Wednesday, 29 March 2017

With Brexit looming, time for a Celtic Union?

David Davis says Northern Ireland can opt to stay in the EU by joining with the Republic. So why can't Scotland?

Today British Prime Minister Theresa May took the historic step of requesting a divorce from the European Union. 

It will be remembered as a defining moment in history. Some are predicting it is the beginning of the European Union's disintegration. But others say, perhaps more convincingly, that it signals the start of the British union's disintegration.

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament voted to back First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's call for a new referendum on Scottish independence. The timing was no accident. Sturgeon timed her announcement of the new referendum push earlier this month to be one day before May planned to submit her divorce letter to the EU, upstaging the British PM and forcing her to delay the delivery until today. Scotland is remaining one step ahead of Westminster.

Sturgeon's central argument is that the Scottish people deserve a second referendum, just four years after the last one narrowly rejected independence, because they are about to be taken out of the EU without their consent. Only 38% of Scots voted to leave the EU, but the national result of 52% means that the entire United Kingdom is being dragged out of the bloc.

It is a dilemma being faced by Northern Ireland as well, which voted 56% to remain in the EU. But in this part of the UK the dilemma is even more serious than in Scotland. Brexit will mean new border checks will have to be erected, separating the territory from the Republic of Ireland (more on that below).

The horrific spectre of a return to border checks on the emerald isle has driven increasingly loud calls for a referendum on unification between North and South. 

Now, extraordinarily, there seems to be a creeping acceptance by the British government that even if they will not accept a Scottish secession, a Northern Ireland secession is now in play. Yesterday David Davis, the UK's Brexit secretary, said in a letter to an MP that if the North wants to remain in the EU, the best way to do so would be to unite with the Republic.
"If a majority of the people of Northern Ireland were ever to vote to become part of a united Ireland the UK Government will honour its commitment to enable that to happen. In that event, Northern Ireland would be in a position of becoming part of an existing EU member state, rather than seeking to join the EU as a new independent state.”
If such an Irish unification is in the future, which seems more possible now than ever before, it poses interesting questions for Scotland. 

Given their fractured histories and differing governance, education and legal systems, most people accept that a united Ireland could not continue as a centralised state but would instead have to be some form of federation between two states - possibly with two capitals at Dublin and Belfast.

As long as we're establishing a Celtic federation, why not go further? Why not include the Celtic nation of Scotland and solve its EU dilemma as well?

The idea might seem unlikely, but we are living in unlikely times. And it may be the only way to get Scotland out of its EU dilemma.

Remain pain

Sturgeon is insisting her referendum needs to take place in two years to give the Scottish people the option of accepting the new trading relationship (or non-relationship) worked out between the UK and the EU, or remain in the EU by leaving the UK.

The problem is that "remaining in the EU" is not an option for Scotland. The European Commission said quite clearly during the 2014 independence referendum that it is not possible for Scotland to 'grandfather in' its EU membership. Last month, a Commission spokesperson said it will also not be possible for Scotland to 'inherit' the UK's abandoned EU membership (because England/Wales would legally be the successor state to the United Kingdom under international law). Scotland will have to apply to join as a new EU member state.

Such an accession wouldn't be difficult in theory, considering Scotland is already applying EU law and nothing would need to change. But an accession requires the approval of all other EU countries, and there is still the possibility that Spain will veto Scotland's entry. They are worried about their own independence movement in Catalonia, and do not want to set a precedent that regions can break away and join the EU as an independent state. 

The fear is contagion: once one region is allowed to do it, many regions across Europe would want to follow suit. After all, it's a no-lose situation given the regions would maintain market access to their countries while being able to keep all their own tax revenue. They would also get a dedicated European Commissioner, dedicated seat in the Council, more members of the European Parliament, and dedicated EU funding. What's not to love?

In 2014 Madrid made clear they would veto Scottish accession. However Spain has signalled this year that it understands the situation has changed. Scotland would no longer be leaving an existing member state, it would be leaving a former member state. The applicability to Spain, and to other EU countries, would thus be limited.

Still, Spain's position is not yet clear. And the uncertainty faced by Scotland in the mean time would likely be too much to bear. Negotiations could not begin before Scotland holds its referendum, and that can't happen until the Brexit arrangements are finished. There would likely be some period of time in which Scotland was outside the EU - either as part of the UK or as an independent state. Scottish voters will not like that prospect of uncertainty.

