NEW FRENCH PRESIDENT POSES A FURTHER THREAT TO BREXIT
There was a tangible sigh of relief in Brussels at the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections. An arch-Europhile, the centrist Macron is regarded as a safe pair of hands by the EU, who were shuddering at the thought of a win by the right wing extremist Marine Le Pen, with her pledge to tear France out of the Eurozone and hold a FREXIT referendum. Macron will now cement the old Franco-German alliance, which had collapsed under the weak and chaotic leadership of Francois Hollande, allowing German Chancellor Angela Merkel to rule the roost in Europe for the past 5 years. Merkel herself faces an election battle later this year, with a stout challenge from the Socialist Party’s new champion in Germany – Martin Schulz – former president of the European Parliament. Also an arch-Europhile, Schulz is likely to end up as a senior minister in a coalition German government, even if he loses the election to Merkel.
None of this can come as good news for Britain and the looming BREXIT negotiations. Already off to a bad start with allegations of a fractious dinner in 10 Downing Street and claims by Theresa May that EU leaders were trying to interfere in the UK elections, the overwhelming vote for Macron must be seen as a setback for Britain. Macron has repeatedly stated that he was appalled by BREXIT and that the UK must receive no favourable treatment in case it encourages other countries, like France, to head for the exit door. A former finance minister in Hollande’s socialist government, Macron knows how to twist the economic knife. Britain’s divorce bill, rumoured now to be approaching €100 billion, is unlikely to be slashed by the new French president.
Local election results in Scotland, England and Wales have shown a surge of support for the Conservatives and the virtual destruction of Labour’s traditional heartland. Certainly this points the way towards a substantial Tory majority in the General Election on 8th June, which should provide Theresa May with the strong and stable government she cherishes. It will mean she can no longer be held to ransom by the extreme Euro-sceptics in her own ranks, for whom hard-BREXIT was always the soft option. She will now be able to negotiate a deal that may indeed benefit all of Britain. What we need is a new comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU and a set of interim agreements to avoid a “cliff edge” for UK business. The UK should then unilaterally slash some of our tariffs to let in cheaper exports, setting up a giant free-trade zone of like-minded nations including Singapore, Switzerland and the USA. Britain would become a beacon of trade liberalization at the table of the WTO.
But to negotiate such a deal with the EU-27 will require an element of compromise. Britain will first have to pay a significant divorce settlement. The redundancy payments and pensions of thousands of British officials who will lose their jobs when Britain leaves the EU, must be funded by the UK. There will inevitably be other costs involving on-going debts and budget commitments. Some of these may be partly offset by the UK’s share of EU assets, rebates and budget receipts. In the EU's accounts, the EU's total assets amount to €8.6bn of property, plant and equipment, and €13.9bn of assets available for sale. The EU owns the monolithic parliament buildings in both Brussels and Strasbourg, as well as innumerable office blocks that house the European Commission and Council and even bodies like the Committee of the Regions and ECOSOC. The UK will clearly have a legitimate claim on a share of those assets.
Keeping democratic oversight during years of painstaking, highly technical and politically charged negotiations with scores of countries will be a mammoth task for Britain’s elected representatives. The months and years ahead will see a political rollercoaster that will change Britain forever. Our entire focus has to be on getting the best possible deal for every part of Britain. In Scotland, we cannot afford to allow our attention to be distracted by another protracted session of navel-gazing that would erupt if we consent to nationalist demands for INDYREF 2. We had our vote on independence only two and a half years ago and an overwhelming majority 55% to 45% voted NO. Our First Minister always claims to be listening to the voice of Scotland and yet she seems to be permanently deaf to what Scotland said in 2014. Let’s not get into the situation of having NEVERENDUMS like Canada was forced to do by their Parti Québécois nationalists.
There is nothing business fears more than risk and uncertainty and these two ogres currently stalk the land. Beset with worries about Brexit, the last thing Scottish business needs or wants is the threat of another referendum on independence. Business leaders say that another referendum remains the single biggest threat to our economy, stifling investment, inhibiting growth and choking prosperity. The divisions caused by INDYREF1 and by the BREXIT referendum were deep and divisive. They must now be buried. We all have to work together to achieve what is best for Britain and best for Scotland.