The sudden glow of goodwill from Brussels suggests that when the going gets serious the European Union will be on Scotland’s side, writes Murray Ritchie.
Two issues have become central to the debate gathering pace about a second Scottish independence referendum – the economic consequences of a Yes vote and European Union membership.
The big change since the first independence referendum (Indyref1) is the sudden glow of goodwill from Brussels towards Scotland after the 62-38 per cent Remain vote last year.
During Indyref1 in 2014 the EU’s main players voiced doubts about Scotland’s future membership of the bloc for fear of alienating the UK and being accused of interfering in the internal affairs of a member state.
Not so much now. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, set the new tone when he said: “If Scotland decides to leave the UK, to be an independent state, and they decide to be part of the EU, I think there is no big obstacle to do that”.
He added that refusing entry to Scotland when its people were sympathetic to the EU’s objectives would be “suicide”.
“It’s wrong that Scotland might be taken out of the EU, when it voted to stay,” said Verhofstadt, who bluntly reminded the UK of the European Parliament’s veto on any Brexit deal.
This sudden warmth is not lost on Scotland’s pro-indy campaigners as they watch the welcome enjoyed by Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon on her travels around Europe. Those hugs and smiles she received in Ireland – where a hard border with pro-EU Northern Ireland is anathema – and the official EU embrace from Jean-Claude Juncker, European commission president, sent an unmistakable message: when the going gets serious the EU will overwhelmingly be on Scotland’s side.
If Scotland decides to leave the UK, to be an independent state, and they decide to be part of the EU, I think there is no big obstacle to do that
This has prompted excited talk in nationalist circles of Scotland becoming, in effect, the successor state in the EU to the UK.
The only serious doubter is Spain which fears its own “separatist” movements in Catalonia and the Basque country. But any threat to veto Scottish accession is not taken so seriously this time round.
The Spanish have too much to lose in the rich fishing grounds off Scotland and there is always benefit in Madrid in finding a possible ally in the perpetual squabbling over Gibraltar.
For indy campaigners the Scottish economy is more of a challenge than Europe. Last time the currency question damaged the Yes campaign amid fears that Scotland’s economy was not strong enough for independence. Grappling with the currency problem is the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) work in progress.
A choice now looms: do the Scots want to join an EU with its own sluggish economy or take their chances in a UK where Brexit’s critics predict economic disaster?
Of course there is another way. Scotland could become independent and steer clear of both the UK and the EU.
Which is preferable? Joining (or remaining in) the world’s biggest trading block or taking a chance on a trade deal with the world’s biggest protectionist economy across the pond? Or perhaps joining the European Free Trade Association?
Unionists argue Scotland cannot meet the EU’s economic criteria, but supporters take heart from those who say Scotland’s current status as part of an EU state means an easy passage to full membership.
This time round oil will probably not be much of an issue although the price – now above $50 a barrel – is potentially interesting again. The SNP will happily leave oil out of the debate and merely point out that other small countries with no oil manage to survive without trouble.
Academics, including Kirsty Hughes, senior fellow, Friends of Europe, and Tobias Lock of Edinburgh University’s Europa Institute, argue that Scotland would have “the fastest accession process of any EU state so far”.
They suggest the EU’s new goodwill means Scotland could have observer status in 2021 and full membership in 2023.
British Unionists claim Scotland’s deficit would block the road to the EU. But this ignores the fact that all EU states have to deal with deficits of varying sizes. And Scotland would be expected to be a net contributor to the EU and not a net recipient.
There is a mood of optimism in the Yes camp these days as polls suggest a marginal increase in support for independence.
As Nicola Sturgeon prepares to announce Indyref2, she knows that perhaps one in three SNP members don’t want to give up the UK simply to buy into the EU. One tactic would be to take the EU issue out of the coming referendum and leave the whole question of Scotland in or out of the EU for another day.