Neither the Nationalists Nor Unionists Can Guarantee Scotland’s Future in Europe. Why Pretend Otherwise?

by Dr Alison Smith

Last night’s televised debate between Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) Deputy Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, disappointed all but the most fiercely partisan viewers by refusing to acknowledge the real elephant in the room: that neither side can promise Scotland a future in Europe.

The SNP argues that joining the European Union will be a smooth process, completed within 19 months of a ‘Yes’ vote in September 2014.  If Scotland becomes independent, they argue, it will begin its new life as an independent nation with a seat at the ‘top table’ of international affairs.  On 24th March 2016, Scotland will become the European Union’s 29th Member State.

“Not so fast!” says Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.  Of course, Spain has its own separatist regions, so Mr Rajoy has no interest in making the process easy.  New Member States must be admitted by unanimous agreement.  Thus, the process of accession has been torturous for states like Macedonia, whose aspirations are consistently blocked by neighbouring Greece.

The Scottish Nationalists argue that it is in nobody’s interests to block Scottish accession, but that is not necessarily true.  Every state containing a region with separatist ambitions has an incentive to make life as difficult as possible for Scotland to become independent in Europe.  More prosaic interests may, of course, prevail.  However, the Nationalists’ promises of swift and painless membership negotiations, completed within 19 months, are very much the best case scenario.

If the Scottish Nationalists have jumped the gun by promising continued EU membership, Unionists are no better placed to offer guarantees.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has promised an in-out referendum on European Union membership in 2017.  According to YouGov polling, such a referendum would make British exit from the EU likely by 2020.  This referendum is far from certain to proceed, since it would rely on the Conservative Party winning an outright majority in the 2015 election, which looks unlikely under current circumstances.  However, the British Labour Party has also adopted increasingly trenchant rhetoric on Europe.

More than any other topic, discussions about Europe hold a mirror to the cultural differences between Scotland and England.   Scotland is sparsely populated and has traditionally worried more about depopulation than immigration.  It has a different media structure, so people north of the border have little exposure to strongly anti-European commentary.  Scotland has no post-imperial mindset or expectations of great international influence.  As a result, its political leaders have not faced to pressure to indulge in a ‘race to the bottom’ on Europe.  When the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, visited Edinburgh he was run out of town, ironically to cries of, “Go home, you racist!”

When Scots go to the referendum polls in September 2014, predicting the country’s future in Europe will be like playing a game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’.   Would other European nations make an independent Scotland’s EU accession difficult?  Will Westminster politicians continue to sabotage Britain’s relationship with Europe, potentially leading to a BrExit?   Either way, the search for guarantees is likely to be futile.