New walls in Ireland

Given that the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom will no longer be part of the same customs union, Brexit will mean that some kind of border check will have to be established at the border between the two Irelands. There hasn't been any border control since the end of the troubles in the 1990s (even those border checks had only been temporarily established because of the violence).

May has insisted no border will be erected, but this is an impossible promise and she knows it. May has promised to take the UK out of the EU's customs union, so customs checks will be a legal necessity. But immigration checks will likely also need to be established. 

The Irish republic is not in the EU's passport-free Schengen zone, and may be able to maintain its passport-free arrangement with the UK after Brexit (lawyers are looking into whether this is possible between an EU member state and a third country).  

But even if this can be established, it doesn't get the UK past this central problem: all EU citizens will still be entitled to work and live freely in Ireland, but they will no longer be entitled to do so in the UK. Leaving this backdoor route open between Ireland and the UK will mean that EU citizens will be able to enter the UK easily without having their visas checked. It seems unlikely the UK government could allow such a situation, given that the main motivation behind Brexit was to control immigration from Europe.

A Celtic federation of three states

Under the Celtic Union vision, the new country would be a sort of 'United Celtic States', although with much more state autonomy than the US. It would in fact be more of a confederation, like Switzerland - with three capitals wielding equal power and a federal capital administering the few competences that are dealt with federally.

Within the Anglo world, Australia would serve as a better example than the US or Canada. Australian states are very powerful, and the competencies of Canberra are limited mostly to taxation and foreign policy.

But there's no reason this union should have to follow any existing model, it could invent its own. Taxation could not easily remain within the individual states, to contain fears of a 'transfer union' should Ireland get into economic trouble again. 

The new country would be a successor state to the Republic of Ireland, and thus inherit EU membership with no awkward transition period (and no existential crisis for Spain). But it would be a new state - not dominated by Ireland but instead an equal partnership.

Perhaps most importantly for the Northern Ireland question - the new state of 12 million people would be made up of roughly half Catholics (in the Republic and the North) and half Protestants (in the North and Scotland). This would allay the long-standing concerns of Protestants in Northern Ireland about being part of a Catholic-majority state.

Irish objections

To many, this idea may sound far-fetched. Aside from their Celtic origins, Ireland and Scotland are very different places. Scotland would be worried about what they witnessed in the Irish economy during the crisis years. And people in Ireland would be worried about taking on a state that has relied so long on subsidies from Scotland. Both Scotland and the Republic would be wary of taking on the cauldron of animosity that is Northern Ireland (though the Republic would feel a historic duty to do so).
The strongest objections might come from the Republic. Even a union with Northern Ireland may be a tough sell for many in the Republic these days, who may see it as more trouble than its worth. The idea of a union with Scotland may be one ask too far. 

The idea of Irish unification has enough symbolic and emotional value to push it past the reservations of many in the Republic in the referendum that would be required for unification. But there is no history of symbolism or emotion behind a union with Scotland. The idea of a 'pan-Celtic' union has been the pipe dream of poets and prostheletyzers. It certainly isn't an ideal taught in schools the way that Irish unification is.

In a normal world, the idea of such a union seems absurd. But we're not living in a normal world. Ireland is very worried about what Brexit will mean for them, and the government is open to the new push for unification coming as a result of Brexit. It is not inconceivable that during this process, Scotland gets pulled into the mix as a solution to its accession problem.

The idea of a union with Ireland isn't unheard of in Scotland. Last year, after an address by Irish President Michael Higgins to the Scottish Parliament, the Herald's Dorcha Lee asked if it was an idea whose time has come. And she noted that the fears brought about by the debt crisis should now have been allayed.
For decades, Scottish nationalists had looked to the republic as a role model, a great success story. But when the economy in Ireland collapsed, mentioning Ireland had the opposite effect; it showed what can happen when a ‘home country’ leaves Mother UK’s apron strings. But things have changed. By deciding to leave the EU, it is the UK that has taken a big step away from Scotland and Ireland. Moreover, Ireland is no longer an ‘economic basket case’.
Is this Celtic federation likely to become a reality in the future? Perhaps not. But we are living in unlikely times. 


Anonymous said...

Very interesting idea.

Unknown said...

I've wondered why this isn't discussed more as an option.