Brexit and Scexit are getting on the agenda as subjects of the British Queen decided to leave the European Union (EU) a month ago. Let us admit that this could be a right decision and that accession of the United Kingdom (UK) to the EU by the conservative government of Edward Heath in 1973 could have been a historical mistake. This opinion may stem from the fact that the UK was and is a very different country from all other earlier or later EU member states. And this difference is a chance for the future of both the UK and the EU.
The UK has been a strange EU member, not being part of either the Euro area (zone of the euro currency) or the Schengen area (”Europe without borders“). As Prime Minister David Cameron disclosed in his statement on EU renegotiation in the British Parliament on February 3, 2016, Britain would: never be part of the euro, never be part of Schengen, never be part of a European army and never bail out the euro zone with taxpayers‘ money.
To leave it simple: for both sides, the tragedy of the UK leaving the EU is quite similar like if Mexico, a nation with dominant ties to the US, would hypothetically leave MERCOSUR of which it should never become a member. Or, should Singapore, a nation with triple loyalty to China (ethnic ties), ASEAN (geographic position) and the Commonwealth (historical ties), leave the ASEAN—knowing that ASEAN comprises only 25% of Singapore‘s foreign trade compared to 29% with east Asia (including China, Japan and Korea). Or if Somalia which is far from being an Arab country would end its Arab League membership.
The EU was based on states that had either lost their influence in the world or never acquired it. It was the way how the old colonial Europe would reborn to a modern global player. It was the French-German historical reconciliation that built the foundations of the Union. And then, the German-Polish reconciliation that enabled its historical uniting of Europe under a single policy. All this could materialize with a good will and help of the United States who provided its security protectorate with NATO as its main tool.
When Europe found itself ruled by two foreign powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, Europeans had just a single choice how not to fall into insignificance: to integrate. Some of them did it already in the 1950‘s while others in the seventies, eighties and early nineties.
France, Belgium and the Netherlands lost their empires after 1956 while Austria four decades earlier and Spain and Portugal in the anti-European popular revolutions at the very beginning of the epoch of nationalism. Sweden and Denmark were among the losers of the era of colonization while the latecomers, Italy and Germany, never fully entered it. Finland, Ireland, Poland, Hungary and Czechia (then Czechoslovakia) themselves liberated from colonialism after the First World War while Luxembourg, Romania and Bulgaria just a few decades earlier and Greece a century before. Finally, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Croatia won their independence only after the Cold War—just 25 years ago.
The United Kingdom was a completely different case. Even after losing most of its colonies in three consecutive periods—after 1931 (Statute of Westminster), after 1945 (loss of British India) and after 1956 (decolonization of Africa), it remained a leader of the Commonwealth. A rather strong power bloc, with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, influential nations with populations of British origin in its core. After accessing the European Communities, it was painful for Britain to get rid of many of its economical and political bonds to the Commonwealth. However, Commonwealth continued to constitute part of the British identity which was a global one and not a European one.
In addition to the identity, London has had its special ties with the United States since it handed over the scepter of global hegemony to the US after the First World War. Furthermore, the City of London is one of the four most powerful world financial centers. And the British military is one of the top four military forces in NATO. All this allows Britain to be the only member state of the EU that can afford to leave the European Union.
And not only it can afford it. The UK has no written constitution that could protect its sovereignty against laws imposed by Brussels, as the powerful German constitutional court can. This reinforced fears of the British citizens from the European union.
In the era of globalization, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the emerging world order is being ruled by the superpowers such as the US, China, India and Russia. Once influential nations like the French, Dutch, Swedes or Italians have no other choice than to protect themselves jointly against the challenges of the contemporary world. On the other hand, Brits were trapped in an unacceptable situation: either the EU, or the Commonwealth, the City and close ties to the US. It is a similarly painful geopolitical situation like that of Ukraine being trapped between the EU and Russia.
