Brian Monteith: An EU vote should concentrate Scottish minds

If Scots want to stay in Europe, voting for independence may be the only way to do it if the UK opts out, writes Brian Monteith

If Scots want to stay in Europe, voting for independence may be the only way to do it if the UK opts out, writes Brian Monteith

Today, and no doubt for the rest of the week, the news will be dominated by the confirmation that there will be a referendum in 2014 on Scotland’s continued membership of the United Kingdom. If all the spin doctoring reported over the last few days is accurate it will mean a single “stay in – get out” question, set by the Scottish Parliament and with the ability of future 16- and 17-year-olds to have a say.

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Those Scots who have paid their taxes in Scotland for ten, 20 or 50 years, but just happen to be in the wrong part of the UK at that time will have no say in their identity – but then this is a referendum determined by and for politicians about who wields power over whom, rather than a referendum about sovereignty.

For the sovereignty that comes with being an independent nation will not actually be on offer, for whatever those who are allowed to vote decide, practically all campaigners are arguing that Scotland will seek to remain a fully fledged member of the European Union.

Indeed, the Unionists try to undermine the Nationalists by saying that if Scotland leaves the UK it would have to reapply for EU membership – and they may well be right – but what if the UK was about to be outside the EU itself?

What if the debate about EU membership were to overshadow the independence referendum?

The question is not moot, for the clock is already ticking down on a forthcoming European referendum, yet so domestic has the news agenda been – what with our own referendum, our becalmed economic performance and the personality-driven parade of X-Factor politicians and celebrities (alive or dead) that we have ignored the reality that a series of referendums across the whole of the EU is now accepted as a certainty by politicians of all hues and nationalities.

If you did not notice it, David Cameron’s team has already trailed his major speech about the British government’s approach to the European Union before Christmas. You can bet Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are thinking of doing the same too. The question is who will offer a referendum on Britain’s EU relationship first.

The need for Cameron to declare his intentions soon is not because of the threat to Conservatives from UKIP, who even in Scotland have been ahead of the Liberal Democrats in polling; nor is it because he has recalcitrant backbenchers blackmailing him over vital votes on key coalition policies, or that he needs to find a way of differentiating the Tories from the Liberal Democrats and Labour when the general election comes in 2015 – although all would be reasonable explanations for such a pitch.

Cameron’s likely move towards the UK holding a referendum on its relationship with the EU is not some “lurch to the right” (the phrase that explains why, for now, Ed Miliband is willing to let Cameron declare first) – it is because the EU has itself decided that it must reform, that it must change and the unavoidable outcome is that it will require a new treaty that will require the consent of all 27 members states.

It is the EU that is setting the pace, with the president of the EU Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, stating in a recent speech that European federalism must happen to protect the failing euro.

The first draft of the proposals for this new federalist Europe will appear before the end of this year; the whole of 2013 will be taken up with negotiations around that draft and it is being said that if Barosso has his way, the treaty should be given the consent of member states before the European elections in June of 2014.

There is no escaping the fact that if this timetable is adhered to there would be a UK referendum on Britain accepting that treaty before, not after, the independence referendum scheduled for October of that year.

Britain may well have decided that European federalism is not for it and by the time those Scots who are allowed a vote on remaining British or not come to decide, they may well find that the only way to have EU membership is to achieve independence from Westminster and then surrender it back to Brussels.

The received wisdom is that Scots are more Europhile than the rest of the UK, but this assertion is nothing more than the MacChattering classes talking to themselves. Polling has regularly shown that Scots are, within the margins of error, as doubting about the euro, as sceptical of the EU’s bureaucracy and as concerned about the negatives as they are supportive of the positives as the rest of the UK when it comes to EU membership. Any SNP strategists thinking that if the UK fails to renegotiate a more advantageous relationship and its people then decide to choose British independence it must fuel Scottish independence, are indulging in wishful thinking.

The truth is that there are so many variables yet to be played out that no one can say with reasonable accuracy what effect such a referendum will have, whatever the result.

It has suited both Cameron and Alex Salmond for their own reasons to play down the European developments as they negotiate the “stay in – get out” Scottish referendum, but just as we now obtain clarity of sorts and face two years of debate and discussion the impact of the Euro’s continued demise, the EU’s continued division and the seeming frustration of EU leaders to drive towards Federalism – whether or not Britain and others want it – will change all of that. Peace prize? There will be no peace.

It remains Cameron’s hope that he can renegotiate a new EU membership, put that on the table and win a plebiscite; but the continental architects of ever closer union are tiring of Britain’s recalcitrance and are already saying the European project can no longer be held back by Britain.

The question may well be do we accept the new treaty on offer or not – but if the new treaty offers the UK little by way of opt-out (and why should it?) then the question will be as good as a “stay in – get out” for Europe too.