Slowly but surely an awesome dilemma is building for the Scottish National Party over the European Union referendum. It is committed to supporting the United Kingdom’s continued membership. And it has indicated that, should the result be a vote to exit across the rest of the UK while a majority of Scots vote to stay in, this could constitute grounds for a second referendum on Scottish independence: cementing one union, dissolving the other.
Prime Minister David Cameron, stepping up the rhetoric for a pro-EU vote, declared in Iceland this week that should we opt to vote for exit there would be little joy for the UK in a Norway-style arrangement.
As with Iceland, Norway, he said, has to accept some EU rules with little say in the decisions made in Brussels. The country has no veto in the European Council, no votes in the EU’s Council of Ministers and no MEPs or votes in the European Parliament.
It smacks of Project Fear, albeit in carpet slippers. And many might argue that even with those “inside advantages” the UK has had little influence over ever-encroaching EU regulation.
However, no less pertinent to the argument over Brexit are events now unfolding in Portugal. Earlier this month the ruling conservative coalition that has governed Portugal for four years lost its parliamentary majority.
The main opposition Socialists led by Antonio Costa gained 32.4 per cent of the votes. The country’s anti-austerity, Eurosceptic parties on the Left – the radical Left Bloc (sometimes dubbed the “Syriza of Portugal”) and the anti-euro Communists, saw a surprising surge in support. Combined, they gained 18.5 per cent of the vote.
Portugal’s President Anibal Cavaco Silva has called on the minority centre-right government led by Pedro Passos Coelho to form an administration, arguing that “this is the worst moment for a radical change to the foundations of our democracy… It is my duty, within my constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets.”
It is an argument that flies in the face of the wishes of some 60 per cent of Portugal’s voters and which effectively blocks Mr Costa from power. Unsurprisingly, the Left has vowed to topple the nascent government over the next few days.
Whoever would wish ever closer integration on these terms? My sense is that many SNP supporters would sympathise with this challenge. Concerns over Norway’s lack of influence over the minutiae of EU business regulation pale before the huge limitations being placed on Portuguese voters because of concerns that the leftist alliance and its anti-austerity bent would hamper deficit reduction and poison Portugal’s relationship with Brussels.
This stand-off has profound consequences for democracy in the EU. And it goes to the heart of the dilemma facing the left-of-centre anti-austerity SNP.
Ukip’s Nigel Farage has arguably better articulated the concerns of SNP supporters than their party’s own leadership. “This”, declared Farage this week, “is the modern-day implementation of the Brezhnev Doctrine. This is exactly what happened to states living inside the USSR.
“What is being made clear here with Greece and indeed with Portugal is that a country only has democratic rights if it’s in favour of the [European] project. If not, those rights are taken away. And perhaps none of this should surprise us as [Jean Claude] Juncker (President of the European Commission) has told us before: there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties. And the German finance minister, Mr [Wolfgang] Schäuble, has said elections change nothing – there are rules.
“I think for anyone that believes in democracy, Portugal should be the final straw. It should be the warning that this project, [in order to] to protect itself and all its failings, will destroy the individual rights of peoples and of nations.”
Now all this may seem a long way off right now. Who knows how events in Portugal will pan out? Or Spain, which holds elections in December? Or Greece for that matter?
And we don’t know whether Prime Minister David Cameron will succeed in securing a fundamental renegotiation of the UK’s membership – indeed, even what reforms exactly he is seeking to achieve.
But what we do know is that the “Vote Leave” camp is gaining ground. And it is doing so for fundamental reasons that are of deep concern to the pro-EU camp.
One is the growing apprehension over the blatant lack of control over our own borders and in particular whether we can regulate the flow of migrants that is causing mayhem in large parts of Europe and fuelling growing unrest in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel offered sanctuary for a million. Now the practical problems are making themselves felt, and are feeding a backlash. It is one that could fuel a revolt against Mrs Merkel herself.
Cruelly exposed in this crisis has been the EU’s evident inability, despite months of crisis summits, to agree a workable solution to the colossal scale of the migrant inflow, with several countries in open rebellion against the Brussels-dictated imposition of quotas.
One liberal commentator this week breezily referred to the UK’s large land mass and the sparsely populated Highlands. But how many Middle Eastern refugees would be keen to settle in the chilling climes on Rannoch Moor? And what employment might they find should they ever find houses to live in?
Not far behind all this is the clear perception that despite – or because of – decades of economic intervention and strategising by Brussels, the EU is one of the most slow-growth regions of the industrialised world. Its disastrous one-size-fits-all European single currency has condemned many economies in the region to harsh austerity, shockingly high unemployment and a fitful rate of economic growth (where there is growth at all) despite ultra-low interest rates and yet further resort to quantitative easing.
That we are not inside the eurozone does not mean that we are unaffected: indeed UK trade with the eurozone’s struggling economies is a notable contributor to our own GDP slowdown this year.
But arguably more potent than these is the EU’s lack of democratic accountability and the sense of a bureaucracy in Brussels that is beyond account. It pushes on with its “European project” indifferent to the concerns of Europe’s voters. Little wonder now that strongly Eurosceptic parties are on the rise across the region.
Bland assurances that EU membership does not entail signing up to the single currency are blind to the EU’s declared direction of travel: ever closer integration, with immigration and economic policy (not so much of the soft Keynesian type as a preference for Gold Standard fixed exchange rates and strict rule and regulation enforcement) determined centrally.
The SNP must take care that it is not caught on the wrong side of this tide. In its zeal to oppose anything and everything that the rest of the UK does and support the EU, it believes it will achieve “more powers”, more localism and more accountability.
But as the painful examples of Greece, Spain, Ireland and now Portugal show, the opposite can be the case. This is the dilemma that the SNP faces. And it is set to grow more acute as the referendum approaches.