Speaking through Scotland

The debate over Scotland’s EU entry is being snarled up in the agendas of international actors. The consequences will be bad for all.

Magnus Maharg
17 February 2014

The European Commission

For more than two years now the debate over Scottish independence has been dominated by an inconclusive skirmish over the intricacies of EU entry. In search of a decisive blow, campaign managers have launched a search for the most qualified opinion from the most esteemed academic in the land, only to receive opinions so qualified they were hardly worth the sound bite. The media, for all their efforts to remain impartial, have given not just equal coverage but equal credence to every last legal quibble. Finding themselves caught in a cross-fire of assertions, most Scots have now put the debate down as a technocratic stalemate that will rumble on until polling day.

It is a debate that has suffered most of all from the unwillingness of EU leaders to correct the UK Government’s position and tell the truth of Scotland’s unique case. This has allowed the impression to be created that Scotland, which has existed within the EU since 1973, would have to go through a full-blown reapplication process on becoming independent before being allowed back in. The notion was reiterated by President Barosso in a startling interview with Andrew Marr yesterday where he said that an independent Scottish state “would have to apply” for membership. This idea of reapplication was one that Barosso floated in another interview with the BBC in December 2012, only for the Commission to later admit under pressure that his comments represented his own opinion rather than any objective interpretation of the treaties. The alternative justification he provided for his position this time around will mystify even the staunchest unionists in London and Edinburgh. By comparing Scotland’s status with that of the Republic of Kosovo (a partially recognised, non-EU state which has only recently begun to develop a market economy and functioning democratic institutions), he asserted that it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to even succeed in this reapplication bid and therefore remain in the EU.

Barosso is not the only European leader to have made unfounded claims about Scotland’s position vis-a-vis the EU after independence. The UK Government’s recent analysis paper on Scotland and the EU quotes the President of the European Council Hermann Van Rompuy, for example, as saying that “a new independent state would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the Union” and would therefore have to follow “known accession procedures”. This is despite the fact that in order to ‘reapply from outside’ Scotland would first have to be actively expelled from the EU for which there is no legal basis whatsoever. Quite aside from its legal flimsiness, the consequences of a lengthy accession procedure that would cause Scotland to be jettisoned from the EU on Independence Day in 2016 are almost inconceivable. Are our students to all to return home from Erasmus? Are we all to be issued with new non-EU passports? Are our elected MEPs all to be thrown out of Parliament? Are 5.3 million citizens to be deprived of all EU citizenship rights against their will because negotiations could not be completed on time? Are citizens all over Europe to lose their right to move to live and work in a country that has a need for their labour and skills? And then, having being forced out against its own wishes, are negotiations to start immediately on Scotland's inevitable entry back into the EU which would have just expelled one of its richest and most loyal nations?

Safe in the knowledge that EU leaders are content to entertain this absurd scenario, William Hague felt able to raise a further unlikelihood of Scottish independence in his launch of the UK Government’s analysis paper in Glasgow. As a Foreign Secretary “who has been involved in endless EU negotiations”, we are to take his word that Scotland’s transition would be “long and complex” and face “fundamental problems” over continuing our current arrangements on the Euro and the rebate. On any reading of the EU’s history, that is pure assertion. Austria and Sweden both negotiated their entries in just 13 months from 1993-94. Sweden has since refused membership of the Eurozone in a 2003 referendum, and both countries have negotiated rebates from the EU’s budget. Denmark - which, like Scotland, joined in 1973 and has a population of roughly the same size - has opted-out of the Euro, and managed to negotiate a rebate worth €130m per year in last February’s EU budget negotiations.

Far from being rooted in the reality of the EU, the UK Government’s claims are based on a received image of Brussels as a place where any attempt to take decisive political action becomes entangled in vast web of regulations, directives and legal wrangles. It is a strange opinion to have of an institution that lives by the arts of deal-making and compromise, that has brought together over 500 million Europeans from 28 member states in its short 60-year history, and where leaders saved the Eurozone from collapse in a single night back in May 2010. Things can move frustratingly slowly in Brussels, but the cogs have always turned quickly when required to. So why have EU leaders been complicit in this Eurosceptic caricature of their own institutions?