Due to incompatible geopolitical interests of the UK and a self-isolation of the ruling Conservative Party in a euro-skeptic political faction (European Conservatives and Reformists) of the European Parliament, British had no real power to form either common foreign policy of the EU or internal European policies in their own image. Logically, they could only disintegrate them. Their exit is an inevitable consequence of that fact.
After leaving the EU, the UK will not cease to be a key NATO member and a close military ally of the US. Neither the UK nor the EU will be interested to sever trade or financial ties between each other. Not much can be done by the people in Paris or Frankfurt to take over London’s position of key global financial and service hub. Divorce is probably a right solution for both the EU and the UK and Britain deserves to gain enough time from the EU to initiate the Brexit procedures.
There is also the Scottish independence movement that is closely related to Brexit. After the successful Brexit referendum, the issue of Scottish independence and its effort to remain in the European Union has some similarities to the process of secession of West Virginia from separatist Virginia in 1861-63. As this is a very important process, it is good to recall its key moments.
Since the Union with Scotland Act (1706 in England) and the Union with England Act (1707 in Scotland), Great Britain became a single political nation. Although the post of Secretary for Scotland was reestablished in 1885 and Scottish national political parties emerged in the 1920’s after Ireland became independent, British nation remained untouched and the first real success of the Scottish nationalists came not earlier than in 1970 when SNP reached 10% of popular vote in Scotland and won its first MP seat in Westminster.
The first real attempt to break the British political nation came with Scotland Act of 1978 (under James Callaghan’s government) and the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979. Even if “Yes” vote reached 52%, it failed to pass the required 40% of the total electorate. The act establishing the Scottish Assembly, Scottish Executive and First Secretary of Scotland was repealed. Furthermore, SNP fell from 11 MP’s in Westminster to only two after the 1979 election.
The second attempt came with the Scottish devolution referendum of 1997 and the Scotland Act of 1998. This time, the government of Tony Blair succeeded in breaking the British political nation: the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Executive and the post of First Minister of Scotland were established in 1999. Together with Government of Wales Act of 1998, the British political nation split to a multinational state consisting of three nation states: Scotland, Wales and (British) England.
In 2007, SNP won plurality in the Scottish Parliament election for the first time and established the first nationalist executive. After winning majority in 2011 and with the new Scotland Act of 2012, the Executive officially changed to Scottish Government. It was followed by the first independence referendum in September 2014 which failed with 45% for “Yes” vote, being a huge success for Salmond’s nationalist government. SNP clearly articulated that its aim, in addition to the Scottish independence, was to remain in the EU.
Half a year later, in the UK election of May 2015, Sturgeon’s SNP succeeded to get 50% of the Scottish votes and won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster. It was an even bigger success for the nationalists as SNP has never had more than 6 MPs in Westminster since 1979. After Scotland voted 62% for “Remain” vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum, it became evident that Scotland is in a clear opposition to Brexit and it will strengthen the pro-Scexit side.
According to new British Prime Minister Theresa May who visited Scotland in mid July, preserving British union is one of the top priorities of her government. Even if possible Scottish independence may be a real challenge for the identity of English and Welsh people, it should not be overestimated. On the map, loss of Scotland can be seen quite dramatic: with 77.9 thousand km2 it comprises 32% (i.e. one third) of the territory of UK! However, with its population of 5.3 million and an estimated nominal GDP of $233 billion, it makes only 8% (i.e. one twelfth) of the total population as well as GDP of the United Kingdom.
It is not true that the UK would no longer be an important power after (if) Scotland leaves. UK ceased to exist as a global super-power after 1956 and became rather a 2nd class global power. It will retain its status, irrespective if within the EU or outside of it, whether with Scotland or without it. Being a big change for British identity, departure of Scotland would not be a major geopolitical change for (Little) Britain.
Prime Minister’s statement on EU renegotiation: 3 February 2016, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prime-ministers-statement-on-eu-renegotiation-3-february-2016
Foreign trade of Singapore – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Observatory of Economic Complexity, http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/sgp/