Bartosz Raubo @braubo
On the 18th of September, over 4 million of Scotland’s residents will vote to decide whether the country should secede from the United Kingdom to which it has been bound for over three centuries and forge its own path in the world.
With both the pro-Union and pro-Independence camps neck and neck at the time of writing, the independence debate has forced the European Union to consider how to react to a secession of territory from a member state; does the newly independent country remain part of the EU and if so under what terms? This is particularly pertinent since the trend towards more regional identities and autonomy is prominent throughout the Union, particularly in Spain and Italy. At the same time, Scottish independence threatens the membership of what remains of Britain, and Europe must develop contingencies for a member state leaving the Union.
Scottish independence will bring to the forefront the issue of what European citizenship actually entails. If the European Union ever wishes to be seen as something more than a free-trade area, then European citizenship cannot be something that can be granted and taken away at a whim. It is part of a person’s status and identity, and has to be respected as such. Scotland is currently de facto a member of the EU, even if it does not exist as an independent state, thus breaking away from Britain would not, and should not change their status in that regard. Only a direct decision to leave the EU could do that. Other matters, such as which treaties to sign, would the country be obliged to join the Eurozone, would it join Schengen, are minor compared to this central ideological issue.
Setting a good precedent with Scotland is important, as more countries are likely to follow in its footsteps. Catalonia has long asked for autonomy, if not outright independence from Spain, with popular support that far outweighs what was seen in Scotland when the Scottish National Party came to power. The Spanish parliament has so far denied the Catalans a referendum on this issue, however obstructionism cannot continue in the long term. In Italy, a 2014 unofficial referendum in Venice demonstrated 89% support for independence from the country. Due to the nature of the plebiscite, there was likely a significant bias towards pro-independence supporters casting their ballot, however in June the Regional Council of Veneto voted to organise an official referendum on the topic. The issue remains before the Italian Constitutional Court. Smaller independence and autonomy movements exist throughout the continent, and the EU needs to have a strategy in place for them.
The question remains if the Scots, having just been given real authority to self-govern, be willing to in turn give away a portion of that power to Brussels. Ipsos Mori polls have repeatedly shown that while Scots want a referendum on EU membership, as does Britain as a whole, they are much more likely to vote in favour of membership than their southern neighbours. This support may waver should Scotland be forced to commit to the Eurozone at some point; all new member states have committed to adopting the Euro, although timeframes vary from place to place. Yet only 4% of Scots would support adopting the Euro, with a currency union with Britain being the preferred option; something that Westminster has repeatedly claimed is impossible. Given the political conflicts that the two-speed Europe has caused in the past, Euro adoption would be a priority for Juncker’s Commission, which no doubt sees the rare opportunity awarded by the referendum to include a portion of euro-sceptic Britain in the dream of the ever-closer Europe.
Keeping Scotland in the European Union would be consolation for losing the remains of Britain, which deprived of its pro-European north, looks to be much more likely to break its ties to the continent: the much-feared Brexit. Not only would Scottish independence deal a terrible blow to the British socialist Labour Party, it would strengthen the Euro-sceptic Conservatives as well as bring the rising star of the British right, the outright anti-European UK Independence Party, into prominence, providing it with enough political clout to challenge the four pillars of EU policy making. Popular opinion in England is also split evenly between those supporting and opposing the EU. While the Brexit was a credible scenario before, without Scotland’s influence within Britain, it now looks far more likely.
The European Union is therefore faced with two referenda, one Scottish, one British, that will shape European identity and politics for what will be decades to come. The weight of responsibility on European institutions at this juncture cannot be understated. The negotiations regarding Scotland’s membership of the European Union will no doubt be complex, and the SNP will have different priorities and desires than those in Brussels, however the integrity and inclusiveness of the European project cannot be undermined; neither side could afford the consequences if it was.