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Meet the Scottish mayor in north Germany being pushed out due to Brexit

EXCLUSIVE: The Scottish-born mayor of a town in northern Germany is being forced to step down when Brexit happens. We heard what he had to say.

Meet the Scottish mayor in north Germany being pushed out due to Brexit
Iain Macnab in 2018. Photo courtesy of Iain Macnab

Iain Macnab has served a community in Schleswig-Holstein for more than 10 years, making him Germany's only Scottish mayor.

But this is set to change when Brexit happens.

“I got a letter in December from the government in Kiel telling me that I would stay in office until March 29th [the original Brexit day] with the qualification that if Brexit is put off then you will remain in office until Brexit actually happens,” says Macnab when we meet in Berlin.

SEE ALSO: Updated – The ultimate Brexit checklist for Brits in Germany

'Remote northwest Highlands'

There's also a fairly remarkable coincidence: when I learned of Macnab's story, I was astonished to discover that he comes from the same tiny village in the northwest Highlands that I grew up in. That village, Achiltibuie, has a population of less than 300 people and is so remote that it would take a day to walk there from the nearest town.

Macnab is now 69 and left Achiltibuie long before I was born. But an adventurous life has taken him from salmon fishing on the Atlantic as a boy to having the distinction of being Germany’s only Scots mayor.

However, after 11 years serving the community of Brunsmark – which like Achiltibuie has a tiny population (around 160) – Macnab’s time in office is about to come to an abrupt end. The state government in Schleswig-Holstein has informed him that he will be stripped of his post on April 12th, the day Britain is supposed to leave the EU.

“It’s a bit strange having served the community for so long. I’ve been in the volunteer fire brigade for 25 years and on the local council for 16 years. You feel… well that’s it, but what can you do?” he reflects.

As an EU citizen, Macnab had the right to stand for election at the local level of German government. But on Brexit day he will lose both his EU citizenship and his job as mayor. Instead, he will have to start all the way from the bottom again by applying for a German residency permit.

Things could have been different. As someone who is married to a local, he is eligible for German citizenship. That never came into question though. “I’ve been Scottish for 70 years, why change now?” says Macnab.

SEE ALSO: 'I feel slightly more German': Reflections of a Brit after taking the German citizenship test

Achiltibuie. Photo: Douglas Nelson, CC BY-SA 2.0/Wikipedia Commons

‘They made me a dictator’

Despite his personal predicament, Macnab remains philosophical about the greater significance of his enforced resignation.

“I have an excellent village council and regional office,” he says. “For example we as a council ensured that the area has fibre-optic broadband connection in all our houses, 200 Megabit speed in both directions.”

This lightning-fast internet connection is highly unusual in rural Germany, where digital infrastructure is often lamentably out of date.

“You don’t even have that [speed] in some towns. We have it in our whole spread out country area,” he says, proudly.

This partly explains why Macnab, who runs his own IT firm in Brunsmark, has been re-elected twice as Bürgermeister, on one occasion with 95 percent of the votes. “They made me a dictator,” he jokes.

But he has also used his status as an outsider to broker peace in local disputes.

“I was pushed into local politics in 2003 at a time when two factions in the village were going at each other. Since I lived a little outside town people said ‘Iain you’d better come in and deal with this’,” he recalls.

“It certainly raised a lot of eyebrows that a Scottish person was running for mayor. But it’s amazing how much support I get nowadays. People have learned that, whether you are my friend or not, if you deal with me in my official capacity I’ll treat you exactly the same.”

SEE ALSO: From west Germany to Westminster: Unbrexit bus makes first solidarity trip

‘Enough laws’

The 11 years as mayor are just the latest chapter in a colourful life.

Macnab emigrated to Hamburg in the 1970s as a trained reporter who didn’t speak a word of German. With journalism being a non-starter, he made his living as a tour manager for rock bands.

He then simultaneously ran a translation company and a pub (“I thought it was better to spend half the day in my own pub than someone else’s”) before being offered a position as a partner at a German IT company. Eventually he settled down in Brunsmark where he built up his own web hosting company.

