Scotland is scheduled to hold a referendum on national independence this autumn. What are the questions that arise for the European Union? By Liam Fitzgerald
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s SNP First Minister, has basically promised Scotland a self-determined future, without interference from the British government in London. The fairly far-reaching autonomous rights Scotland has gained in many years of devolution are not enough, not only according to the SNP but also to many Scots. In essence, Scotland could, the pro-independence activists believe, enjoy stable economic growth based on North Sea oil revenue for many years to come. Determining how Scottish revenues are spent should be the sole task of the Scottish government, the argument goes.
Many questions remain unanswered or the answers presented in the famous post-independence program seem insufficient. How long will Scotland be able to profit from oil revenues? Will they be sufficient to compensate for the loss of contributions to the Scottish government from London? The country suffers under a high level of public debt and many analysts doubt Edinburgh’s ability to pay these debts off and to ensure balanced budgets in the future. Probably the most contentious issue is that of currency. The Scottish government would like to keep the pound sterling, though London has reacted negatively to this. And how would Scotland cope with a Bank of England that determines the future of the pound? What role would the Royal Bank of Scotland, as possible national central bank for Scotland, play – especially given the fact that the British government rescued the bank in the aftermath of the financial crisis?
Independence would also establish a new international border between Scotland and the rest of the UK. England is Scotland’s most important trading partner, and a new international border is predicted to hamper trade between the two countries. Furthermore, lawyers and legal experts are unsure about Scotland’s international status. Will it be a member of all the international bodies of which the UK is currently a member or will the new Scottish government need to apply for new membership in the EU and many others? Apart from the negotiations with London on the terms of independence, many questions remain unanswered.
Repercussions for Scotland aside, difficulties will arise for the UK and the EU if Scottish voters – among them the 16- and 17-year-olds – vote “yes” on independence in September. It Scotland leaves, the Labour Party will lose out the vast amounts of votes the Scottish electorate traditionally casts for them in national elections. This in turn will make a Conservative victory in subsequent general elections more likely and such a victory will bind current Prime Minister David Cameron irrevocably to the EU membership referendum he has promised. Scottish independence seems to make Brexit more likely. However, polls have continuously suggested the Scottish independence referendum will be defeated and Scotland will remain a part of the UK.
Whatever the outcome, strong support for Scottish independence raises questions for other EU countries and the EU as a whole, as to how regional independence movements should be addressed. The treaties of the EU do not contain mechanisms for regions declaring their independence from EU member-states. On one hand, the right to determine one’s own future is a fundamental principle in international law; on the other, Scottish independence will form a precedent for other such movements in the EU that threaten stable statehood in a time of economic and fiscal crisis.
Many questions remain open, despite often hundreds of pages on economic plans and constitutional ideas. The reasons behind separatist movements are not always clear and neither are the legal structures. It is however an issue that the EU and its members will have to find a viable answer to. And regions striving for independence must also do as much as possible to clarify these issues in the lead-up to any referenda.
The image ‘Flags’ courtesy to Stuart Anthony via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons.