I hope that people will learn much sooner from the British experience in 2016. I hope they will recognize that the anti-EU voices raised by Brexit have lessons for the whole of Europe, and are not simply another expression of British eccentricity.

7 questions to | Hugh Salvesen

TSBN | 3. Juli 2016 Scotland wants to stay in the EU. Meanwhile, young people iall over England are playing democracy. They did not raise their voices ahead of the referendum. Nor did they participate in countable numbers in pro-EU groups. Now they are protesting in their thousands, not only in London, on- as well as offline. They did not vote by ballot but by emotion. And they immaturely thought that would be enough. Too many of them however missed the opportunity to really make a difference. Hard to imagine that the outcome of the Britisch referendum will be changed, despite all the protests now even though the referendum results are constitutionally not binding for Westminster.

What about Scotland now?

The Scottish vote is clear: 62 % voted in favour of the European Union. Will there be another referendum soon, the second one after 2014? Will Scotland leave the United Kingdom? Although geographically further away from the continent than England the majority of Scottish people wants to stay in the EU. We spoke with former UK ambassador Dr Hugh Salvesen about the Scottish vote, the possible consequences and his personal vision for a future Europe in our series “7 questions”.


Dr Hugh Salvesen
Dr Hugh Salvesen

Hugh Salvesen

was born 1955 in Scotland. He studied in Cambridge, Munich and Vienna German and Romance philology. PhD in Vienna about Karl Kraus. From 1982 on he served 26 years long nine foreign ministers. Actually, he did not want to be sent to Germany: “I’d like to get to know something new.”

Yet, he went to Germany: 1984 to Berlin and only one year later as the domestic political advisor to the ambassador to Bonn which was still the capital of “West Germany” then. 1990 he was involved in the historic 2 plus 4 negotiations which lead to German reunification.

In the foreign ministery in London he was – besides several other responsibilities over the years – responsible for the relations to the United Nations. He was leading the political department in the embassy in Buenos Aires and deputy ambassador in Wellington, New Zealand. 2005 he became ambassador in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Since 2009 he is back in his “Heimat” Scotland where he – besides other acitivties – works as a Scottish Tourist Guide, primarily with German visitors, in Edinburgh.


When the Scots were called to vote for or against independence from the UK, the majority voted to stay. After Brexit the question is again high on the agenda. Will there be a new referendum about Scotland’s independence, and this time maybe with a clear cut from the rest of Britannia?

Unless the debacle of the vote on 23 June can be undone – and that seems unlikely – then yes, I expect another referendum on Scottish independence. The Scots voted decisively to remain in the EU, by 62% to 38%. There was a majority for Remain throughout the country, from the English border region to Shetland.

Many Scottish people are therefore aghast that they are nevertheless to be forced out of the EU because most English voters (outside London) chose to leave. Especially young people. Two years ago they voted against Scottish independence because they were told that that was the best option if they wanted to remain citizens of the EU. In the light of what has happened now, I expect they will vote for Scottish independence next time.

I expect that traditional Labour supporters will also vote for independence in greater numbers than in 2014, because of the continuing erosion of the party’s support in Scotland, and because of the embarrassing failure of the party leaders to make a convincing case for Remain during the recent campaign.

Angus Robertson, the Parliamentary Group Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Westminister, last week stated in the House of commons: „We are a European country and we will stay a European country.“ He added that his party has “no intention whatsoever of seeing Scotland taken out of Europe” or being part of a „diminished little Britain“. Would not an exit of Scotland from Great Britain exactly contribute to this?

Die Brexit-Karte Großbritanniens mit Schottland © BBC
The Brexit map © BBC

Of course the United Kingdom will be even more diminished if Scotland leaves. But seen from the SNP’s perspective, that is not the point. The SNP’s goal is rather an independent Scotland within the community of European nation states.

Let’s have a look from the North on the whole of Great Britain: Why is a country which has colonised so many others is so concerned to share its sovereignty – even in a network of democratic nations?

Well, of course the United Kingdom wasn’t sharing sovereignty when it was governing its colonies. It was introducing British institutions to those colonies: the English legal system, a British style of public administration. They were fashioned on a British model. The EU experience is totally different: here the UK joined an arrangement of institutions which had been designed a generation earlier, primarily by the French. We never found it easy to fit in.

