The EU questions Salmond must answer

The SNP leader should come clean on the euro before lecturing others.

With the exception of Paddy Ashdown, astonishingly few politicians and commentators have made the link between Scotland and Europe. But Cameron's decision to isolate the UK has significant implications for the Scottish National Party [SNP], which has long campaigned for "independence in Europe". As Ashdown wrote in the Observer, "If England is to be out of Europe, why should Scotland not be in?"

From one perspective, Cameron's stance strengthens Alex Salmond's argument that Scotland needs independence to pursue its own policy of European integration. As the SNP leader wrote in his letter to the PM:

Last week's developments in Brussels demonstrate that Scotland urgently needs a voice at the top table when our vital national interests are being discussed, by becoming an independent member state, instead of being shut out of the room.

He followed that up with "six crucial questions" for Cameron on Europe and Scottish interests. But if you strip away the rhetoric, Salmond is avoiding some inconvenient questions of his own.

Until recently, the SNP leader proudly declared that an independent Scotland would join the euro. In 2009, he quipped that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and argued that euro membership was becoming increasingly attractive. "There is no doubt that the plummeting pound and parlous state of the UK economy has caused many people in the business community and elsewhere to view membership favourably," he said. That, to put it mildly, is no longer the case and, consequently, Salmond has changed tact. Like Gordon Brown circa 2003, he now states that Scotland will retain the pound until it is in the country's "economic advantage" to join the euro.

Whether or not that day comes, there is no majority for Salmond's stance. Polling shows that the Scottish electorate is only marginally less eurosceptic than the UK electorate as a whole. According to a recent YouGov poll, 44 per cent of Scottish voters want to leave the EU (38 per cent want to remain) compared to 47 per cent of UK voters. Similarly, 45 per cent of UK voters think that Britain's EU membership is a "bad thing" and so do 41 per cent of Scots.

Even if Scotland were to join the euro, would Salmond sign up to a fiscal union? Having finally won autonomy over spending and borrowing would he happily submit his annual budgets to Brussels for approval? How would he respond if the EU blocked his long-promised cut in corporation tax? Until he answers these and other questions, Salmond has little right to lecture others.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Brexit effect: The fall in EU migration spells trouble for the UK

The 84,000 fall in net migration to 248,000 will harm an economy that is dependent on immigration.

The UK may not have left the EU yet but Europeans are already leaving it. New figures from the ONS show that 117,000 EU citizens emigrated in 2016 (up 31,000 from 2015) - the highest level for six years. The exodus was most marked among eastern Europeans, with a fall in immigration from the EU8 countries to 48,000 (down 25,000) and a rise in emigration to 43,000 (up 16,000).

As a result, net migration has fallen to 248,000 (down 84,000), the lowest level since 2014. That's still nearly more than double the Conservatives' target of "tens of thousands a year" (reaffirmed in their election manifesto) but the trend is unmistakable. The number of international students, who Theresa May has refused to exclude from the target (despite cabinet pleas), fell by 32,000 to 136,000. And all this before the government has imposed new controls on free movement.

The causes of the UK's unattractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit (May has refused to guarantee EU citizens the right to remain) and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents. Ministers may publicly welcome the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.

Brexit has in fact forced ministers to increasingly acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: Britain needs immigrants. Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. Brexit secretary David Davis, for instance, recently conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall after the UK leaves the EU. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (a level not seen since 1997), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

Alongside the new immigration figures, GDP growth in the first quarter of 2017 was revised down to 0.2 per cent - the weakest performance since Q4 2012. In recent history, there has only been one reliable means of reducing net migration: a recession. Newcomers from the EU halved after the 2008 crash. Should the UK suffer the downturn that historic trends predict, it will need immigrants more than ever. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496