Global Challenges for the EU: Scottish and German Views

28 November 2017

© 2017 Anthony Salamone

The Scottish Centre on European Relations, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Edinburgh Europa Institute, organised a high-level Scottish-German policy roundtable in November 2017 at the University of Edinburgh. Bringing together senior figures from the policy world (politicians, officials, academics, think tank experts, diplomats, media, NGO representatives and others), the off-the-record roundtable was focused on the theme of Global Challenges for the EU: Scottish and German Views. The event considered external challenges for the EU and Scottish-UK-German cooperation post-Brexit.

Global and Neighbourhood Challenges, Including Migration

The discussion began by setting out some of the main current geopolitical challenges that are seen as important for Europe. Under the Trump administration, the US has become more inward-looking, protectionist and unpredictable. China has big global ambitions and will probably attempt to exploit the current absence of US leadership. The EU’s neighbourhood challenges are numerous and include the Mediterranean migration crisis, instability and conflict in the Middle East and the threat of terrorism linked to conflict in the region, growing authoritarianism in Turkey, the unresolved conflict in Ukraine and strained relations with Russia (including information warfare and propaganda). One view expressed was that, if the EU moves away from its ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality, particularly in its development policy, that will benefit both recipient countries and the EU itself. The point was raised that on many of these issues the UK has been absent or had only a limited role in the past few years.

On EU policy mechanisms, it was suggested that significant strides have been made within the last year alone on the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy. On defence the recent agreement of 23 member states on defence cooperation, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), marks a key milestone. One hope was that the greater harmonisation of design, spending and procurement would save substantial resources. However, a concern was raised that if nearly all member states sign up to PESCO that might stall progress, rather than if a smaller group were to press ahead further without hindrance.

Ensuring continued good cooperation between the EU and NATO and maintaining the security of Europe’s eastern borders are essential priorities. Levels of national spending on defence remain an important issue, complicated by tight public budgets. In Germany, the ongoing political uncertainty makes it less likely that defence spending will substantially increase. Nevertheless, one expectation was that further political capital will be spent in the near future to drive forward the defence union.

Europe’s external challenges, such as migration, have had implications at home. These issues have been matched by internal strains within the EU, such as rising nationalism in Poland and Hungary and pronounced anti-globalisation in France. In that sense, internal and external challenges are to a large extent interconnected. On migration, one point raised was that political leaders have not sufficiently made a positive case for immigration.

In the case of Scotland and the UK, where the debate has focused on EU free movement rather than external immigration, one argument made was that Scotland’s different economic needs means that it should have control over its own migration policy after Brexit. It was noted that over recent years EU migration has substantially mitigated population decline in Scotland. However, another observation was that the current Brexit situation means little room will be left for a differentiated policy for Scotland, whether for the single market in general or specifically for migration.

In Germany, the post-election aftermath and various coalition discussions have dominated politics in recent weeks. On migration in particular, before negotiations between the CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens broke down, there was understood to be an overall deal on migration, including an agreement on limiting non-EU migration to 200,000 people per year. It was said that it is a common view among all German mainstream parties that EU/Schengen external borders should be strengthened.

On Brexit, one view was that it is not as challenging for the EU as some think, and that instead Brexit has brought a focus and unity of purpose to the EU27. It was suggested that the continued eurozone recovery is essential to maintaining this renewed momentum, and indeed that the Brexit impetus will not last forever and must be capitalised on now. By the same token, one view was that political leaders across Europe must find solutions to the pressing challenges facing the EU and lead public opinion, instead of being shaped by it.

Economic recovery in the EU has also enabled the return of strategic thinking, such as in the Macron Sorbonne speech. It was unclear to the panel how the Franco-German relationship will change as a result of Germany’s current politics – a coalition, minority government or new election. One suggestion was that a Grand Coalition (CDU/CSU and SPD) would be more likely to support further European integration, particularly fiscal and political union, than a CDU/CSU-FDP-Greens coalition.

