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The road to nowhere: the Syrian refugees left out in the cold by Europe

More than two million people have fled the civil war in Syria. Many of them are desperate to get into Europe – but no country wants them.

One day at the end of October last year, Mohamad Hussain went to a café in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Aksaray to meet a smuggler. The smuggler said that, for €400 each, he would drive Mohamad and his family to Edirne, a city close to Turkey’s north-west frontier. From there, the smuggler said, he would find them safe passage into the European Union.

The Hussains were Kurds, from Qamishli in north-east Syria. Twelve of them – Mohamad, his mother, brother and sisters, and their cousins – had travelled to Istanbul together, and although it may not have felt so, they were among the lucky ones. Mohamad, a 24-year-old engineering student at university in Homs, had been lucky to escape injury when the Assad regime fired a rocket at the building next to his dorms. He was lucky that when, at the end of term in August, his bus back to Qamishli was ambushed by Islamist rebels, they only pretended they were going to cut off his head with a sword. When Mohamad’s mother insisted that this threat to her youngest son was the last straw, the family was lucky to sneak unnoticed across the Turkish border, even though it entailed wading through an open sewer.

The Hussains had relatives over the border, and so they could avoid being sent to one of the vast refugee camps Turkey operates on its south-eastern edge and where, they were told, “you’re stuck until the war ends”. They made it to Istanbul, where they rented a cramped apartment in Aksaray.

In this, too, they were lucky: just a few hundred metres away from where Mohamad met the smuggler, other Syrians were sleeping on camp beds under the arches of a Byzantine aqueduct. Since the autumn, thousands have been appearing destitute and starving in Istanbul’s parks, faster than the Turkish aid agencies can find them.

And the Hussains were lucky the smuggler didn’t simply steal the €400 per person he’d asked for; instead, he drove them to Edirne, then to a forest along the Bulgarian border, and said: “Walk that way.”

It was 3am when the Hussains arrived at the forest’s edge. They were joined by other refugees; there were 73 of them in total. At each stage of their journey they had been stripped of possessions, first their homes, then their savings, then all but the few clothes they could carry with them through the forest. The long walk through the wet autumn night would even destroy many people’s shoes. But the Hussains told themselves the sacrifices were worth it, because on the other side of that border lay Europe.

****

It was more than a month after that trip through the forest when I first met Mohamad. In early December, I had travelled to Turkey, and then Bulgaria, to find out what was happening to Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. Of the two million who have fled abroad, the vast majority are living in three of Syria’s neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But the number reaching Europe has been increasing steadily since summer. Bulgaria, which estimates it had received up to 15,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2013, has been placing new arrivals in hastily opened “overflow” camps. It was at one of these, just outside the town of Harmanli, 30 miles north of the border with Turkey, that Mohamad approached me.

He had been at the camp, with scant access to the outside world, for 45 days by this point. Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, with neatly gelled hair, Mohamad had walked up to me and begun asking questions. Were Arsenal still top of the Premier League? Did I know that their attacking midfielder Mesut Özil was Kurdish? Was I a fan of Taylor Swift, the singer? Did I know how Mohamad could contact his uncle in Germany? Was Britain accepting any refugees? And most of all, did I know a way his family could get out of the camp? “You didn’t see here when it was raining,” he said. Around us, the wild, hilly countryside of southern Bulgaria was lit sharply in the winter sun. “A river of water. I would rather go back to Syria and be killed than stay here.”

We were standing on the steps of a dere­lict building at a Communist-era army base, now repurposed as a refugee camp. Inside, staff from Médecins Sans Frontières were busy setting up an emergency clinic. Outside, in front of us, stretched rows of canvas tents and metal shipping containers. At least 1,500 people, with more arriving daily, were crammed into a space no more than a few hundred metres square. Groups of children played, piling up and smashing the blocks from rubble that littered the ground, jumping back and forwards over broken wire fences, or hanging from rope swings strung between the few trees that hadn’t been chopped down for firewood. The camp was bordered by a concrete perimeter wall: low enough to hear passing cars and pedestrians, but not to see them.

It’s not easy to find your way across the forest that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. After wandering lost in the woods for hours, the Hussains’ group was found by border guards. “We knew we were in Europe,” Mohamad said, “because one of them had a flag with yellow stars on his shoulder.” Details of the procedure for receiving refugees arriving in Europe differ from country to country, but in essence the process is the same: they should be registered and interviewed, have their fingerprints taken and be given temporary documents while their claim is assessed. In theory, it should take only a few days.

