GUY Verhofstadt is a good player to have on your side. He is the man who has been appointed by the European Parliament to represent it in the Brexit negotiations. It is as yet seldom appreciated how the eventual deal will not be a matter just for the UK Government and the other 27 governments of the EU. The Parliament in Strasbourg will need to approve it too, even if a final vote at Westminster is avoided. The outcome among the MEPs is as unpredictable as any in the House of Lords.
So, a good way down the line, Verhofstadt’s role may become crucial – and not least because he can lay some claim to being the only one involved in the Brexit negotiations who seeks in any way to represent the interests of the 62 per cent of Scottish Remain voters on June 23, 2016, and the 45 per cent of Yes voters on September 18, 2014. As the smoke cleared from these two seismic events, he said: “If Scotland decides to leave the UK, to be an independent state, and they decide to be part of the EU, I think there is no big obstacle to do that.”
He was speaking a truth that no president or prime minister of a member state has been able to speak. They are bound by the point of diplomatic protocol that the government of one country does not comment on the internal affairs of another country, especially when bound together in amity within the EU (or supposed to be, anyway). I bet there are European governments, in France and Spain especially, that can’t wait for the day when Scotland breaks away from the UK, but of course they are not allowed to say that either.
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Why is Verhofstadt right? The basic fact about the position of a future independent Scotland in Europe is that there simply is no law covering the case, because the secession of one part of an existing member state has never happened before. There are some precedents that could be taken for guidance but none that actually fits this particular set of facts, should they come to pass.
In the circumstances, it is far more likely the crucial decisions will be political rather than legal. If we have a motley collection of precedents that appears to force all parties into a situation that none of them wants – for example, with Scotland being expelled from the EU for a number of years before being readmitted on terms worse than before – then the European governments are far more likely to ignore those precedents and impose their own solution on the basis of the present facts instead. In other words, the Council of Ministers, the competent authority in such a case, would simply approve a treaty making Scotland a full member country from, say, January 1, 2020.
This is not to deny some negotiation will be necessary. But what exactly is there to negotiate about? Scotland already conforms in every particular with the entire corpus of European legislation. There can be a bit of argy-bargy about a few numbers, what share of the budget, how many MEPs, all that sort of thing, but hardly enough to spin out for more than a month, let alone a year. Verhofstadt seems to me to be the right man to keep a clear view of these basics through all the smokescreens of deliberate obfuscation that we will be traversing over the next couple of years.
This is perhaps because he is a Belgian, from another country with politics determined by the pressures of separation. I lived in Brussels for three years, and it never ceased to amaze me how the Flemings and the Walloons constantly raged at each other over what seemed, at least to an outsider like me, ridiculous trivialities. It made the niggling between Scots and English look like a vicarage tea party. Verhofstadt, who is a Fleming, tried to rule this bearpit as Prime Minister, only to see the fabric of the Belgian state steadily deteriorate amid its profound disunity (which is why it can’t deal with terrorism, among much else). His escape into the airier world of EU politics surely came as a relief.
But to this airier world Verhofstadt brings Belgian baggage, not just the acrimony but also the down-to-earth determination of a commercial people to stop a negotiating partner getting away with anything much, especially if in this case they are Brits. From various statements he has made, it seems he does expect to meet the two-year deadline after next month’s triggering of Article 50, but foresees those two years being followed by a transitional period of several more years before the UK finally and painfully – if he has anything to do with it – extricates itself from the EU.
I am not sure if in London the message has yet sunk in but Verhofstadt, with the European Parliament behind him, will demand that for the whole of this transitional period, probably stretching well into the 2020s, we should remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This is the EU institution that Theresa May’s Tories loathe perhaps above all others – given that the UK has lost three-quarters of the cases brought against it there, affecting everything from the price of beer to the cost of home insulation.
Secondly, Verhofstadt asserts it is “technically not possible” to negotiate a future trade deal in tandem with divorce under Article 50. Yet when Theresa May has recently won her votes on triggering it in the House of Commons, she has done so on the argument that her whole purpose in the negotiations will be to secure pretty well open access for the UK to the European markets of the future, only without any of those pesky immigrants. Opinions may differ on whether this is feasible, but there will be no certainty of it within the two-year deadline.
And one more thing, a bill will be sent to London for Brexit. The word in Brussels is that it will amount to £57 billion, which is more than the entire annual defence budget of the UK. Again, the transitional period to final departure from the EU cannot begin till this is paid.
Let us just console ourselves that a man like Verhofstadt who, on behalf of the European Parliament, is capable of imposing such stringent conditions on Brexit is also unlikely to be kidding when he talks openly of the circumstances in which Scotland could remain in the EU — and, presumably, also avoid the penalties imposed on the UK as it leaves. So there is money in it for us.
Up to now, in Westminster and Whitehall, there seems to be a breezy assumption that freeish trade can be maintained across the English Channel after Brexit, if only because that is how the Brits would like it to be. Yet it is not at all clear that this sanguine outlook is shared on the other side. A second voice we might heed is from Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta and current president of the European Council. Muscat was educated in this country, at the University of Bristol, and knows it better than any of his fellow leaders.
He says this: “It would be quite stupid to settle for EU membership ourselves if it is then inferior to the Brexit arrangements.”
In other words, he and the others mean to make non-membership worse for the UK than membership has been. It is something else we need to weigh in Scotland.