Bill Jamieson: EU vote brings more uncertainty

European flags, and the EU standard, outside the European Parliament. Picture: Getty
European flags, and the EU standard, outside the European Parliament. Picture: Getty
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ANY UK vote on Europe will have major ramifications, no matter how Scotland votes in 2014, writes Bill Jamieson

It’s just like Lothian buses – you wait ages for a referendum and then two come along at once. In Scotland there is now the prospect of two within two years of each other. Each has profound implications for the UK constitution. The two combined portend an unparalleled convulsion in our political and economic landscape.

It may well be that “the European Union issue” has no traction in Scotland; that we are broadly content with our membership and wish it to continue. Indeed, for the past year the SNP has been fighting a rear-guard action to persuade us that a vote for independence will not threaten our status as an EU member and that we would be “negotiating from within”.

But a UK-wide referendum on our membership of the EU draws down a mist of uncertainty over all of this. It has set Scotland up for a constitutional blind date. If we vote Yes to independence, and the remainder of the UK then votes to come out of the EU, this would have major consequences for the SNP argument that we would be negotiating as an existing EU member. Scotland could find itself having to apply for membership as an outsider.

A Scottish No to independence in the referendum in September next year by no means resolves the conundrum. Suppose, as is likely, that the Yes campaign garners 40 per cent support: while that may put the issue on the immediate back burner, a 40 per cent vote would retain considerable heat under the pan and enable the SNP to keep the issue alive.

Suppose then that, in the subsequent EU referendum, a majority of Scots vote to stay in while a (larger) majority of voters in the rest of the UK vote to come out. The heat under the independence pan would be back on at full blast.

Or imagine if the UK votes to remain within the EU but with 40 per cent voting No. Would the issue have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction? Dream on. The hard fact is that the prospect of an EU referendum so soon after Scotland’s independence vote would inject a massive element of uncertainty – yet another one – into the independence campaign. In business circles in Scotland it is already being referred to as the “referendum void” as investment intentions are put on ice or postponed until the outcome is known.

Voters are now being asked in effect to play a gigantic game of constitutional three dimensional chess: if Yes to the first and No to the EU; or No to the first and Yes to the second; or a double No: where would we be in 2018, never mind ten years from now – still in both unions, or out of both? We would need a marathon seminar with Professor John Curtice complete with 3-D infographic, a handbook of ancillary notes, no half-time intervals and a bucket of cold towels to help us through all the potential permutations.

What Scottish future could we now be sure we are being asked to vote for? A majority vote in England to leave the EU but a majority in Scotland in favour of staying in would enable the SNP to argue that the “decisive” independence vote was no such thing and should be reopened.

The respected constitutional expert Alan Trench has suggested – let’s assume as an academic rather than a maker of mischief – that the better argument would be for it to call for a postponement of the Scottish referendum. There would, he adds, be considerable attractions for the Yes campaign in doing so. There seems little sign as yet of “Big Mo” or the gaining of traction that it could reasonably have expected, given the two years of constant advocacy by the SNP government.

And there are signs of faltering conviction, with the Deputy First Minister’s admission this week of uncertainties as to the terms and conditions of independence. Postponement would enable the Yes campaign to reduce these uncertainties and build a stronger base. But delay beyond the next UK general election (2015) for the SNP would itself be a risk too far.

Meanwhile, for those who believe the Ukip phenomenon is a bubble, that the EU referendum issue has been over-egged and the current convulsions within the Conservative Party notwithstanding, a “Brexit” is unlikely, it would be wise to bear in mind that this is no static playing field. Problems within the EU itself continue to unfold. Add to this the impact of “events” and it would be brave to predict voter outcomes.

Yesterday brought data showing the euro area economy is in recession, with little immediate prospect of recovery. Continued fiscal austerity and a lack of aggressive monetary easing by the European Central Bank confirm the recessionary outlook. If the SNP is looking to maintaining ties with Europe on the grounds of economic benefit, it may find itself among a diminishing band of believers. The core continental economies have now suffered a sixth consecutive quarter of negative growth, and in several peripheral countries there is little prospect of improvement for the forseeable future.

Now the euro malaise looks to be spreading beyond the single currency area. I am grateful to the economist Stephen Lewis of Monument Securities for drawing my attention to a survey of European public opinion released this week by the prestigious Pew Research Centre in Washington. The report noted a decline over the past year in public support for the European Union project in all the major members of the EU. The median proportion of respondents taking a favourable view of the EU has fallen from 60 per cent in 2012 to 45 per cent, while the proportion believing that EU integration had strengthened the economy had fallen from 34 per cent to 20 per cent. Approval of the EU in France has fallen from 60 per cent to 41 per cent – lower even than the response in the UK. “The results”, says Lewis, “spell trouble ahead for the EU.”

While opinion within the SNP is resolutely favourable to an independent Scotland remaining loyal to Brussels, this conviction may not remain so solid if the EU finds itself unable to repel the malaise that now grips it.

And it is certainly not as if the SNP’s position has been consistent or unchanging in this area. It was opposed to EU membership. But this changed. Indeed, it was once in favour of Scotland joining the euro currency. This, too, has changed.

It would be courageous to assume against the background of recent and current events in Europe that the party can readily maintain support among a significant number of Scottish voters that our economic well-being would be enhanced by leaving one union and clinging to an altogether more problematic one.

When two referendums come along in quick succession, each with profound implications for the other, do not be surprised if the most searching questions are asked about where we are all headed.