IN THE space of five years, voters face the prospect of two referendums on key constitutional issues – Scottish independence and EU membership.
Over the next 18 months, Scottish voters in particular will be hearing a lot about these two questions. That will be difficult enough for voters navigating the various constitutional arguments. However, it will be even more difficult for the UK government to make two contradictory arguments – in favour of the Treaty of Union whilst undermining the European Union.
Next year’s European elections, just weeks before the independence referendum, and the promise of an in/out EU referendum, means that Europe will be front and centre of the debate over Scotland’s future.
It is not hard to see why David Cameron wanted to draw a line under the issue. Europe has blighted the premiership of every Conservative prime minister since 1973.
The debate within the Conservative Party has moved on. It is no longer one of more, or less, Europe but whether the United Kingdom should be in at all. With so much more at stake, the infighting could be even more bitter than ever before. In the run-up to the European elections next year, and Scotland’s referendum just a few weeks later, this will dominate political discourse in Westminster and in Scotland.
This shift in focus is already providing a boost to Scotland’s Yes Campaign. In its simplest form, key arguments that the No camp will have been looking to deploy are now irrelevant.
Firstly, the No camp has tried to argue that independence would leave Scotland isolated. That was always a fairly difficult claim to make stick. As an independent nation, Scotland would attract the usual array of embassies and others associated with sovereign status. We would also take our place as a full member of international organisations such as the UN, Nato and the EU. Given Westminster’s planned referendum to take the UK out of Europe, it is the unionist camp that look like the isolationists.
And what of the arguments that we should trust London for much of our policy making, or that an independent resource-rich Scotland would be thrown out of an ever expanding European Union? It is now easy to argue that independence is the best way to preserve Scotland’s EU membership, with a recent poll showing support far higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.
Another difficulty for the No campaigners is why should the UK pre-negotiate a deal with Brussels but not Edinburgh? As far as Whitehall is concerned, the terms of the UK’s continued membership of the EU will now in large part rest on the Foreign Office audit of the thousands of rules and regulations that ministers want to see returned. All of this at a time when the UK government has still not given any more detail about the powers that may be returned to Scotland in the event of a No vote.
Beyond these shores, European leaders were already viewing Scotland’s constitutional debate in the context of how it will impact on the day-to-day working of the European Union. With an additional commissioner and council seat coming from these islands, that would impact on the daily decision-making process.
It will not be lost on our partners that they could soon have a constructive pro-European administration in Edinburgh, similar to those in Dublin, Copenhagen and Helsinki, off-setting the influence of an increasingly surly one in London.
With a population of more than five million, Scotland would be a medium-sized member of the EU with the added benefit of the union’s best renewable and hydrocarbon resources, a likely net contributor to its budget, a lengthy maritime border and good relationship with a number of European non-EU member states.
In short, given the events of the past few weeks, the UK is running out of friends and a lot of European politicians will be looking at the prospect of an independent Scotland much more sympathetically than they did a few weeks ago.
Maybe the UK government should take a fresh look too. Anyone who has worked in Brussels will know that no-one gets anything done without friends. In a union of 27 member states, 300 sub-state actors and a whole host of institutions, everyone from Germany to tiny Malta must build alliances.
These days, Ireland is a key and influential ally to the UK in many areas of policy making. That could be boosted further in March 2016. An independent Scotland will bring one more commissioner, another vote at the all-important European Council and will double Scotland’s representation in the European Parliament.
The EU is by no means perfect but by far the best way to reform is to build partnerships and alliances. This could build on areas where the EU has been reasonably successful such as energy or climate change policy, whilst tackling areas in desperate need of reform such as fishing policy.
As was observed in the context of the two referendums, anyone trying to ride two horses is likely to end up falling off.
This is a long game and over the coming months it will be very difficult for Westminster to maintain one Union whilst undermining another. That will boost those of us who want to see Scotland taking its place as an independent EU member in March 2016, but it might also help keep the remainder of the UK as a member state.
• Stephen Gethins is a former special adviser to the First Minister and a former European Union official. He is running as an SNP candidate for the European elections.