David Martin talks to Hermine Donceel about Scotland after Brexit and EU ASEAN trade relations. Scotland could end up voting to leave the United Kingdom and should be allowed to join EFTA, the MEP reckons. As to EU ASEAN relations, the EU must pay more attention to human rights and stop negotiating a free trade deal with the Philippines, Martin says.
As a Scottish MEP, what prospects do you see for Scotland post Brexit?
I think if we leave, and if we leave with the present government I do not see any alternative to a pretty hard Brexit.
What Brexit exactly means for Scotland, no one knows exactly including the Scottish First Minister. Another referendum for independence will be called for around October 2018, once the Brexit terms are broadly finalised. I expect the polls to be extremely close. In fact, even if it is not my preferred outcome, I suspect that Scotland would narrowly vote to leave the UK. If so, it would obviously not happen overnight, so Scotland would be out of the EU for a while with probably one of the easiest passages back in. It should not be complicated for us to negotiate membership.
My favourite solution is the one proposed by the Scottish government’s Standing Committee. In a paper, it writes that Scotland should apply for an associate membership of the European free-trade area (EFTA) and, through it, retain access to the EU market. It requires EFTA countries to accept us as a territory, and not as a member state. But the major hurdle will be London, which would have to agree that Scotland is granted the autonomy to join an international body. Unfortunately, in the current atmosphere I doubt that London would accept.
However, the double edge part of it is that if London stops Scotland getting its deal, it will fuel the nationalist campaign. And if the Scotts fail to get what they want, there will be no other alternative than independence. From my point of view it is another dangerous challenge the UK will be facing.
Prime Minister Theresa May said she wants to have a “free, frictionless, and seamless” trade agreement. Is this achievable?
I doubt that it can happen. If the whole Brexit negotiations turn sour, then the trade deal will be sour, too.
Coming down to the type of deal the British government is looking at, I think that it will probably be closer to the Comprehensive Economic and Free Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada than to Ukraine’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). What the UK government wants is a low-tariffs deal, access to services and to public procurement. For London, the DCFTA goes too far and too deep in some fields. Because it wants to be free to negotiate as many FTAs as it wants, it will probably avoid being tied with customs union, let alone free movement of people.
Moving on to ASEAN, where are we headed in our trade talks both at the regional and bilateral level?
The ASEAN region is one of the key growth areas in the world and economically a good match for the European Union, because by and large its exports do not compete with the EU’s main exports. It is thus economically extremely important to the EU.
The question then becomes whether these countries have a decent enough human rights check. Unfortunately, we have noticed in the past years that humand rights are not always improving, on the contrary in some cases [the situation] is actually even getting worse.
The right approach is to look at the route that has been traveled and whether it is going in the right direction. Our engagement is only justifiable where it reinforces positive policies. The case of Myanmar tells that even if the country’s governance is far from perfect it is headed in the right direction, and I do see evidence that European investments in the country tend to raise their standards.
At the other end of the scale are military regimes such as in Thailand. Here there is no basis for discussion unless the current regime sets a firm date for democratically held elections. Only then would there be an argument to start free trade discussions, as a leeway to encourage the democratic process.
The Philippines present another, different challenge with President Duterte openly supporting extra-judicial killings. In my opinion, it is not appropriate anymore to negotiate a new trade deal. Quite the contrary, the time has come to use a “stick”, starting by throwing the generalised system of preferences ‘plus’ granted to the country. The GSP plus is granted under the condition of signing up for certain standards, and in the case of Duterte’s Philippines I do not see how the EU could still justify granting them such a privilege.
As for Vietnam, the country displays quite an effectively growing economy that shields its citizens from abject poverty. But it is dismal on personal and political rights. The picture is very mixed and I have not quite made up my mind on the way to go about it. Coming to the view that it is better to engage than not, supporting the opening up the country would be the right thing to do, but it could make the ones in power complacent because they have gained international recognition. In the end I guess it is a matter of trying to feel the government’s pulse.
On another note, ASEAN governments also realise that EU democracies are facing their own tensions and they are quite quick at pointing at them. It is becoming problematic somehow, because they have a point. My line is always to insist that we remain convinced that United Nations’ and other universal standards and benchmarks should be universally promoted and established.
I believe that Commissioner Malmström will be strong on that. With Myanmar, she will make it very clear that if the EU investment agreement is to go ahead, the human rights situation in relation with the Rohyngas has to improve dramatically and that she will not be able to pass the deal through the European parliament unless the situation improves. She will also deliver a strong message on human rights to the Philippines.
These messages will be tempered by the fact that she will clearly signal that ASEAN countries are economically key partners to the European Union. The time is right to recall that the EU is ready to pursue trade talks, but with conditions. And it is now in a better position to push this conditionality.
David Martin is a Scottish MEP. He is rapporteur on ASEAN in the European Parliament’s international trade committee.