Brexit: a tale of two unions in crisis

Three things should be immediately obvious in the wake of last week’s Brexit vote: Britain’s departure from the EU is irrevocable, Europe itself will have to adapt or die, and the United Kingdom is a busted flush which Scotland should get out of.

Let’s get the first one out of the way: Britain is on the way out of the European Union. There is no way back. The margin of victory for Leave was narrow but clear: 52% to 48%, a gap of more than a million votes. Those people circulating petitions calling for the vote to be re-run or annulled would do better to vent their anger by giving themselves a couple of hard slaps in the face and confronting the bleak reality. If the Leave campaign was a tissue of misinformation, xenophobia and empty promises, it only increases the shame that the Remain camp should be feeling at failing to build a decent case against it.

Besides, whatever doubts Britain may harbour, Europe already regards the decision as final. David Cameron wanted to start the negotiations to withdraw in October, once his successor is in place. But the EU is in no mood to wait that long. They know that Europe is in an acute crisis and any delay is likely to deepen the malaise. Moreover, any suggestion that the EU was trying to twist the result of the British referendum would be grist to the mill of Eurosceptic politicians in other countries, who would seize on it as further evidence of the Brussels beast crushing the democratic will of the people.

An ‘associate membership’ is being mooted for the UK, which would preserve its trading relationship with the continent but probably require it to accept unrestricted migration and pay a contribution to the Brussels budget. It will be a weaker partnership than the current settlement, which contained several sweeteners to keep the recalcitrant British in the fold. There will be no more veto, no rebate, no commissioners, no turn at the rotating presidency, no influence on the eurozone, no leading role in the Quint (the informal group of nations that dictates Europe’s foreign policy) or organisations such as Europol (currently headed by a Brit, Rob Wainwright). The door may be open for an eventual return, but on worse terms than now: the ‘special status’ negotiated by Cameron earlier this year was a once-only offer.

Europe, meanwhile, has to recover from the shock and contain the impact. Brexit is a crisis for the EU just as much as for Britain. Populist politicians across the continent will be emboldened by the coup staged by UKIP and the Eurosceptic Tories. In the Netherlands and Italy, right-wing parties are agitating for their own ‘exit’ referendums. Geert Wilders, who is leading the Dutch opinion polls, has promised to make it a major theme of next year’s Parliamentary election. Marine Le Pen is making similar noises in France. The dream of ‘ever closer union’, which has been effectively suspended since the French and Dutch rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2005, is now dustbin fodder. Ambitious pan-European projects such as the single currency and the Schengen open borders zone are a feature of the past. Europe will become a looser union, more focused on cross-border co-operation and more cautious about interfering in the internal business of member states. It still has important work to do in areas such as setting climate change targets, and through decisions like last week’s agreement establishing the principle that companies should pay taxes in the jurisdictions where they make their profits. But it is probably right that issues such as whether prisoners are allowed to vote should be decided by national parliaments rather than the European courts. European politics is still mainly conducted at national level, so its democracy should be anchored in the member states.

That leaves the question of Scotland. While England and Wales opted to quit the European Union, 62% of Scots voted to stay. (Northern Ireland faces an even thornier choice). Every one of the 32 Scottish council regions rejected Brexit. The 24-point margin in favour of Remain was more than twice as emphatic as the vote to reject independence two years ago. At that time the No campaign warned that the risks associated with leaving the UK were too great; it now transpires that Scotland took a monumental risk anyway, by shackling its fate to a government that contrived first to stake the country’s future on a referendum conceived to appease its Eurosceptic faction, and then to botch it by allowing the campaign to be hijacked by the forces of fear and xenophobia.

The union of England and Scotland was never sacrosanct; it was a marriage of convenience that, on the evidence of Thursday night, has become distinctly inconvenient, if not downright embarrassing. The destinies of the two nations are no longer in step; in the last 20 years Scotland has gradually stepped out of its neighbour’s shadow to become a self-assured, progressive, outward-looking small nation. Now that it faces losing its place in the European Union against its will, the case for holding a second referendum on independence is unanswerable. Nicola Sturgeon has rightly said that Scotland will seek a separate discussion with the EU to protect its status as a member state, and made clear that European nationals who have chosen to make their home in Scotland will continue to be welcome, in language that contrasts sharply with the tone of the Leave campaign.

Scottish independence is no longer a cause reserved for nationalists; it should be embraced by internationalists too. It is a choice of being a partner in a smaller, increasingly insular and backward-looking union, or a nation within a larger one facing the challenge of reinventing itself for the 21st century. There is no risk-free scenario, but an amicable divorce is the best way forward for the nations of Great Britain.

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