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Hague's view on EU ignores Scotland's unique situation

When William Hague was leading the Tories to defeat in 2001, he made a lot of noise about saving the pound.

NO RUSH: Foreign Secretary William Hague seems in no hurry to secure agreement with European partners that would make EU membership more palatable to euro sceptics.         Picture: Colin Templeton
NO RUSH: Foreign Secretary William Hague seems in no hurry to secure agreement with European partners that would make EU membership more palatable to euro sceptics. Picture: Colin Templeton

Most voters didn't care. Mr Hague had already delivered a lurid speech to claim that the United Kingdom was becoming "a foreign country". It failed to galvanise the electorate.

Times have changed and so has the Foreign Secretary. Not so long ago he was arguing - to no avail, it turned out - that an in-out referendum on the UK's membership of the EU was "the wrong question at the wrong time". Last week he was telling europhobic former allies on the Tory back benches that they can't have an a la carte veto over EU legislation. Things, as Mr Hague has attempted to stress, don't work that way.

Having identified this fact of life, he nevertheless remains Foreign Secretary in a government that has promised a fundamental constitutional referendum on the EU. What's more, this vote is supposed to take place by 2017. In the meantime, David Cameron and Mr Hague mean to "renegotiate" EU terms in an effort to placate sceptics. And how is that going?

Set aside obvious issues. Plainly, the hard core of Tory europhobes will never be satisfied, no matter how many powers are repatriated. Then there is the small matter of European Parliament elections in which, according to a YouGov poll this week, the Conservatives are likely to come third behind Labour and Ukip. Finally, there is a General Election in 2015 to think about, even if Scotland fails to rewrite the political rules beforehand.

Have Mr Cameron and his Foreign Secretary been hard at work securing the agreement of their European partners? Have they identified the treaty changes that might be required? Have they begun to win the support of countries likely to need referendums of their own to suit one foreign political party? Oddly, there seems to be no sense of urgency at the top of government.

No doubt, given goodwill, these matters can be settled. Much good it will do Mr Cameron. But the Mr Hague who is relaxed about the challenge ahead tells a different story where an independent Scotland's parallel process is concerned. According to the Foreign Secretary, that set of negotiations would be beset with hellish difficulties. We have problems; William and Dave have none worth mentioning.

Mr Hague came to Glasgow yesterday with Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to present "EU and International Issues", the latest of the London Government's "Scotland Analysis" papers. It's an interesting document, a paper for debate from an administration headed by a Prime Minister who refuses to debate such issues with Alex Salmond. But these 118 pages are fascinating in themselves, less for their assertions than for what they fail to assert.

Just as the Treasury has given ground over the issue of the UK's debts, so the Foreign Office yields over an independent Scotland's EU membership. No serious doubts on that score remain. Instead, in essence, there is a dire warning: it might take a while and it could get complicated.

The paper states that an independent Scotland would be regarded as a new state. That's far from certain, but it is essential to a thin argument. If such is the case, the country would have to go through "some form" of accession process and negotiate terms of membership. "It cannot be assumed", thunders the Foreign Office, that these terms would be as favourable - tell that to a eurosceptic - as those enjoyed by the UK.

All new member states, says the FO, are required "to commit to joining" - important words - the euro and the Schengen area (in which passport and immigration controls have been abolished). The Scottish Government's ambitions for a sterling union and continued membership of the Common Travel Area in the British islands are therefore "at odds" with EU rules. Even if all this is true (a big if) it's not quite the same as being cast into outer darkness. Meanwhile, Tory back benchers plot to solve such problems for us.

His department's language seems to strike Mr Hague as a little tepid. Talking to the BBC yesterday, he said there could be "no doubt" that a Scotland departing the UK would have to apply for EU membership. The Foreign Secretary then went on to assert that we would be obliged to accept the euro, forced to sign up for Schengen, and lose the advantage of the UK rebate. His own efforts to renegotiate with EU partners received scant attention.

So what's the truth? Simply that there is neither precedent nor parallel for Scotland's situation. This is a country of EU citizens that is already compliant with European laws, the nub of the accession process. The union has never seen a state seek to withdraw, far less attempted to expel over five million people who pay their way, obey the rules, live, work and study in every part of the continent, and have long-established trade relationships with other member countries. Whatever Mr Hague claims, no agreements or treaties apply.

The only historical guidance is inexact and anomalous. What we know is that when Greenland achieved home rule and voted to get out of the European Economic Community in 1985 - while remaining part of Denmark - there was a long fight to keep 50,000 odd citizens inside the family. The EEC was profoundly unhappy at the loss of territory, deeply concerned over fisheries, and obliged to devise new treaty arrangements. Would a union bent on enlargement really impose that sort of mess on Scotland?

You could say the same about Schengen. Mr Hague forgets to say that the UK does not, in fact, hold itself aloof. In 1999, London made a specific request to be allowed to participate in parts of the Schengen rules - over police and judicial co-operation - that suited its needs. But what of Ireland, one cornerstone of the Common Travel Area but another dissenter from the continent's open borders policy?

The UK refused the Schengen Agreement because - ponder this - an island has fewer problems with its borders. Ireland, in contrast, preferred the Common Travel Area precisely because it didn't want frontier issues with the province in the north. So Mr Hague wouldn't fight tooth and nail to see these versions of common sense prevail? And the EU would insist on Schengen for Scotland in our geographical circumstances?

As to the euro, the point made repeatedly by Mr Salmond is accurate. Sweden is "committed to join" the common currency, but has no intention of doing so. One condition for accepting the euro is membership of the exchange rate mechanism. Sweden says that part is voluntary. No one in the eurozone tells them otherwise.

The Foreign Secretary wants us to believe the EU would gamble with fisheries, oil, land mass and the lives of its citizens with no legal means to force a bad deal on the Scots? He should spend more time worrying over his own promised negotiations. Mr Hague might be able to bluff his sceptical back benchers, though I doubt it, but no-one else should be deceived.

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