Peter Jones: One referendum could lead to another

Sweden has shown the way in putting off EU preference for joining the euro. Picture: AFP/Getty
Sweden has shown the way in putting off EU preference for joining the euro. Picture: AFP/Getty
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A YES vote for independence would raise further questions on the thorny issue of EU membership, writes Peter Jones

So, the SNP government has finally admitted that there will have to be a negotiation about an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union. And that, I am inclined to think, means that the SNP will also have to think about whether whatever comes out of those negotiations should also be subject to approval by we, the Scottish people, in another referendum.

That sounds like a bit of a leap too far. So how do I get there? Well, it looks like the only, albeit imperfect, solution to a number of problems the SNP now faces.

The first and major one is how to offer a convincing solution to the difficulty that any negotiations about Scottish EU membership can take place only once there has been a vote for independence. Eurocrats are busy people, preoccupied with fixing the euro crisis, which is much the most important European issue at hand. So why should they take time out to talk about a hypothetical matter which, according to current opinion polls, isn’t going to happen?

That means when we all go to the independence polls in autumn 2014, we will not know hard and fast facts about what EU membership will cost us, whether we will get a share of the UK’s current rebate on those costs, whether we will have to adopt Schengen treaty open borders, join the euro, open Scottish seas to more non-Scottish fishermen, etc.

An intelligent guess can be made that there will be no rebate, no Schengen, no euro and not much change to fishing rights, but that is just a guess. Alex Salmond may promise these things, but since the nonexistent EU legal advice fiasco devalued his credibility, the promise may not reassure too many folk.

If, however, he was to commit his government to holding a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations, that might satisfy a lot of doubters.

A second problem is the strength of the Scottish hand in those negotiations. Mr Salmond has effectively sold the pass already because he has raised no possibility of any alternative to an independent Scotland being in the EU. And if the EU negotiators on the other side of the table know that there is only one outcome, why should they meekly agree his terms?

Indeed, they have a very powerful reason not to roll over. Nationalist governments in Catalonia and the Basque country are hovering in the wings with their own aspirations to independence, which is a clear threat to the future of the euro currency.

Both parts of Spain are net contributors to the Spanish treasury and if one or other were to depart, then it would mean that Spain – even if the departing territory was to take a due portion of Spanish sovereign debt with it – would struggle even more with the remaining debt. And as Spain is a much bigger part of the EU economy than is Greece, the resulting crisis could well bring the euro down with it.

This is just everyday EU crisispolitik and Mr Salmond would be foolish to pretend it doesn’t exist. It means that the EU negotiators have every incentive to drive as hard a bargain as possible pour discourager les autres. Against that, what does Mr Salmond have?

Well, there are Scottish national assets – oil, renewable energy, fishing waters – which he says eurocrats will be anxious to ensure stay in the EU. Assuming this is true, then the EU negotiators still have no reason to offer Scotland concessions in order to keep them in the union because Mr Salmond has said there is no possibility they won’t be in the EU.

A pledge to hold a referendum, however, does raise that possibility. Moreover, it would give Mr Salmond some leverage in the negotiations, for he could tell the EU than unless the agreed terms are acceptable, he won’t be recommending that people vote for them.

A third problem is the pesky euro currency. Nationalists are incensed that Alasdair Darling, former chancellor and chair of the Better Together campaign, keeps on saying that an independent Scotland might have to adopt the euro. In fact, there is quite a lot of evidence which says that is most unlikely to be the case.

Nevertheless, Mr Darling won’t withdraw this assertion because, up until now, the EU has told new member states that they must promise they will join up at some future date when the economic conditions are right. In reality, as Sweden has shown, that day can be put off pretty much indefinitely.

While this supports the SNP contention that the euro is a non-starter, it also enables Mr Darling to keep on waving the euro threat. The euro being a deeply unpopular and even a mildly frightening prospect, there is a fair chance that Mr Darling’s warnings could win quite a few No votes.

But Mr Salmond could head this off by promising, in addition to his EU in/out referendum, that there will be a second question (he seems to like these, I recall) on the single currency. And with that he could make his no-euro stance iron-clad as Sweden’s insistence on staying out is also under-pinned by a referendum vote.

A fourth issue is the high probability that there will be a UK vote on staying in or getting out of the EU after the 2015 general election. Mr Salmond seems to think that plays into his hands. Given that such polling as there is suggests that Scottish opinion is fairly evenly divided on the merits of the EU, I don’t see why. Urging a Yes to independence and staying in the EU in 2014 doesn’t seem the smartest way to appeal to the fairly large minority of Scots, including quite a few nationalists, who want out. Promising a Scottish in-out vote, however, deals with that issue.

Solving four political problems with one promise is a pretty good deal. The weakness in the argument, I concede, is that the only feasible alternative to EU membership is to join the European Economic Area (EEA), currently inhabited by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

The EEA’s costs and benefits are arguments for another day. Suffice it to say that, for the moment, I begin to feel the 2014 vote – should the SNP win it – will not be the last referendum on the matter.