Instead, Mohamad and his family were taken to a detention centre where their passports were confiscated. Syrians aren’t the only undocumented migrants who cross Bulgaria’s southern border; at the detention centre, said Mohamad, “They separated us into groups: the Syrians, the Afghans, the black Africans. Like animals.” The same seg­regation seemed to have taken place at Harmanli. Syrians, the largest group, occupied the tents and containers at the centre of the camp; a hundred or so Afghans lived in an old schoolhouse, smoky with fumes from wood-burning stoves and whose toilets leaked; a smaller group of African men – the ones I met were from Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Mali – was in another, smaller building. It had bars on the windows.

After seven days in detention, the Hussains were moved to Harmanli’s closed camp, its entry and exit controlled by the local police. When they arrived, there was no running water or electricity. Food deli­veries were sporadic and the only medical care was an emergency visit by an ambulance. “If people wanted to leave to buy food or see a doctor,” Mohamad said, “the police asked for money.” Some of the refugees were sold bogus contracts by men who arrived at the gates posing as lawyers. The “contracts” promised accommodation in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia: those who handed over their money found they were driven there and dumped on the street. The Hussains wanted to leave and try a nearby camp where conditions were rumoured to be better, but their savings were running out and, without passports, they couldn’t be wired money by friends or relatives.

“Do you want to see the camp?” Mohamad asked me. It was late afternoon as we set off from the steps of the new clinic, and the winter sun was beginning to dip. Even in daylight, the temperature had barely risen above zero, and now people were lighting fires outside their tents to keep warm. The fires mark time here: lit once at sunset, they are rekindled in the early hours of the morning as people’s legs begin to freeze and they wake up. In the final hours of daylight, I saw people scavenging for tree stumps, fallen branches, cardboard boxes – whatever combustible material remained.

In mid-November, the refugees had protested, piling their mattresses outside and setting fire to them. Some of the women went on hunger strike. Now, conditions have begun to improve. A local catering firm, run by Syrians, provides one hot meal a day to the camp; the food is distributed swiftly and efficiently by the refugees themselves. Slowly, families were being moved from the tents into metal containers, which have electricity, water and heating. But when I visited, many were still stuck with just canvas and a wood-burning stove to protect them from the elements.

As we walked along a row of tents, Mohamad stopped to chat to a family huddled around a brazier for warmth. They were Kurds from Syria, too, but unlike the Hussains, who are Muslims, they followed the Yazidi religion, distantly connected to Zoroastrianism. A father-of-three – still so frightened that he asked me not to use his name – described how he had brought his children and his 75-year-old mother to Bulgaria after their home village was ethnically cleansed by Islamists of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. He suffered from diabetes; his mother had heart disease. “The pain is like a snake in my stomach,” said the old woman, complaining that the cold was making her condition worse.

Here, where until a few days before my visit the only contact with doctors was a single, urgent visit by the local ambulance, such common medical conditions can become dire emergencies. “This is more than just a health situation,” Stuart Zimble, the Médecins Sans Frontières head of mission who was in charge of setting up the clinic at Harmanli, later explained to me. “Health problems are being aggravated by the shortfall of the registration process at the border. The Bulgarian government were just not prepared.” There are women in their ninth month of pregnancy and cancer patients who can no longer get access to treatment, not to mention people afflicted by the psychological traumas of those who have fled war. When Eirini, the photojournalist who had come with me to take pictures of the camp, offered a sweet to one of the Afghan children, he just stared at her blankly.

****

When the Hussains left Istanbul at the end of October, their journey would have taken them along the highway that runs beside the Sea of Marmara and then up into the region of south-eastern Europe still known by its ancient name of Thrace. Today, it is where the Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian borders meet, marking the scramble for land that occurred after the collapse of the Otto­man empire. From 1945, it was where the Soviet and western spheres of influence collided. Now, another kind of struggle takes place: between migrants in search of refuge or a way to earn a living – or both – and an EU that increasingly wants to keep them out.

A few days before visiting Harmanli, I had travelled the same route as the Hussains from Istanbul, stopping off at Edirne, a capital in the Ottoman era whose centre is still dominated by three imposing medieval mosques. It has long been a last stop in Turkey for migrants but until recently their preferred destination was Greece, over the border formed by the River Evros. Most people would cross by night in inflatable boats; some would even swim. It was the most popular choice of route into the EU.

