Celebrities across the world, Scottish or not, seem to love getting their teeth stuck into the Scottish referendum debate. In the yes camp, Morrissey, Frankie Boyle and Sean Connery are banging the drum for independence, whilst on the other hand, David Bowie, Eddie Izzard and Sir Alex Ferguson want to keep the Scots onside. So far however, the EU reaction to the impending in/out vote has been tepid, with Commission officials staying mum on rumours of fast-lane Scottish access to membership of the EU, supposedly because of fears of backlash from member states currently trying to quell secessionist movements (e.g. Spain and Catalonia). But what should Europeans make of this referendum?
Many seem certain that the vote will end in a resounding “No”, particularly an anonymous UK gambler who has bet £600,000 on that outcome, at odds of 1-6 (versus 9-2 for a “Yes” vote). Not only the betting odds suggest that a “No thanks” is likely, the latest Yougov Survey for the Sun shows 55% of voters in favour of the Union, 35% in favour of independence and 10% undecided. That last number is an important one, as they could yet change the face of this referendum. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond of the SNP and the Yes campaign are trying to convince undecideds and are doing their best to deliver the arguments for an independent Scotland.
Indeed there is some pretty compelling evidence for leaving the union: Scotland has long felt undermined, often punished by Westminster Governments, most notably during the Thatcher era. Successive Tory governments imposed reforms damning the traditional industries in Scotland and creating unemployment and economic decline. In 1989, the infamously disastrous ‘Poll Tax’ was even unfairly imposed the earlier north of the border than in the rest of the UK. These actions led to the famous 1997 “wipeout” of Scottish Conservative MPs, and the resurgence of the SNP.
Many point to often diverging political trends in Scotland and England. The Conservatives, for example, hold about 1,5% of Scottish seats in the House of Commons, compared to roughly 55% of the English seats. Scots are also distinctly more pro-EU than the UK as a whole, with opinion poll data claiming that 43% of Scots would vote to stay in the EU, compared to 37% for the whole of Britain. The UKIP seism, so widely trumpeted by the British press over the past few years, has been all but non-existant north of the border. Scotland now has its own devolved parliament in Holyrood, with a different electoral system, and consistently different make up to the House of Commons. Scotland now has control over almost all areas of legislation apart from Macroeconomic and Foreign Policy. Scotland has been socially, politically and economically distinct from England and the rest of UK for centuries argues the “Yes” camp. Many think it is time this difference was made formal.
Surely, as supporters of greater democracy, accountability, and European integration, Europeans should welcome the move for a more representative and pro-EU neighbour?
But questions as evocative as independence are not simply matters of reasoned debate and democratic theory alone, but matters of emotion too. It is understandable that many Scots, Britons and Europeans feel weary about drawing up borders between two countries that have been united for centuries, particularly at a time of increased European integration and globalisation. And being an Englishman born in Scotland, thinking of the country of my birth splitting from my country seems, well, weird.
The idea of secession and independence is problematic when viewed in a wider, European context. Whereas it is undeniable that regions like Scotland, Flanders, and Catalonia have different identities, cultures and languages, is cutting up the continent the best way to protect their interests? It seems to fundamentally undermine the aims of the EU. However, regional identities can (and must) be fostered, celebrated, and protected through means other than secession. The EU has created the apparatus for greater regional support and representation without undermining national governments or encouraging secession. It is irrefutable that a Europe of the Regions exists; 75% of EU Legislation is implemented at a local or regional level, the Parliament has constituencies that represent historically important regions (such as Flanders, Wales or Yorkshire), and both the Committee of the Regions and the European Regional Development Fund are key EU institutions that operate at regional level.
The point here is that across the continent, drawing up new borders may not be the only way of achieving what the nationalists want. And it may not be the best way either. Secession could prove more trouble than it’s worth for the Scottish. Questions hang unanswered: currency, EU accession and public pensions, to name but a few. Many fear a future currency union, with Scotland having no control over its interest rate and caps on national budgets. Creating a brand new state, with all the administrative bells and whistles required, in Western Europe, in the 21st century, is no mean feat.
What does this referendum, this simple question, mean for the EU then? Well it shows us the reality of the threat of secessionist movements in today’s Europe. And it seems that more needs to be done to prove to Europe’s regions that the EU can provide for their needs without the need for independence. Maybe Scots, Britons and Europeans alike will see that despite the historical differences between regions and states in the EU, and between Scotland and the Westminster government in the UK, Scottish interests and identity are equally if not better respected whilst still a member of the Union, and of the EU. It is undeniable however, that statehood retains a historic allure to some, who erroneously see it as the only way to assure self-determination and identity.
But why should we erect new borders, and create new divisions when Europe has worked for decades to break them down?