Natalie McGarry: Not just another European election

AS the wrangling continues over our constitutional future, this halfway stage in the year is a good time to reflect on the defining moments of the independence referendum conversation thus far.

The issue of future membership of the European Union has been the cause of most tension'. Picture: Neil Hanna

Above all, the issue of future membership of the European Union has been the cause of most tension, the generator of most news headlines and the bloodiest battle of 2013. Yet the issue of Scotland’s membership of the EU has been dropped like a stone as the No campaign has gone in search of loftier areas of policy uncertainty and the Yes campaign has put what is a tricky issue on the back-burner.

It would be difficult to pick out which side has emerged from the EU membership debate as victor; it seems to have ended in a stalemate, which falls short of providing absolute clarity to those not in the chattering classes. Both sides have had their wins and losses, with the No campaign forcing an SNP back-down on claims of automatic entry to the EU. But the SNP has been able to claim two things; that the UK government’s appointed experts, Allan Boyle and James Crawford, acknowledged the timescale of negotiated membership set by the Scottish Government as a reasonable timetable and that the UK government was responsible for the uncertainty as it continues to refuse, as the current member state, to ask for the advice from the European Commission which would illuminate the debate.

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Intrinsic as these reasons are, the timing of the announcement by David Cameron that the Conservatives – if returned to government in 2015 – would hold an in/out referendum on European membership in 2017 and the pressing of the mute button on the stramash over Scotland’s future membership is not coincidental. It is a difficult task for the No campaign to paint a picture of Scotland alone in the European wilderness when the converse position of staying in the Union might mean that Scotland is out of the European Union anyway at the whim of a vote pushed for by the spectre of Ukip and unruly Eurosceptic backbench Tory MPs.

All the hypothetical situation-based arguments and counter-arguments exclude one pertinent fact; the reality of participatory politics at European level is being ignored while we quibble over the future. Next year in May there will be elections to the European Parliament. While the independence referendum looms over every aspect of Scottish political life, the importance of the European parliamentary elections is being overlooked. The European elections are the forgotten elections; in public consciousness at least.

It is early to be concentrating on an election for next May, but given its proximity to the independence referendum, it would be reasonable to suggest that this is an important election. While the referendum is not party political, the performance of the SNP and the Greens, in particular, will be under much scrutiny as the last accurate poll of the state of play of political parties prior to September 2014. While a strong SNP performance is not indicative of guaranteed votes in the referendum, it would certainly be persuasive in showing that voters were not being put off voting for the SNP because of it. A weak performance by the SNP would be the signal to unleash the pro-Union attack dogs. This is an election where the pro-independence parties must do well.

Internally, Scotland’s political parties are lining up their teams to face the European ballot with much to play for. The current make-up of our representation in Europe is: two SNP, two Labour, one Conservative and one Lib Dem. Given the relative electoral wipeout after forming a coalition at Westminster in 2010 with the Conservatives, both the Labour Party and the SNP must see the Liberal Democrat seat as being vulnerable. However, there was a small recovery in the Liberal Democrat vote in the Donside by-election which should not be ignored, and George Lyon – a fairly popular character – has been reselected as the party’s number one candidate.

One major change in this election is that Conservative MEP, Struan Stevenson, is stepping down and this leaves the only certain change of personnel in our European representation. The Conservatives have already ranked their candidates and Ian Duncan, who backs up his position as a favourite of the hierarchy, with real experience in the European institutions, has been ranked in the only winnable slot for the Tories.

The Green Party selected its list earlier this year, headed by Edinburgh councillor Maggie Chapman. The Greens performed relatively well in the 2009 elections and, given the perceived vulnerability of the Liberal Democrat vote, if the rest of the parties remain static at 2009 levels and they can capitalise, it is just possible that they could provide a surprise. Those are big ifs though, as elections perceived to be a head-to-head battle between the SNP and Labour tend to squeeze smaller parties.

This month, both the Labour Party and the SNP have put out to a ballot the ranking of their candidates. For Labour the ranking process is fairly low-key given that it protects incumbency and ensures that David Martin and Catherine Stihler retain the number one and two positions.

The SNP ranking is distinctly more interesting as there is no guarantee for sitting MEPs. While it is largely acknowledged that elder statesman and SNP president Ian Hudghton will be in the top-end of the ballot, anything else is possible. The SNP has a diverse range of capable candidates including ex-Scottish Government special adviser Stephen Gethins, who has direct experience working in Europe, and weel-kent trades’ unionist, Chris Stephens. The ranking will be determined this month, and it is very competitive.

It is almost impossible to determine how the referendum will affect the ballot, or the knock-on effect on the referendum, but what is clear is that if Scotland votes Yes in 2014, those selected in May next year will be our team for future negotiations about Scotland’s place in Europe. The political parties have much to lose if they treat this as just another European election.

• Natalie McGarry is an SNP activist and co-founder of Women For Independence