The answer is that in the office blocks of Brussels’ Schuman district, they have been quietly working through the scenarios. They know that if Scotland votes Yes in September, that means more chance of a Conservative majority south of the border in 2015, and more chance of the in-out referendum in 2017. Without the input of Scotland’s marginal pro-EU majority, it also means more chance that what was left of the UK would vote to leave in the EU, thus putting the entire European project in jeopardy.

The second answer is that in portraying Scotland’s accession as a long and deeply uncertain process, EU leaders have spied a chance to win much-needed favour with larger, more important states and their leaders with whom relations have soured in recent years. Not least of whom has been the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who is under immense pressure to hold on to Catalonia, Spain’s richest region. Relations between Brussels and Madrid have been frayed by the strict austerity regime imposed on Spain which is seen to have played a large part in the reawakening of Catalonian nationalism. Seeing an opportunity to ameliorate the situation, Van Rompuy travelled to Madrid in December where he made his aforementioned comments on “known accession procedures” in an improvised press conference. That Hague quotes this in his recent analysis paper is proof of just how established this triangle of mutual understanding between Brussels, London and Madrid has become. Indeed the same time as the Foreign Office was compiling its analysis of Scotland and the EU, it was also sending a delegation to Madrid to share notes with the Spanish Government on how to defeat their respective independence movements.

Neither is it in the interests of EU leaders to correct the UK Government’s position on Scotland’s entry, no matter how unflattering that position may be to them. Feathers have been ruffled enough in London during the recent spat over freedom of movement rules, and with a potential renegotiation of the fundamental terms of the UK’s membership on the horizon in 2015, Brussels has decided that it must choose its battles. Everywhere the Scottish Government turns, it seems that for too many international leaders Scottish independence (or perceived support of it) was simply never in the script for 2014. Rather comically, it fell to Vladimir Putin in his own interview with Andrew Marr to show international leaders how to avoid weighing-in on the question of separatist movements.

Yet just as these networks of self-interest have prevailed this side of September, so they will after, and it will be in nobody’s interest to engineer a Scottish exit. Barroso, Van Rompuy, and perhaps even Cameron and Rajoy will all have left the stage, and by that time the Catalans intend to have held their own independence referendum (thus precluding any motivation for Spain to block Scotland’s membership in the European Council). In any case, trampling on Edinburgh en route to flattering London and Madrid will no longer be feasible for EU leaders who by that point will be pulling out all the stops to avoid the loss of a net-contributing nation of 5.3 million people.

Even if Scotland votes No to independence, there may be an higher price to pay for the misinformation that has cursed this part of our national discussion. For in portraying the Scottish accession as a long and arduous process, EU leaders have helped to perpetuate the image of their own organisation as a bureaucratic cul-de-sac where national aspirations come second to legal minutiae. UKIP has been schooling the British public in this image for years, but thus far Scotland seems to have held out, with the Anglocentric vision of isolationism failing to elicit quite the same response north of the border. However in being complicit in a Eurosceptic critique that is being recited to the Scottish people for months on end, Barroso, Van Rompuy, and a handfull of others could yet reverse this. By perpetuating this image of the EU these leaders may depart having saved the UK for now, but in the course of doing so they may be unwittingly sowing the seeds of a disastrous UK exit in 2017.

For years politicians in Westminster have complained of Brussels elites ‘meddling with our internal affairs’. Now they are actively encouraging the same people to discover in their own agendas a reason for peddling myths about Scotland’s future. Not for the first time, and like our Irish neighbours before us, Scotland is being used in other people’s battles. With the opportunity for the country to achieve proper European standing in the referendum this autumn, it could be one of the last.

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