German, UK and Scottish Cooperation after Brexit: Climate Change and Other Challenges

The discussion then turned to cooperation between Scotland, the UK and Germany after Brexit. On climate change and the environment, it was noted that EU leaders have recognised the need to protect the environment at European level since the Maastricht Treaty. One suggestion was that EU environmental standards and regulations are essential to Scottish and UK legal and political objectives. A similar view expressed was that the post-Brexit gap in environmental protection in the UK would be wide in the absence of EU structures or equivalent domestic replacements. The UK has traditionally been active in championing robust climate change initiatives within the EU.

It was argued that adequately addressing climate change, energy and the environment will require substantial EU-UK cooperation after Brexit. Moreover, it was noted that climate change objectives are linked to international treaty obligations and will therefore continue for the UK and EU27 independent of Brexit. The hope was expressed that such collaboration can continue whatever Brexit arrangements are reached on withdrawal and future trade.

On security and police/judicial cooperation, it was argued that Theresa May’s references to security in her Article 50 letter, which were seen to imply that the UK would link a trade deal to security cooperation, were very poorly received in the EU27 and in particular Germany. More recently, the UK government seems to have taken a more conciliatory approach and now seeks close cooperation with the EU on security without preconditions.

At the institutional level, the EU has made clear that the UK will have to leave Europol, and it was suggested that the UK will not be granted a status with Europol equivalent to that held by a member state, or indeed of Denmark (which itself does not have good access). The UK will also no longer be part of the European Arrest Warrant system – one which the UK opted into in 2014. It was suggested that the UK government’s current red line on not falling under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is a major obstacle to EU-UK security cooperation after Brexit.

Reflecting on how the Brexit negotiations have unfolded so far, one argument was that differences in political systems have further compounded a difficult situation. The majoritarian system in UK politics contrasts with the consensus-building, coalition approach of most of continental Europe, leading to different understandings of political communication and negotiation. In that sense, Theresa May’s October 2016 party conference speech was seen as an early signal to the EU27 that the internal UK politics of Brexit were pronounced and could have an impact on the negotiations. A further suggestion was that the more transactional understanding of European integration in the UK, while not new, has been important in shaping how UK politicians approach the negotiations. An alternative view was that, despite the current difficulties in making progress, the reality of any negotiation is that agreement is only ever reached as the deadline approaches.

On the prospects for a Brexit transition for the UK, it is likely that the EU will require full implementation of EU law (including any new laws adopted during that period), accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the payment of financial contributions equivalent to an EU/EEA state. It is unacceptable to the EU27 that a third state could have terms of access as favourable as those of a member, and the EEA states would also not accept EEA-style treatment for the UK without the same requirements placed upon them. The length of a Brexit transition period will be a key issue. It was also suggested that the EU will insist on continued access to UK fishing waters as part of any transitional deal.

On the trade deal itself, one perspective was that the EU will offer the option of a Canada or Norway arrangement, but no bespoke deal between the two choices. It was suggested that, outside of EFTA/EEA, a modest Canada plus deal would be the best on offer. Another point raised was that, even under a Canada scenario, the UK would be obliged by the EU to follow European standards (for instance, on the environment), or at least maintain a level playing field, in order to maintain market access.

One argument raised was that moving on to the second phase of the negotiations and to the granular discussion on all specific aspects of Brexit will expose even further the weaknesses in the case for leaving the EU. It was suggested that businesses, including SMEs, are already preparing for a hard Brexit. One view was that, although Scotland has attempted to situate itself differently to the rest of the UK with respect to Brexit, it is unclear whether it will have much success.

Another view was that, if the UK government allows parts of the UK to remain in the customs union, the EU27 would be ready to accept that. A further perspective was that the UK would have no better option than full EU membership, while the EU27’s first priority is maintaining the integrity of the internal market. One concluding thought was that, while it will be a challenge to make post-Brexit arrangements work, the UK and the EU will continue to be neighbours and must learn to cooperate with one another.

The roundtable was followed by a public panel discussion, pictured above