What did the political map of Western Europe look like as the 18th century dawned? To say it was heavily fragmented is an understatement. It would take another two centuries of wars and diplomacy to define most of the states we recognise today.
While Scotland and England were entering into peaceable and prosperous union, assorted kings and princes were still knocking lumps out of each other over Catalonia. A unified Italy was scarcely a glint in the most visionary eyes. Much of Europe was a plethora of fragmented states. Another century of French, Spanish and Hapsburg blood was yet to be spilt before Belgian unity emerged.
One could go on. Suffice to say that if you start rolling back European history by 300 years, there is no shortage of ghosts to be awakened or ancient grievances to pursue. Not many sane people are interested in doing that. But the inevitable corollary of European history is that the continent is littered with nationalist movements which object to the state they are in.
Most of them are marginal, some of them are strong and all of them are watching Scotland. Every existing state which contains such movements has a parallel right to take an interest in Scotland’s referendum and the messages it sends out. To pretend otherwise is naïve and disrespectful of their legitimate concerns.
Last week, the prime ministers of Spain and Belgium asserted that right in order to stake out clear positions on the question of EU membership. While the referendum is an internal matter, the question of EU membership is very much the business of all member states. The white paper’s ex cathedra assertions on the right of an independent Scotland to “a smooth transition” into the EU were provocative, for if Scotland had that undisputed right, then so too would every other potential seceder.
By acquiescing in the white paper’s assumptions, however hypothetically, governments within the EU would be clearing the way for their own secessionist movements to assert the same “right” either now or in the future. So it was no surprise that two prime ministers for whom this is no mere hypothesis but a live political issue spoke out, in order to cut that presumption off at the pass.
What I found curious was that the white paper itself was entirely silent on the implications of its own assertions for the future of Europe or the EU – beyond the narrow question of Scotland’s potential membership. Since it is the wider implications that alarm some EU governments, this was surely the opportunity to address their concerns one way or another.
For decades the SNP has fraternised with other separatist parties in Europe and endorsed their parallel ambitions. That is understandable, since nationalism is a philosophy, rather than a specific. But by the same token, they must expect their own aspirations to be seen in that wider context. When they talk of “a seat at the top table”, they must surely have some idea of how large they think that fabled piece of furniture should become?
Thirteen pages of the white paper are devoted to international relations and defence. We learn much about the virtues of the EU and the proud new commitment to Nato membership. We have endorsements of the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Council of Europe and every other slice of global, institutional apple pie that is convenient to mention.
But not a word about the international question to which the SNP’s objectives are most directly relevant – the future shape of Europe’s nation states. There is certainly no statement of principle on the rights of national minorities. Or if our own Nationalists prevailed, would they continue to support, for example, the Basques and Catalans in their aspirations to become independent states? Would they proselytise within the EU for the principle that anyone who wants a binding referendum should have one?
Consistent with their own principles, it is difficult to see how they could fail to do so. It is not even necessary to believe that this would be wrong in order to confirm the crucial point – that those EU member states which have good reasons to take the opposite view are entirely justified in stating their positions now, rather than later. Dismissing Mr Rajoy as some sort of Franco throw-back for having the temerity to do so is scarcely an adequate response.
Even if the SNP would prefer to kick these questions into touch, their admirers in Europe have no such inhibition. The leader of Italy’s Northern League (with which the SNP used to share group membership in the European Parliament before discernment set in) declared: “What has happened in Catalonia and Scotland and what I hope will happen in our region is exactly the same – we want to change Europe.”
I’m sure the current SNP leadership wants absolutely nothing to do with the Northern League or the other dodgy outfits which would attach themselves to the coat-tails of a successful referendum campaign. But that is not the perspective which concerns other European states. What they fear is an upsurge of nationalist movements within their own countries, fortified by the gift of an EU membership “guarantee”.
There is also quite a fundamental question here for Scottish voters. Just as the SNP cannot isolate its domestic ambitions from their wider implications for Europe, so should we all consider whether we want Scotland to become a European standard-bearer for fragmentation and disputation. Is that a 21st century role to which we really want to appoint ourselves? I doubt it.
Just one other point about the international chapter of the white paper. I see that we are to have embassies and consulates in 70 countries – which means that we will not have embassies and consulates in 140 countries where Scots can currently look – as a matter of right – for consular, commercial and emergency support.
Yet in every one of these countries, there are Scots living, working and trying to do business. Indeed, the more obscure the country, the greater is the proportional likelihood of our citizens having to call on the services of diplomats who are there to represent all British people and businesses which need their services.
Maybe someone can point out what the gain would be in throwing all that away, while spending a shed-load of money on creating a partly parallel network which covers only a fraction of the world?