking up. It’s an archaic organisation that’s completely lost the plot and is turning itself into a dictatorship.

  • Euro_Hero

    “Just 53.5% of British merchandise trade is with the rest of the EU”

    This is only half of the story, and Open Europe excels at quoting half complete facts that are convenient.

    The truth is that

    1) the UK doesn’t export that much generally speaking, escpecially compared to Germany or France, and thus has a huge trade deficit, which make exports significantly less important than imports

    2) >70% those very imports come from the EU, (including 95% of e.g. fruit and veg) thus making the UK extremely dependent on the EU

    • Douglas Carter

      Yes, because you can’t get fruit and veg from anywhere else on the planet, can you?

  • Miles Robinson

    … would face a 10% tariff on finished-goods exports to the EU.

    You are obviously working from the principle that if you say black is white often enough you will be believed. It is clearly nonsense to suggest that our car industry would suffer a 10% tariff on its EU exports when the UK is one of the most lucrative export markets for Germany’s own car industry.

    You must be either mad or just plain bad!

    • McQueue

      Yes, and it also implies that somehow the EU, in exchange for our democracy, would always act favourably for British Industry – the Tate and Lyle’s, that are being destroyed by clearly engineered wealth migration through manipulating the rules.

      ….. and once we’ve surrendered our democracy, what do we have to bargain about or with?

    • FF42

      That’s Britain’s choice. The EU will continue as before, whatever we choose. So we do we want to be sort of in as at present; sort of out like Norway; or completely out, in which case we’ll get the 10% WTO tariff?

  • Dr Crackels

    Necessity is the mother of invention. Being tied to the ‘zombie EU state’ has created a Britain that cannot think for itself, so freeing ourselves would help us see possibilities beyond the moribund EU.

  • phead

    This only makes sense if you are talking about starting from a fresh slate, we are not, we already have all the EU directives as part of UK law. All we are doing is not paying the money and not getting any grants, the only discussion needed is for which past/future directives we no longer want to come from Europe and that we can remove.

    You appear to be making a mountain out of a molehill, why?

  • MichtyMe

    I have never thought the word “independence” appropriate for the debate. Better would be “equality of status”. The referendum is to attain a sovereign parliament/government/state like other nations, so the country can decide all matters, even where it may wish to relinquish some power, like the EU.

  • sir_graphus

    A straight in-out referendum is quite a high stakes question.
    If we vote “in”, then we give our effective approval for the UK being on the runaway train to full integration. I doubt we’ll ever be offered another referendum.
    If we vote “out”, then that might also be catastrophic; it’s easy to emotionally shout “OUT”, while not understanding the impact on UK industry. It could be a lot worse than we think. I’d like to see this analysed in cold, objective terms, but am pessimistic about this happening.

    I think the most likely outcome of an “OUT” vote would be a lot of renegotiation and another referendum on new terms. That’s why I’ll probably vote “OUT”.

  • Douglas Carter

    I worked in the Oil industry for some years.

    Visits to Norway were frequent and I entered (and left) Norway via road, ship and air several times per year. Oslo, Kristiansand, Kristiansund, Bergen… On each occasion, myself and all persons in the party I was with had their passports and credentials checked by polite, professional and attentive Norwegian borderportairport staff.

    Being they were in Schengen during this period, I’d suggest their own interpretation of the strictures could quite easily transplant to the UK.

    • passerby

      Contrary to claims in the UK press, Schengen does not imply a country renounces custom control.

      “Norway is part of the Schengen-cooperation. Visitors from within Schengen do not need a passport, but must be prepared to show identity card when boarding flights. A passport is always useful as an identity card in banks etc. Visitors from outside Schengen (including the UK) need passports to enter Norway (they enter the whole Schengen-area at the same time).

      Even within Schengen there may be customs control.”

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