And then there is the whole business of our island history. If you and I meet in Wincheringen, we can walk across the bridge over the Mosel and we’re in a different country. The Brits don’t have such a sense of embeddedness. We are apart. Even the Channel Tunnel can’t change that.

UKIP leader Farage is claiming to be the spiritus rector of Brexit. He has celebrated himself in the European Parliament last week for this. What makes him so strong? Is it his charisma that people feel so attracted by his xenophobia? Or are the EU-Europeans in the UK simply missing a crowd puller who would be able to thrill the people?

The referendum result is certainly a triumph for Farage. But we shouldn’t exaggerate his individual importance. He failed to get elected to the House of Commons. He has no support to speak of in Scotland. He gets lots of publicity because he’s not afraid to be rude, and many people find that refreshing. They like his straight talking. They like it when he gives interviews holding a pint of beer and a cigarette. He is the British personification of the widespread disillusion with the political class which you can see all over Europe, and indeed in the USA. And he articulates the fears of the many people in England who are afraid of globalization.

Conversely, it is hard to think of any significant politician on this island who is an enthusiastic advocate for closer European union. Such a politician would never get elected. Perhaps that is part of the problem.

Just a few links to Scotland

As a diplomat you’ve been to Continental Europe as well as to Latin America. You haven’t just worked but also lived in different countries. Not only from a Scotish perspective, but also seen from other corners of the world: what could a successful narrative be to ethuse people again with the “European idea”?

There are large parts of the world of which I know nothing: Africa, for example. But my impression is that most countries think much more nationalistically than the Europeans do, including the British. They are light years away from the sort of shared sovereignty we have achieved in Europe. If they are interested in regional integration at all, it is in creating a common market. Rather like the Brits, you might say… Even forging a common market they find painfully difficult. Think of Mercosur in Latin America. As for political union, who remembers the United Arab Republic of 1958-61?

Navid Kermani, laureate of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2015, stated in an interview with the German radio station Deutschlandfunk last week: „We have the problem that politicians control the fate of Europe who decide for 500 million people. But they only peer at their own constituency. They only see the egoistic interests of their own nation, their own voters.” Does this description also apply to British or Scottish politics? Is there veritable European politics missing?  Could this potenially be Europe’s current dilemma?

Members of the European Parliament are expected to represent those who elected them. And these people they represent are citizens of a nation state with specific national, regional and local interests. If an MEP representing fishermen in Scotland finds that he or she can make common cause with an MEP representing fishermen in Portugal or Denmark, that’s great. But it is hopelessly idealistic to suppose that European politicians will as a matter of course suppress their national allegiances for the sake of the supra-national, ‘European’ project. Indeed, I find Navid Kermani’s alternative vision faintly depressing. Long live diversity.

You have lived and worked for a very long time in London and from there – from the everything dominating centre of the United Kingdom. Now as a Scotsman you are living back home in your home land or, as we Germans call it, Heimat. This is far away from the conglomerate of both political and economic power. How does your European vision look like? What will Europe be in fifty years from now?

Scotland wants to stay © The Scotsman
Scotland wants to stay © The Scotsman

I’m glad you mentioned London, which is indeed part of the problem, and helps to explain Brexit. It is no longer an English city, but a globalopolis that happens to be located on the south-eastern corner of this island. It has benefited from globalization, but the losers from globalization – the Farage supporters, if you like – associate it with the bankers and politicians they detest. And of course it is an enormously powerful magnet for the migrants whom they don’t like either.

My vision of Europe 50 years hence? I think at once of your Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt, who famously remarked that anyone who has visions should see a doctor. Well, London may be under water, like Venice and the Netherlands. To continue the metaphor, I wonder if the high tide of European integration has passed: I imagine that the EU which an independent Scotland joins in due course will be a less ambitious association of nation states than the one envisaged at Maastricht. The euro will have gone: economic historians will look back on it as an extremely expensive error.

I hope that people will learn much sooner from the British experience in 2016. I hope they will recognize that the anti-EU voices raised by Brexit have lessons for the whole of Europe, and are not simply another expression of British eccentricity. I hope they will not take 50 years to learn from those lessons, because globalization is here to stay. If they do not learn, it is not hard to think of reasons why the Europe of 2066 may be a more unpleasant place than the Europe of today.

Thank you very much.

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