Eddie Barnes: 2014 could trigger referendum run

Clouds hang over Aberdeen. The independence referendum could trigger a series of votes. Picture: Getty
Clouds hang over Aberdeen. The independence referendum could trigger a series of votes. Picture: Getty
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THIS is where it gets complicated. The referendum on independence takes place next year. There is a general election the year after that. Then, depending on the result, the whole of Britain looks set to have its own “independence” referendum – on whether or not to remain part of the European Union.

Where does that leave us? It means that, come 2018 or thereabouts, there are, by my reckoning, six possible constitutional scenarios. The UK – including Scotland – in the EU (No1). The UK out of it (No2). The UK and an independent Scotland both in the EU (No3). The UK out, and Scotland in (No4). The UK in, and Scotland out (No5). Or both out (No6). Chest deep in the hypothetical mud, no-one, when faced with this mess, will be blamed for concluding that it is better to ignore it and take one referendum at a time.

However, as is their wont, academics have been busy thinking it through. On a new “Future of Scotland” website funded by the utterly impartial Economic and Social Research Council, Dr Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, has delivered his own thoughts. In the event of Scottish independence, the country could “of course” join the EU, he says first. Though he makes the standard point that this would be a “political question” that would require negotiation with other member states. He also notes that while Scotland would formally have to commit to join the euro, the SNP’s plan for a pound-sharing deal with the UK would be tolerated.

The problem comes if, in 2017, the rest of the UK decides to quit the EU. If it were an EU member by then, Scotland would be tied to fiscal rules with two separate and potentially competing bodies – the UK and the EU. What if their rules diverged? To whom would Scotland owe first loyalty? Dr Zuleeg concludes the choice would be hard to resolve. “It is difficult to envisage such an arrangement, as a clash between two sets of rules could occur,” he writes. There would, he adds, be a “fundamental question” of whether a currency pact between Scotland and a non-EU member would be “compatible” with EU membership.

Of course, the polls suggest that this choice is unlikely to happen. Opposition to independence in Scotland is of a similar level to the support people in Britain have for remaining in the EU, so long as David Cameron can win a new deal that protects the country’s interests. That is still a big “if”, but it suggests that the most likely scenario is still No1 – that come 2018, with the UK, including Scotland, in the EU.

But lurking in the hypothetical long-grass are some awkward questions. Would the UK be more likely to leave the EU if it were shorn of Scotland’s votes? If the UK did quit the EU, would Scotland opt to follow its biggest trading partner out the door? To avoid that nasty choice, it suggests that if Alex Salmond is successful in next year’s referendum, he may need to try and win another: to persuade England to stay put in Europe.