Macnab has been around the block enough times to recognize what he calls the “bureaucratic monster” that is EU regulation.

Photo: DPA

“There are already enough laws in Germany without all the others that come on top from Brussels. We see it in local government – we have to beg local companies to tender for schools because they can’t face the EU paperwork that comes with it,” he says.

Nonetheless, he is convinced that Britain has much more to lose by leaving. He is particularly worried that the UK could fall apart and that Scotland would struggle to cope as an independent nation.

SEE ALSO: OPINION: Why Germany struggles to understand the issues at heart of Brexit

The villagers of Brunsmark seem more sanguine about the future. “They don’t believe that the British could be so stupid [as to leave] so they say ‘your still going to be Bürgermeister’. They think there’ll be a second referendum and that it’ll all end well.”

Macnab is also pinning his hopes on another referendum. “People were completely led down the garden path” in the first one, he states. Whatever happens though, his Highland stoicism helps keep things in perspective.

“If you come from Achiltibuie, nothing shakes you,” he laughs. That goes for settling disputes in a small German village. But it also applies to being caught up in a distant fight between London and Brussels.

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KEY POINTS: Is the EU really planning to double the price of Swedish snus?

Claims over the weekend that the EU planned to bring in a new tax which will nearly double the price of Swedish 'snus' tobacco led to the hashtag #Swexit trending over the weekend. But a commission spokesman stressed on Monday that the story was inaccurate.

KEY POINTS: Is the EU really planning to double the price of Swedish snus?

Where does the claim come from? 

The Aftonbladet newspaper on Sunday ran a story based around a “secret, leaked” proposal from the European Commission for a new excise tax on tobacco which the newspaper claimed would be presented at the start of next month, with discussion then taking place between various EU member states. 

The article does not name a source or quote from or show any parts of the document, but it quotes Patrik Hildingsson, the head of communications at the snus producer Swedish Match, who it says has “received the coming report”. 

What was the reaction? 

The story generated a near viral response on Swedish Twitter. The Sweden Democrats party jumped on the story, with the Twitter account for the party’s EU MEPs tweeting using the hashtag #Swexit, which then started to trend. 

According to Charlie Weimers, one of the Sweden Democrats’ MEPs, the commission is proposing a 12.5 percent increase in tax on cigarettes, a 200 percent increase in taxes on snus, and 500 percent increase in taxes on tobacco-free snus.

In a way, this is unsurprising as snus is used by about 17 percent of people in Sweden. The tobacco product is made by grinding up tobacco with flavourings and other ingredients and placing it in small bags which are pushed under the upper lip. It has been linked to a higher incidence of mouth cancer, but is much less dangerous than smoking. 

Why is snus sensitive for Sweden? 

When Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, it was granted an exemption from the ban on oral tobacco products the European Union had brought in back in 1992. Companies are allowed to manufacture snus in Sweden and sell it to their citizens, but they are not allowed to sell snus in other EU counties.  

Is it true that the European Commission plans to force higher tax on snus? 

Dan Ferrie, a European spokesperson on tax issues, told the EU’s daily press briefing on Monday that the commission’s coming proposals on tobacco taxation would not affect Sweden’s freedom to tax the product. 

“Sweden has had an exemption since it entered the EU when it comes to the sale of snus,” he said. “The proposal that we are working on right now is not going to change that situation because the sale of snus is not permitted outside Sweden. Sweden ill as a result continue to have full freedom to set its own tax rate and tariffs for snus.” 

Already on Sunday, Sweden’s EU commissioner Ylva Johansson said that she had stressed to the commission developing the new proposals the “unreasonable consequences for Swedish snus” if it were to force a higher tax rate. 

“My judgement is that this proposal has not yet been developed to the level where it can be proposed,” she said in an sms to Swedish state TV broadcaster SVT. “Tax questions require unanimity within the Ministerial Council.”