The UK in the outer circle – and Scotland too?

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Knowledge in sound, audio wave, overlapping circles gradually increasing in size and decreasing in opacity against a blue/purple background
Knowledge in sound
The UK in the outer circle - and Scotland too?

October 6 2023, by David Gow FRSE

The EU and the Brexit Negotiations – an event reflection.

Another process of enlargement, twenty years since eight mainly ex-communist countries joined in 2004, is the dominant issue pre-occupying Brussels and the 27 in the run-up to the European elections in June 2024. Nine, perhaps ten, European countries outside the EU-27 are keen, occasionally desperate, to become full members of the Union in the rest of this decade.

We could, then, be talking of an EU-35 or even EU-37 by 2030. That prospect loomed over a discussion we in the RSE staged on October 3 before an audience of more than 150 on how the UK left the EU and what comes next.

The assumption, never really spelled out by the audience, is that the UK will not be one of the three dozen or so member states; the hope for many is that, under a new government, it will. And folk asked themselves and the speakers – Professor Brigid Laffan and Dr. Stefaan de Rynck – where does that leave Scotland?

Stefaan, a member of Michel Barnier’s Brexit negotiating team and now head of the European Commission representation in Belgium, and Brigid, former head of the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, shared at least two key perspectives: current and future candidate members would not settle for anything other than full membership; suggestions that they and, especially, the outlier UK might opt for associate membership are misguided/misleading.

The notion that under a Keir Starmer government, say, the UK would join the single market and customs union via the EEA would make it a rule-taker – or engender, as Stefaan put it graphically, “euroscepticism on steroids.” And, added Brigid, “even the most extreme eurosceptics (like Orban) don’t want their country to leave the EU or euro any more as Brexit is not a pretty sight.”

Variable geometry

The prospect of enlargement always produces a heady brew of schemes for reforming EU institutions to accommodate hugely different levels of economic and political maturity among current and future member states. The latest iteration here is a Franco-German “Group of 12” paper discussed in early October in Granada, Spain, by EU ministers in the run-up to the normal winter summit in December.

Diagram, schematic

This schematic illustrates and reprises/refines ideas for “concentric circles” around an inner core of integrationists first put forward under Helmut Kohl’s final term of office as German Chancellor, notably in a 1994 paper by Wolfgang Schäuble and Karl Lamers. Prof Laffan would have none of it: “You can tinker around the edges…but it’s not going to happen…the magnetic pull of membership over-rides everything else.”

But we know that enlargement on the scale envisaged will put huge strains on decision-making within EU institutions and on their budgets – a process accentuated by the growing number of shared policies and co-management practices in areas such as health as the EU takes on increasing responsibilities for managing complex inter-dependent issues. Some current and putative member states may simply be unable to cope with the scale and pace of that shift to greater integration.

Stefaan, like others before him, underlined the EU’s “awakening geo-politically” and embracement of “open strategic autonomy” in a tripolar world with the US and China – protecting its interests over and above those of a rules-based global order as in the past. As Stefaan put it, quoting former WTO chief Pascal Lamy: “In a world of carnivores you can’t be a herbivore.”

Britain’s and Scotland’s place

The UK, a third country by choice is set for the outer circle for the foreseeable future. The 2026 review of the TCA won’t change that a jot, we were told in no uncertain terms: “no wholesale renegotiation.”

That raised questions at our RSE talk about how the UK and Scotland would fit in. Given the recent improvement in relations with the EU, Brigid and Stefaan both saw scope for constructive engagement – with de Rynck looking for enhanced co-operation (of course) in defence and security policy in light of Ukraine but also, more interestingly, in protecting and improving supply chains for firms. Prof Laffan added a Scottish dimension in the form of collaborative energy projects, most notably grids and inter-connectors in and around the North Sea – “there’s plenty of wind out there.”

Scotland, where pro-EU sentiment has grown considerably since the 2016 referendum, can count on wells of sympathy in the EU as it searches for its way in this rapidly evolving Europe. But, said Brigid, it’s up to Scotland to decide what type of European country it wishes to be: “if, in the event of independence, it opted to be a member state it would and could be if it so wanted…there’s no question that Scotland would not be an EU member if it was the settled will of Scots and an independent Scotland.”

That’s for the future. Maybe. Meanwhile, the RSE Scotland-Europe Initiative will continue to explore the critical public policy issues that arise out of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU – culminating, we hope, in a comprehensive discussion of those relations in the Spring of 2024.

Watch the recording of the event below:

David Gow FRSE is a member of the RSE’s Scotland-Europe Initiative. He was European Business Editor of the Guardian in Brussels (2004-12). He co-founded and co-edits, sits on the Federal Trust council and EMiS executive and is consultant editor for Acumen PA (Brussels) as well as for Bertelsmann Stiftung and Jacques Delors Centre in Berlin.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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