The EU may not accept Scotland automatically, but independence remains essential for a country looking to improve, writes Ewan Crawford
BACK in 2006, listeners of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 decided the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, was the most powerful person in Britain.
Beating off stiff competition from Rupert Murdoch and the boss of supermarket giant Tesco, Mr Barroso was deemed to be the man who was really running Britain.
It was widely claimed that the vote had been manipulated by Euro-sceptics anxious to make a point about their belief in a creeping takeover of our national life by the faceless bureaucrats of Brussels intent as they were with creating a dastardly European super-state.
Six years on and Mr Barroso is being toasted again – this time by opponents of Scottish independence who believe he has delivered a body-blow to the Yes side in the forthcoming referendum.
Although careful to stress that he was not talking about a specific case, Mr Barroso’s answer to a question on newly independent states and European Union membership has delighted the No campaign.
This is a row which is important, both in terms of the issue itself and also for what it tells us about what the Yes side has to do to win.
First, on the issue, if a majority of people in Scotland vote for independence and if the Scottish government wishes to remain a part of the EU, who exactly is going to take steps to expel this country?
Given that it would be contrary to the interests, ethos and wishes of the EU, it is utterly fanciful to believe a political decision would be taken to, in effect, punish Scotland for daring to exercise self-determination.
Only last week the UK government made it clear there were no circumstances under which it would oppose Scottish EU membership.
Yet with our unrivalled renewable energy potential, world-class universities engaged in cross EU-collaboration, oil reserves and trade links we are being led to believe we would, for some reason, be thrown out of the club.
It seems there isn’t even a provision for removing EU treaties from any part of EU territory. While welcoming new members, Brussels would have to invent a mechanism for removing an existing member against its wishes.
In a recent submission to the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, Graham Avery, honorary director-general of the European Commission, made three points.
First, for practical and political reasons Scotland’s five million citizens could not be asked to leave the EU and apply for readmission.
Second, negotiations on the terms of membership would take place in the period between the referendum and the planned date of independence. And third, the EU would adopt a simplified procedure for the negotiations, not the traditional procedure followed for the accession of non-member countries.
The SNP has always said there would be negotiations if Scotland was to vote for independence. Indeed, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has made it clear he wants to re-negotiate the UK’s own membership terms and is now under major pressure from his Eurosceptic wing to offer an in-out referendum.
But these “practical and political reasons” for Scotland’s continued membership of the EU are being ignored by the No camp, which is keen for the argument to be bogged down in claim and counter-claim over various legal interpretations.
When I worked at the SNP we were fairly relaxed about conducting the debate by fielding our favourable legal opinions against our opponents’ hostile opinions. But that was at a time when the SNP wasn’t even in government, let alone fighting a referendum campaign. There was no practical decision on independence to be made in the way that there will be in two years’ time.
That is why it makes sense for the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to seek talks with the European Commission about the specific Scottish case.
But no-one in the Yes camp should kid themselves that these talks will produce a tidy outcome. Right up until referendum day itself, those keen to maintain Westminster’s control over Scotland will raise the banner of uncertainty, whether over the European Union, the currency, continued access to Coronation Street and who knows what else.
In response, the SNP and the Yes campaign will rightly seek to refute the claims. It would be madness to concede the substance on any of these arguments, but the obvious danger is that the debate becomes narrow and concentrated on permanent rebuttal.
But the current messy argument over the EU is actually serving as a useful reminder of the overall task at hand.
That task is to operate in a hostile political environment that cannot be wished away. This means that a majority of people will need to be persuaded even against a barrage of stories focussed on uncertainty.
The key to winning the independence referendum will be to convince people to vote Yes even if they accept some of the No campaign’s scare stories.
That in turn means presenting independence not just as a desirable outcome along the lines of “We can do it if you want”. Instead it needs to be demonstrated that independence is an essential step, not just a desirable one, if we truly want to create a better Scotland.
Amid the storm over Mr Barroso’s remarks there has been growing speculation over a triple-dip UK recession and forecasts of rising unemployment and inequality and falling living standards.
Those of us who support independence believe that outcomes will always be better if decisions about Scotland are taken by those who care most about this country, and that must surely be the people who live here.
The urgency of holding those decision-making, job-creating powers has never been more apparent. If the row over the EU helps to highlight that case then it will have done the Yes campaign and Scotland a service.