One evening I took a taxi from Edirne to the Evros border crossing a few miles outside town. It was dark when I crossed the no-man’s-land between the two roadside checkpoints, but just light enough to spot a few sandbagged gun encampments and a forbidding wire fence on the Greek side, stretching off into the distance. The road was empty, my passage held up only by a line of three geese that waddled through passport control before me. Waiting on the other side in an ageing blue Toyota was Panos, a resident of the nearby town of Orestiada whom I’d phoned earlier that day.

Panos, a young sales rep whose job takes him all around the region, is one of a handful of local people who openly opposed the construction of the fence I’d seen at the border. Six miles long and equipped with thermal sensors to detect movement, it was announced with much fanfare in August 2012 when Greece “sealed” its border with Turkey. “Most people around here support the fence,” Panos said, once we had found our way to a bar. “They aren’t affected by immigration themselves, but they see the migrants come, they hear on the television that immigration causes problems, then they see the fence and think: ‘This is dealing with the problem.’”

Many of those who crossed the Evros in recent years haven’t looked to Greece as their final destination; for them it was a first step towards refuge, work or family members in the wealthier northern European economies. For well over a decade, southern European countries have been asked to shoulder the burden of dealing with irregular migration: the 2003 Dublin II Regulation, for instance, made asylum claims the responsibility of the state through which the migrant first entered the EU. For the most part, that has meant Spain, Italy, Greece – and now Bulgaria.

Since the eurozone crisis of 2009, as European governments have grown ever more panicky about immigration, the pressure has intensified. Hundreds of officers from the EU border agency Frontex have been sent to patrol the Evros in the past few years. In August 2012, the Greek government redeployed almost 2,000 of its own police officers to the region. But the surge came at the very moment when the numbers fleeing Syria began to increase. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees believes there are now 838,000 in Lebanon, 567,000 in Jordan, 540,000 in Turkey, 207,000 in Iraq and 129,000 in Egypt, apart from the 6.5 million Syrians who are internally displaced.

The heightened security along Europe’s borders hasn’t stopped them coming but it has led to more deaths: many now choose to make a perilous crossing by boat from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast instead, and the trip is often fatal. Those who still attempt to cross the Evros find a harsh welcome.

Panos told me that on 12 November his group of activists received a call from someone in the border village of Praggi, saying that about 150 bedraggled Syrian refugees had arrived overnight. “By the time one of our group arrived they had gone,” he said. “The villagers said that the police had taken them away.” Nobody knows what happened to them after that; on 24 December the London Guardian quoted a local human rights lawyer saying the group had “lost all trace” of the refugees.

It is not an isolated incident. A report by the German NGO Pro Asyl, published in November, collected the accounts of 90 refugees who said they had been forcibly pushed back from Greece’s land and sea frontiers. Some of them said they had been forced back into the Evros. Pro Asyl argued this pointed to “systematic abuse of human rights” and estimated that 2,000 migrants could have been forced out in the course of a year. The Greek police deny that they operate a push-back policy; Frontex says it investigates reports of mistreatment whenever they arise. Soon, Syria’s Bulgarian border will be “sealed”, too. In November, the Bulgarians began building a fence of their own.

The village bar where Panos and I were sitting was empty except for a few old men reading newspapers. “This isn’t like a big city,” he said: “if I put my head up, everyone sees. When we protest outside the police station, the policemen inside are guys I went to school with.” He was growing angry. “But I can’t watch what’s happening and say nothing. Yesterday, they found a woman who had frozen to death in a field, just fifty metres over there.” He waved a hand towards the window of the bar. “How can I stay silent about this?”

****

Lazgin Musa sat back and took a drag on his cigarette while Mohamad translated for me. “And here is the paradise of Europe! We don’t even see any Europeans. We can’t leave the camp.” I was back for a second day in Harmanli and Mohamad was taking me to meet his cousins, then still living in one of the canvas tents. Thirty-one-year-old Lazgin, along with his younger brother Goders and their nephew Robar, were part of the group of 12 who had made the long journey here together from Qamishli.

Before the war the brothers had lived in Damascus, where Lazgin ran a clothing shop. Like many Kurds, whose culture and language have been suppressed for decades, they took part in the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that swept Syria in 2011. “We were protesting even before then,” said Lazgin, a little indignantly. “But when weapons got into this revolution, we said, ‘We are not with this revolution.’” As popular unrest tilted towards civil war, they held back.

