One of the quirky sub-plots of this year’s European Parliament elections is that the success of one ‘independence’ movement could inadvertently boost the prospects of another.
Scotland’s independence referendum is just a few months away. The polls are tight: a recent poll says that 42% of Scots would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom, while 39% would support independence. The two campaigns are virtually neck-and-neck. This weekend, one of Scotland’s Sunday newspapers said it backed independence. Scotland’s destiny is in the balance.
A few events between now and 18 September could have a big impact – something that Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), knows only too well.
One is the Commonwealth Games, which will be held in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, in July and August. These games – third largest multi-sport event in the world – bring together athletes from 70 countries. Scotland competes separately in these Games and, as host nation, it will aim to showcase its sporting and organisational prowess. Expect an abundance of national pride.
Anti-EU feeling across the rest of Britain could easily make many Scots vote to exit the UK now rather than be part of a British exit from the EU
Another is the European Parliament election on 22 May. Scotland has only six MEPs, but the result across the United Kingdom will be keenly observed north of the border – and especially the expected success of the UK Independence Party (Ukip). Anti-EU feeling across the rest of Britain could easily make many Scots – generally more pro-European than the English are – vote to exit the UK now rather than be part of a British exit from the EU.
But where would independence leave Scotland, the UK and Europe?
Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign say Scotland would apply to join the EU and that membership could be secured with the eighteen months from referendum to planned independence in March 2016.
Not so, says the pro-Union ‘Better Together’ campaign, which has seen fear of Scotland having to leave the EU – as well as Britain’s currency, the pound sterling – as trump cards in the independence debate, trying to persuade people in Scotland that they would be leaping into the unknown.
José Manuel Barroso, in a BBC interview earlier this year, also poured cold water on the idea of an independent Scotland joining the EU.
However, arguments on the EU and pound sterling seem to have had little effect on the opinion polls, and now Salmond is seeing an opportunity to put forward his vision of an independent Scotland as a constructive player in Europe.
At a speech at the College of Europe in Bruges last Monday, Salmond made his case. The risk to Scotland’s place in Europe, he said, is not September’s referendum, but the possible 2017 referendum on British membership of the EU.
Salmond sees the risk to Scotland’s place in Europe as not September’s referendum but the possible referendum on British membership of the EU.
Having Scotland’s European destiny decided in Westminster was, Salmond argued, unfair: British prime ministers for the past two decades had promised – but failed – to put Britain at ‘the heart of Europe’. And, he argued, the “Europhobic” stance of the current Conservative-led government demonstrates a real ‘democratic deficit’ as only one of the 59 Scottish constituencies in Westminster is represented by a Tory. He also cited UK-wide opinion polls that show support for and opposition to EU membership at similar levels; in Scotland, support outweighs opposition by two to one.
From this starting point, Salmond outlined his road to an independent Scotland within the EU. He dismissed Barroso’s comments, highlighting that Scotland’s independence referendum is part of a consensual process, and would not be a Kosovo-like unilateral declaration.
Salmond also claimed that Spain saw the referendum as an internal, consensual British process, and that the Spanish government would not block Scottish entry into the EU as a result – a contrast with the referendum on Catalan independence, which is set to be held on 9 November in the face of opposition from Mariano Rajoy‘s administration.
Whether the road to EU entry would be as easy for Scotland as Salmond suggests is a moot point.
Scotland already applies EU law as part of the UK, but questions of voting rights, numbers of MEPs, budget contributions and receipts, and many other issues could make this process much more difficult to practice – and that is without other member states attempting to block the process for political reasons.
Salmond claims an independent Scotland would seek sovereignty in order to share it
And what if Scotland does become independent and join the EU?
Salmond, of course, paints a rosy picture: Scotland’s voice, “silent for four decades”, would be positive and engaged in contrast to the “sullen, disengaged voice” of the UK. Scotland would be an enthusiastic supporter of European cooperation – as the First Minister put it, Scotland would seek sovereignty in order to share it.
Scotland would contribute to the EU too, he said: twelve current member states are the same size or smaller than Scotland, and Salmond cited Ireland’s presidency of the Council of the EU and Denmark’s review of fisheries policy as examples of smaller member states leading the way.
But that is all some way off. It is the short term that really matters, the European election result across the UK will be one to watch carefully.
A large vote for Ukip and the Conservatives – perceived as a vote for insular and anti-EU approach – could have a big impact on the hearts and minds of Scots (and other Europeans resident in Scotland, who are also eligible to vote in September).
It may be the signal for many Scots – despite the many dangers and uncertainties of going it alone – that their future lies not as a dependent member of one Union, but as an independent member of a bigger Union.