Scottish independence and EU (re-)admission

During the referendum campaign, the question arose of the future status of the Scottish people with regard to the European Union. Like a number of other questions that the SNP claimed could be straightforwardly resolved (including, notoriously, the proposal for a currency union with a rump UK), this one swelled up for a time during the campaign and may have contributed to the narrow ‘no’ result. As Michael Keating argued in the last issue, the SNP sought to present an image of continuity, rather than disruption, in an attempt to play down the risks associated with the novel project of independence; which may in hindsight have been a miscalculation.

Leaders in Scotland and across the world, from the banks and major industries to Barack Obama and the Pope, leapt onto the ‘No’ bandwagon. Some with a veto-claim of sorts did not hesitate to flourish it, including the Spanish PM, and the Head of the European Commission, who declared on the Andrew Marr show on 16 February 2014 that it would be ‘extremely difficult, if not impossible’ for a newly-independent Scotland to be re-admitted to the EU. The latter’s chosen successor was more circumspect. Pressed by BBC Scotland to clarify his stance, Jean-Claude Juncker stated that a newly-independent Scotland would not be a candidate for EU membership like the existing societies in the queue. And, in fact, it seems to me that the SNP’s position in the White Paper was perfectly justifiable; with more time, more detail and subtlety, this and other challenges might have been met.

The explicit preconditions for membership can be divided into two: retrospective and prospective. Retrospective is acceptance of the acquis communautaire – the ‘constitutional’ body of laws and regulations built up since the creation of the European Communities as an expansive organisation in 1957. Prospective is the principled continuance of the EU’s ‘philosophical’ basis as a convention of democracies. After Maastricht, where the Communities first became a Union, this aspect was spelt out in the so-called Copenhagen criteria for EU enlargement. But to begin with, it is hard to see how the Scottish people voting in September 2014 did not already exemplify de facto EU membership, or why secession from the UK necessarily entailed secession from the EU.

Scotland had been ruled continuously by the acquis since 1973 as a ‘region’ of the corporate UK member-state; had been governed since 1997 by a devolved administration whose ministers were not only active, but even effective, in Brussels (demonstrating, in exemplary fashion, the core principle of subsidiarity when, for example, in spring 2014, Environment Minister Richard Lochhead won EU sanctions on Icelandic and Faeroese over-fishing of North Sea mackerel.); and had been implicated, through the modalities of the Holyrood parliament, in the reform of democracy itself.

All this experience surely trumps the claims of other potential EU member-societies, those within existing territorial borders, to have overcome the iron legacy of Communism and/or raised themselves to the status of developed economy. The reclassification in situ of Scots as EU citizens, after their vote for independence, would have involved no novel situation for them. Nor would there have been any enlargement, in population terms, of the EU itself. What was unprecedented (though hardly earth-shattering) about the prospect of Scottish independence was a need to re-label the organisation’s composition (perhaps by Treaty amendment under article 48, as the SNP’s White Paper (p221) suggested). But the normative foundations of the EU would not have been threatened had the voters in Scotland said ‘yes’.

Beyond the explicit ground-rules, there is the bigger, perennial question of the EU’s own international identity, and here a more active commitment by the SNP would not have gone amiss. Retrospectively, one can see in the EU an organisation in continuous mutation, from the embryonic post-war structures of industrial and technological co-operation, on through the wider exchange of products and workers to the creation of a ‘single market’ as an effective economic and social union; and most recently – ideas of political federalism failing to garner unanimous support – to the second-best alternative of a currency union. In this way, the original six have become nearly thirty, and a united Western Europe has become nearly the whole of Europe. Prospectively, as one views a United Nations divided by the crude obloquy of unelected governments; paralysed, at the highest level, by the nuclear balance of terror; ineffective or partisan in the multiple human conflicts over welfare and wealth – who can fail to see in the EU a model for the co-operative supra-state system denied in the world as a whole?

In this sense too, the national question implicit in a system of universal state membership is bound to resurface and call for resolution, both within the EU and beyond. In the nineteenth century, nationalism – especially and originally in Europe – was synonymous with justice and social equality in terms of liberation from dynastic rule and the monopoly of wealth. Then in the twentieth century, through the conflicts which led to the creation of the UN and subsequently the EU, national movements became widely discredited as aggressively-territorial: the essential pretext for war over, or between, established states. But the consequence, for liberal-democratic and post-colonial societies alike, was a half-century of omnipresent blackmail and fear: the Cold War, in which all change, all historical culture, all positive attachment to place, was rendered suspect, leaving the political void we find ourselves in, at the beginning of the twenty first century. What is a nation now? All the theorists disagree, while the lawyers insist that it must be rammed into a state – any state, regardless of the institutions of popular will (2).

Similarly, the leaders of the European project have so far averted their eyes from this question that for much of the time EU society has been ruled by negatives: no barriers to trade or migration, despite glaring economic and educational disparities; no ‘public’ ownership of essential services, even though these are traditionally run by the people, for the people; and now, it seems, no change in the formal identity of member-societies, even where the reclassification of populations in situ might help them to a deeper sense of their collective selves. This sclerotic attitude reflects the wider one prevailing under the UN since the end of the Cold War, where the few nation-states emerging from haphazard colonial borders (Eritrea, East Timor, and South Sudan) represent lucky escapees from civil war and genocide. Meanwhile situations persist, like that in Rwanda and Burundi, where colonial borders are themselves contributory to civil war and genocide. Or in the Balkans, where, after Islamic colonialism starved populations for centuries of the oxygen of experiment – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and nascent ‘national’ liberalism – other Europeans have had to begin their political education from zero. Progress in the human condition everywhere in the states system implies radical change – including, if necessary, change in the shape of states themselves.

Kant argued that republican democracy itself could lead to the ultimate unity of humankind, simply by being the most voluntary form of government – but in small, relatively-equal states; otherwise, popular apathy and central repression would accompany any attempt to govern by law, and the leaders of the richest and most power-laden societies would unite to crush the rest. The peaceful self¬-definition of nations, then, in an EU somewhere between states and an inter-state organisation, is the change towards greater freedom and equality by which Europeans can lead the world, if the lawyers and the nuclear warriors will let us. Scottish national independence, in the name of a more progressive society than seems possible in a post-colonial, intellectually-muddled Britain, is an aim well worth pursuing, including for the renewal of the EU itself. And just as it is the values of Europe, rather than Islam, which inspired the Arab Spring (3), a revitalised Scotland, or Catalunya or Euskadi, or Vlaanderen or Québec, can enrich the world with new forms of democracy in the decades to come.

Peter Lomas is author of ‘Unnatural States: The International System and the Power to Change’ and was Rockefeller Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

1) See W. Koeth http://www.ab.gov.tr/files/EKYB/egitim_materyalleri/the_enlargement_policy_of_the_eu.pdf
2) See my Unnatural States (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2014), chapter 8.
3) O. Roy ‘Révolution post-islamiste’ Le Monde 12 February 2011.

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