Their fears were justified. First, Lazgin said, the conflict destroyed their livelihood. War drove his European customers away. The price of food shot up as the Syrian currency lost its value. Then, as fighting broke out between the Kurds, who wanted greater autonomy for their territory, and Islamist rebel groups, their lives were threatened on two fronts. “We escaped from Islamists, not from the regime,” Lazgin said, as he stoked the stove that sat in the middle of the tent, its flue poking out of a hole in the roof. “If Assad wins, he’ll kill everybody who was against him. If an Islamist group kills Assad there will be thousands of Islamist groups fighting each other. It will be like Afghanistan.”

Syria’s refugee crisis already compares in scale to that of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Millions who have fled their country are now resigning themselves to a long exile, looking not just for safe haven, but a way to earn a living. Yet by and large the doors of European countries have remained closed. Since the conflict started, only 10,000 refugees have been resettled formally in western countries – and that includes the United States. In December, a report by Amnesty International said the EU had “miserably failed” to provide support.

The excuses range in tone: some politicians, such as the Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino, say that harsh restrictions are necessary because there might be terrorists among the refugees. Bulgarian tele­vision channels have focused on the cost of accommodation – or on the dirt and chaos at the camps, implying that Syrians are bringing disease with them. And the British government, while pointing to the large sums it is donating to humanitarian efforts, says it thinks refugees would be better off in Syria’s neighbouring countries.

This last claim is questionable. It is widely accepted that Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken in more than a million refugees between them, are struggling to cope, but the pressure is also starting to show in Turkey, which claims to have spent more than $2bn on relief efforts so far. The Turkish government was quick to set up camps along the south-eastern border with Syria which are now home to roughly 200,000 refugees. But up to 500,000 more live elsewhere in the country. “There’s a perception that Turkey has less of a need because it’s spent so much money,” Oktay Durukan of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, an Istanbul-based human rights group, told me. “That’s the wrong message to give.” UNHCR is calling on European countries to keep their borders open.

Bulgaria, one of the poorest EU member countries, complains that it has not received enough support to deal with the rising numbers of refugees. The economic downturn has sparked a political crisis there; in February last year the government was brought down by widespread street protests, and the unrest continues. A far-right party, Ataka (“attack”), is now the fourth largest in parliament, and it has been at the forefront of complaints about the presence of refugees. Other European states could help relieve the pressure. So far, they are largely choosing not to do so.

The refugees know they are being talked of as a burden, and it is something they find bitterly ironic. Mohamad wants to continue his studies in Germany, or even Britain. His brother has a degree in business management and his sister is a qualified psychotherapist. Another of his cousins, Jazia, works as a translator at the camp clinic, using the English she says she learned from watching American movies on TV. “Eur­ope needs people from the Middle East,” Lazgin said. “Europeans stay single; they have one, maybe two children. Middle East people are all married and have many children by the time they are our age. We are a young society.”

Lazgin was half joking, but the mention of children reminded him of something. Another of his brothers was at a camp outside Sofia, with a baby son. “If you go there, give his child a kiss from me.”

****

When systems fail, we have a choice: to accept the failure, or to take action. Many Bulgarians have been shocked by the images of refugees they have seen on television. A weekly delivery of clothes, toys and other supplies arrives at Harmanli – but it is not the usual donation from aid agencies. These are second-hand goods, gathered from around the country, collected in Sofia and driven down to Harmanli in battered old family cars.

It started as a Facebook group, Friends of the Refugees. Then an enterprising developer set up a website where you can track donations as they happen on a live map. But without the intervention of political leaders, will its efforts be enough?

After we left his cousins’ tent, Mohamad invited me back to his container. The metal box must have been no more than ten metres wide and five deep, yet inside it something approaching everyday family life was going on. In two cramped rooms, with a bathroom and a space for cooking, his mother fussed around, tidying up after two of Mohamad’s young cousins, both toddlers. It was warm and brightly lit. A friend knocked at the door. “He was our neighbour in Qamishli and now he lives in the container next to us,” Mohamad said. As I was getting ready to leave, another of Mohamad’s cousins joked that I should leave my passport behind. A UK passport, like those of the US and Finland, guarantees entry to the highest number of countries without any need for a visa. I didn’t know that – but then I’ve never needed to.

On 10 January, I spoke to Mohamad by phone. More containers had arrived and people were no longer living in tents. The Hussains had spent their first Christmas in Europe at Harmanli. On New Year’s Eve, someone had set up a PA system. “They played Kurdish and African dances,” Mohamad said. “But it was too cold to stay outside for long.”

After more than two months, the Hussains finally had their fingerprints taken. They are still waiting for their documents to arrive so they can leave the camp.

Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).