AN in/out referendum on the European Union (EU) is probably inevitable and may challenge the conception that Scotland is more pro-European than the rest of the UK, according to a former Brussels official.
John Edward’s six years as head of the Scottish office of the European Parliament convinced him that Scotland is not more pro-EU than the rest of the UK but “just less anti”, he told a Law Society of Scotland conference on the nation’s future in Edinburgh.
Amid comments he admitted would “probably have got me fired” during his tenure, he insisted Scotland is “not particularly pro-European” about the free movement of people, the common fisheries policy, the allocation of structural funds or the controversial transatlantic trade deal between the US and the EU.
“I think a referendum of some kind on whatever basis is probably inevitable,” he said.
“I think we are moving in that direction. Every party has at one point or another committed to some kind of plebiscite.
“I have some doubts about that process. I don’t know why we whitter on endlessly about the parliamentary sovereignty of Westminster and representative democracy, and then take every possible opportunity to remove that away from Westminster, or indeed Holyrood, and put it into a plebiscite.”
He added: “On the issue of Scotland’s voice, this troubles me slightly as to who or what that voice might be.
“When I first came back from Brussels to the Parliament office here I always used to talk endlessly about how pro-European Scotland was, how outward looking, how very engaged it was.
“By the end of that process, and I don’t mean this to be critical, my language shifted more to being that it’s not that we are more pro-EU than the rest of the UK but that we are just less anti.
“I suspect if you put that to a referendum campaign that might be tested quite severely in terms of the discussion you might have about people’s approach to the EU once you start talking about fisheries, the removal of structural funds away from Scotland, things like the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) treaty which you already see people getting very active about in certain parts of Scottish politics.
“So I’m not convinced that we’re all of a particularly pro-European view about that.
“I think there are certain issues about migration that we have started to deal with in Scotland for the first time since the Berlin Wall came down, I’m not sure that if we started to look forward into the future of the EU everybody’s tacit support for the free movement of people will be quite the same as it has been up until now.”
Ukip MEP David Coburn said it is “nonsense” to say that Scotland is more pro-EU than the UK but SNP MEP candidate Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh cited a YouGov poll which found 51% of Scots would vote to remain in the EU against 39% across the UK.
Mr Coburn said: “All this twaddle about Scotland being more keen on the EU than England is just so much nonsense.
“I got elected on 10% of population, in some areas 14.8% voted for me, so people in Scotland are just as vexed about the EU as everybody else.”
His doubts over Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment to an in/out referendum were challenged by Tory MEP Ian Duncan, who insisted Britain will get a vote and that it will vote to stay in the EU if Mr Cameron’s proposed reforms are accepted.
“How do you follow David Coburn?”, Mr Duncan asked?
Mr Coburn replied: “Join the party. All your friends are, dear boy.”
Mr Duncan said: “I trust the people of the UK and I believe if the Prime Minister is indeed able to deliver what he says, and I suspect Mr Coburn and I may disagree here, then we will have a stronger, more sure and more certain European Union.”