Sunday 24 March 2019

Gay Mitchell: 'If UK ministers believe in frictionless borders, they should offer one to Scotland'

Low-tech solution: Hadrian’s Wall was built to mark the border with Scotland in the second century AD. Photo: Reuters
Low-tech solution: Hadrian’s Wall was built to mark the border with Scotland in the second century AD. Photo: Reuters

Gay Mitchell

Just over 200 years ago, at the Congress of Vienna, representatives of the allies who had defeated Napoleon (Russia, Prussia, Austria and the United Kingdom) met to re-establish peace in Europe.

Almost every European state and principality also attended and the French diplomat and politician Talleyrand batted well for the defeated France. The Congress met officially only once, to sign the final treaty. The detail had been worked out in smaller formal and informal meetings, a bit like the way the EU works now.

Such were the Machiavellian reputations established in Vienna that on hearing of the death of Talleyrand many years later, the Austrian chancellor, and Congress powerbroker, Metternich is reported to have said: "I wonder what he meant by that?"

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The objective was to impose a treaty on France and by establishing the Concert of Europe, to determine agreed borders and prevent future instability. Within a century WWI ignited in Europe, and just over 20 years later WWII began. Some 60 million Europeans died and a similar number of other nationalities perished.

A little after the end of WWII, what is now the European Union evolved from a determination by Germany and her neighbours France, Italy and the Benelux states that this must never happen again.

But Germany remained divided and the Soviet Union ruled with an iron fist from East Berlin to Vladivostok, a port city in the Sea of Japan. The Berlin Wall eventually came down in 1989 and most of those European countries which had been under the yoke of Communism hurriedly sought membership of the European Union, which grew from six, to nine, to 15 and now 28 member states.

Historically, in much of Europe and Asia despots who presided over the deaths of millions of people, including their own people, had reigned. The UK, which played a heroic role in WWII, is not itself free of violent history. In his book 'The Locomotive of War', former professor of modern history and Master of Trinity Hall at Cambridge University Peter Clarke recounts some of Britain's excesses. From 1945 to 1977, under both Conservative and Labour governments, Britain was involved in more than 40 "wars", usually called "emergencies", from French Indo-China to Cyprus, Aden, a number of Caribbean islands and various parts of Africa.

Even though the Suez crisis of 1956 was a watershed which showed that Britain was no longer a premier league player, military actions continued.

This is how some European governments in the 19th and 20th century generally behaved. Thankfully, within the EU we now see a different form of government. One where diversity is respected, democracy and the rule of law is a requirement, and large and small states work through institutions which keep Europe peaceful, stable and prosperous.

Meanwhile, in Britain the House of Commons is in a Catch-22 - any move by the government brings a counter move by a variety of power bases and progress is blocked. The Speaker, John Bercow, if he is true to form, could cut through all of this gameplaying by putting a national interest motion before the House and insist each MP be free to vote unwhipped. This would determine the actual views of the parliament. Uniquely for a Speaker, Bercow has the bottle to take such a step.

At present, the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world on a GDP basis, behind the US, China, Japan and Germany. This while it is a member of the EU. Which of these economies does it expect to displace by leaving the EU? As an EU state, it has a sizeable trade surplus with the US.

If the UK really wants a new bilateral trade agreement with the US, the first thing President Donald Trump will want to hear is their proposals to close that gap.

Within the EU and European Economic Area, there will remain approximately half a billion people on the UK's doorstep.

The UK Statistics Office says proximity to the market facilitates higher exports. For example, it exports more to Ireland than it does to Japan and Latin America combined. The UK needs and wants access to the nearby European market, at the same time, the EU wants continued regulated trade with the UK. That's how we have built interdependence and peace on the continent. So, there has to be agreement on tariffs/customs and more.

The British government claims the Irish backstop is the problem. This is because the DUP, on whose votes it depends for survival in the absence of Sinn Féin's seven MPs, feels the North will be treated differently to other parts of the UK.

If the DUP feels all alone and needs company in managing the windfall of being within the UK and having continued access to the Single Market, the simple solution is to offer Scotland the same arrangement.

Scotland already has a different legal code, and Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. If Scotland were offered the opportunity to stay in the European Single Market, and, until it decides otherwise, the UK, it would likely jump at the chance.

Then the technologically frictionless border monitoring, which British ministers say works seamlessly, can be placed without difficulty on the Scottish-English border. This runs for 150km from the River Tweed in the east to the Solway Firth in the west, compared to 500km from Lough Foyle to Carlingford Lough in Ireland. Surely something the Príomh Mhinistear na Alba (to quote the Scottish Government's website), Nicola Sturgeon, would enthusiastically embrace?

  • Gay Mitchell is a former MEP and European Affairs Minister.

Irish Independent

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