A chance for Scotland to save the UK from itself on Europe

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Derek Bateman reflects on the refugee crisis and its implications for Scotland, the UK and Europe

You may say that the Scotland football team is what serial failure looks like – I couldn’t possibly comment. If you were searching for the very definition of grand-scale institution losing however, I would nominate the European Union. In fact I say Gordon Strachan’s men would beat the EU 5 – 1.

I don’t remember a time since we joined the Common Market when I’ve had serious doubts about the inate worth of the European Project nor a time when I felt it was right for us to withdraw. That is despite a mounting file of reasons for questioning what the great continental movement was really about and the counter-intuitive, mad-as-a-brush nonsense it sometimes produces.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

On the face of it this is the embodiment of multi cultural internationalism bringing together disparate peoples and economies irrespective of language, religion, race or outlook in a huge collective effort to bring prosperity, democracy and dignity to 350 million people. On what grounds could anyone object? Interestingly the complaints, set against the declared ideals and objectives, look mean and self-interested – amounting to racism, cost, bureaucracy and managerial exclusivity.

Every one could and should be easily dismissed by the leaders of a principled crusade based on sharing the spoils of the rich with the striving poor and opening up closed societies and market interests to transparency and driving economic progress. On the left the cry is Float All Boats – the EU does this. On the right the call is – Market Forces and the EU does this too.

But the complaints are not dismissed, easily or otherwise. The EU is a force in decline, divided and defensive – brutally conservative and contemptuous over Greece, riven with disagreement and inertia over migration. And, depressing as it is for myself, it remains a many-centred enigma beyond the understanding of the population it serves.

German Premier Angela Merkel
German Premier Angela Merkel

I have forgotten how many years I have felt the cold chill of rejection when trying to talk European affairs, either privately or getting stories published in the Scottish media or on air at the BBC. None of it felt relevant to the folk back home – there was always a more easily digestible story that trumped the convoluted statements from the environment or fisheries committee in Strasbourg. By the time you’d explained the process, the impact had gone. European affairs were a bore. How many full-time correspondents does the whole of Scotland’s proud media have in Brussels? None that I know of. I used to lunch with Ken Cameron, the Commission man in Scotland, and we’d always end up shaking our heads about Scotland’s (and the UK’s) failure to come to terms with the mighty sprawling beast that is the EU.

The tone of the power brokers over Greece shocked me deeply, to the extent that, unbidden, I found myself contemplating a No vote in Cameron’s referendum. If the EU isn’t for social solidarity and cohesion, what is it for? The crowing and browbeating by Merkel and Schauble appalled me – I, who had always looked to Germany for leadership when Britain did its usual weasel manoeuvres with its half-in half-out, what’s-in-it-for-me mindset that has embarrassed legions of public officials.

Then the deeply divided and flat-out racist reaction (yes, you Hungary) from some member states and the failure to coordinate a response when dead children are being washed up on our shores…

We need not be squeamish about motives here. The first thing is the obvious – humanitarian aid – unqualified and unwavering. And it ill behoves those whose nations have peopled the world in desperate times or for economic advantage to resile. Hungary, scrabbling to avoid its responsibilities today, should remember how its own people were able to escape the Soviet occupation…200,000 of them. And Austria, the country that welcomed them then despite struggling in post war conditions has forgotten how to embrace people in trouble.

Outside the EU, to see Israel building a fence to keep them out – the country that demands rights for its own folk wherever they are and takes illegal action to protect them, which calls out to the world to send their people to Israel (so long as they’re Jews) and which has shamed the world for the inhuman treatment of them in the war – now enclosing itself against the desperate looks to me like a people who’ve forgotten what persecution means.

David Cameron: on a tightrope over the EU
David Cameron: on a tightrope over the EU

While Germany takes the laurels for an open door policy –and breaks the EU’s own rules to do so – it is also creating a new workforce for itself. There is pragmatism at work here. While Cameron looks to take 4000 a year from the camps, Germany recognises not just humanitarian need but the cold reality – those who risk everything to make their own way north are the driven ones, the aspirational, the strivers, already speaking English and sometimes German, academically or professionally qualified many of them, they are exactly what industrial states need. Sounds cynical? Ask the refugees.

This is all tricky territory. I don’t back Cameron but do back reform of the EU. I now think a referendum, however dangerous, is needed in order to clarity what we think the EU is for and if it goes near meeting those aspirations. The real risk of a UK withdrawal should focus minds in Brussels because Britain will have allies equally dubious and I believe this is an opportunity for the Scottish government to work with the Conservative government to find common ground in an approach to the EU. It cannot be the case that the SNP sees no argument for reform. But what is it and why the silence? I think a new direction and more democratic architecture is necessary to keep the EU in existence and remind it that its job is to serve the people of Europe, not the bankers, the financiers, nor the corporations.

I always argued that Scotland could be an ally for the rest of the UK after independence when our combined votes in the Council would be greater than the UK’s. Here is a chance to prove what a good neighbour can do. We may not be a member state but we are not without influence and Cameron, if his intentions are honourable (I believe he wants to stay in) could enlist Sturgeon in his case for democratic reform. Here the Kingdom could be United and there is no greater cause than preserving what could be the finest institutional collective of the modern era. But we may need to save it from itself.